Disastrous NASCAR Rules Package Makes Matt Kenseth's Michigan Win Day of Infamy

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2015

A familiar sight at Michigan: Matt Kenseth moving swiftly away.
A familiar sight at Michigan: Matt Kenseth moving swiftly away.Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

It was no discredit either to Matt Kenseth or his increasingly dominant Joe Gibbs Racing team that NASCAR’s rules geniuses botched the package used in the Pure Michigan 400. It’s not the winner’s job to keep everyone else caught up.

Matt Kenseth has won three times this year and two of the last three.
Matt Kenseth has won three times this year and two of the last three.Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

“We had, obviously, a dominant car since we got here,” Kenseth said. “It showed up in qualifying, and Jason (Ratcliff, the crew chief) had it tuned up today where the handling was great, as we had enough speed to stay up there.”

Kenseth’s gaudy yellow Toyota led 146 of the 200 laps in the Pure Michigan 400, which, given the inevitable passing along of the top spot when pit stops occurred, was approximately every one that mattered. He started on the pole and led in bunches of, oh, 22, 19, 13, 22, 39 and, most notably, the final 25.

No one else led more than 19, total.

The aforementioned wizards from NASCAR R&D mandated the use of the so-called “high-drag” package earlier tested with modest results at Indianapolis. Few drivers wanted to discuss it afterward, though there were occasional outbreaks of candor.

The idea behind the package was that creating a high incidence of drag, by means of a rear spoiler that was three inches higher than normal with a “wicker bill” atop it, would allow cars to draft down the straights and perhaps even pass each other.

Unfortunately, the monstrous level of drag created equally monstrous turbulence for all but the leader, who almost always happened to be Kenseth.

What if Kenseth had lost the lead?

He answered that question with, “It’s hard to say what would happen.

“I raced around a lot of cars and felt like we had a really strong car, but it’s hard to say how far you could have fell back, or at all, and still won. ... I definitely felt like we had the fastest car by a fair margin for today’s day and age.

“I didn’t see much of the race, which was totally fine with me. We were up front the whole time, and that’s what you want, right? You want everybody in your mirror, so I haven’t got to see much of the race to be 100 percent honest with you.”

No one really said they liked it. They were just notably reluctant to say they didn’t. An iron curtain descended across the track as soon as the race was over, apparently, constructed from the interior of NASCAR’s mobile transporter located conveniently in the Michigan International Speedway garage area.

Joey Logano, coming off a Watkins Glen victory, piled up adverbs after finishing seventh.

Asked how hard it was to pass, Logano said, “It was hard. Really, really, really hard."

Asked his opinion of the “package,” he said, “It doesn’t matter what my thoughts and observations are, it is what NASCAR wants. Whatever they want to do.

Joey Logano was among the few, the proud, the mildly outspoken.
Joey Logano was among the few, the proud, the mildly outspoken.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

“It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t the worst I have ever seen, but this package increasingly rewards the car over the driver and I am not a fan of that.”

The words wouldn’t have been harder to come by had they been asked about Hillary Clinton’s email accounts.

The post-race media conferences must have seemed as if they were held on a clock. The reigning Sprint Cup champion, runner-up Kevin Harvick, undoubtedly smiled as he answered a question quoted in the transcript as, “Can you tell us something about the difference in handling [from the package used in the first of two Michigan International Speedway races to this one]?

“I’m really proud of my team and the things they did to prepare for the race,” Harvick said, “and we had a good, strong day.”

End of media conference. Three questions up, and three questions down. Harvick retired the assembled media in order.

With few exceptions, NASCAR’s drivers acted as if they were huddled with their lawyers at a Congressional hearing.

Austin Dillon—who finished a career-high fourth and engaged Kenseth in a two-lap battle, actually leading one of them, which was the best the afternoon had to offer—could be forgiven for not criticizing a package from which he benefited.

Dillon’s only vaguely related remark was, “You know, his (Kenseth’s) car was really good down the straightaway.”

Do tell.

The drivers would have been only mildly less forthcoming had the topic of conversation been caribou habitats in the Yukon Territory, but Twitter was ablaze with rancor.

Oh, the careful remarks.

Sam Hornish Jr., who finished 19th, said, “I don’t know. Did the ‘20’ (Kenseth) lead every lap? He led a lot of them, didn’t he? You don’t really see that at Michigan all the time.

“The restarts were nuts, and I was just really surprised there weren’t more yellow [flags] with the amount of cars that were sliding all over the place.”

Some of the sliders, their cars buffeted about in the turbulence, were surprises. In the last 50 laps, the Chevys of both Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson spun suddenly and for no apparent reason. Those two have combined for nine championships and aren’t noted for screwing up.

Another casualty, Clint Bowyer, whose Chase hopes took a hit when his Toyota hit the back-straight wall at Lap 126, said, “It’s hard to get by and hard to pass. Everybody is going for it in the restarts. It’s one of those deals ...”

Deals. Deals. Everywhere deals. Nary a lead change. Just deals.

Comparing the Joe Gibbs Racing Drivers
DriverPts. RankingWinsPolesAvg. Finish
Matt Kenseth73312.3
Denny Hamlin91115.4
Carl Edwards141217.4
Kyle Busch294112.8
racing-reference.info

Perhaps the most telling event at Michigan came on Friday when, after watching the teams practice and qualify, NASCAR officials gathered the drivers and team representatives together and announced that the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be run with standard rules, neither the high-drag package nor the low-downforce package that was used to positive reviews at Kentucky Speedway on July 11 and will be trotted out again in Darlington, South Carolina on Sept. 6.

It was the first sign that the ruling body’s technical hens had laid an egg.

Before the race, NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton told the nationwide audience, “We ran this high-drag package at Indy with mixed results, but Indy is a one-groove race track. This race track has two grooves on the bottom and two grooves on the top.

“There is a place for drivers to go here rather than just following another car. That could make the package work well at Michigan.”

Burton was promoting a telecast. Nostradamus he wasn’t.

Follow Monte Dutton on Twitter @montedutton.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

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