Martin Truex Jr. should know how to get around Kansas Speedway in a hurry.
He won both races at the 1 1/2-mile track just west of downtown Kansas City during his 2017 championship season. He has an astonishing eight top-five finishes, more than any other track, his run of success following him from Furniture Row Racing to his current team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
But after a pair of practice sessions ahead of Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series race, the driver of the No. 19 Toyota was left just as confused as everybody else.
“There’s so many approaches and options right now how you want your car to be,” said Truex, who is coming off wins at Richmond and Dover in two of the past three races. “How fast do you want to be by yourself? How fast do you want to be in traffic without sacrificing speed? There are just a lot of options. Trying to find the right combination for us right now has been tricky.”
That would be a diplomatic way to assess NASCAR’s new rules package, which makes its Kansas debut this weekend. The more risque way came from Kyle Busch, who went on an expletive-laced tirade about the package following Monday’s rain-postponed race at Dover.
The new package was supposed to increase side-by-side racing and manufacture competition, but the unintended consequence has been aerodynamics that make it nearly impossible to pass.
How that looks at Kansas: The cars in practice that were at the front and in clean air were fast and handled well, while car shuffled back in the pack were nearly impossible to drive.
In other words, good luck trying to work your way to the front.
“The package here has been intense,” Kurt Busch said. “Out there by yourself, you’re wide open. It almost gives you an indication your car is handling too good. Then jump into a pack and it’s like pack-drafting at Talladega and your car is all over the place.”
The frustration, the elder Busch said, lies in the fact that nobody knows what to expect. The rules packages are producing different results at every track, even though the mile-and-a-half tracks should theoretically be similar, and the packages themselves are constantly being tweaked.
Just this week, NASCAR announced that it would be adding aero ducts to the three remaining tracks where 500 horsepower engines will be run that did not originally require them: Pocono, Darlington and the season-ending race at Homestead.
“The continuity and the patterns and the consistency isn’t here right now because each week we go to these tracks for the first time, the packages are all over the place,” Kurt Busch said. “Right now a lot of people are just bouncing around like a pingpong ball in their setups.”
Of course, few things get fan juices going like a robust discussion about rules — OK, that’s not really true. Most fans just want to see a good race. And when there is little side-by-side racing, few passes and even fewer wrecks, it hardly helps a sport that has been fighting for relevance for years.
“It’s definitely tough,” Chase Elliott said. “We’re not able to create that kind of racing and be comfortable all the time, pushing and shoving and things like that.”
Now the question becomes: How do you fix it?
That’s a far more complex question than it seems on the surface, and one not even Elliott can answer with any certainty. And while he does have ideas, he said that “I’ve tried to voice my opinions at different times in those meetings we’re supposed to voice our opinions in.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’ve come to the realization — and maybe this will change — but I don’t think my opinion matters to the people that make those rules. And really and truly I don’t know that it should. Why should owners and drivers and teams have a voice in some of that stuff? Make the rules and be happy with it. We’re racing. You either like it or you don’t,”
Yet there are numerous times that NASCAR has taken the advice of drivers when it comes to rule changes — the points system, unlimited green-white-checkered finishes, restart procedures.
“I do feel like they listen to us. But I also realize we are not the only players in this game,” Joey Logano said. “There’s plenty of other members that have a vested interest in what we do. Our fans for one, right? It has to be a good race. It has to look good, good passing.
“Do I feel like our drivers have a great view of what’s happening? Yeah, probably better than anyone,” Logano added. “There is nothing like real life, nothing like getting out there and actually feeling it. So I feel like drivers have a really great opinion of what’s going on, but we also have to step back to a global view and see what’s good for our sport.”