NASCAR Xfinity Lilly Diabetes 250
Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 22-23, 2016

Making Racing Slow Again

story and photos by Tim Hailey with help from IMS press releases

 

Prompted by a reporter, Kyle Busch took the opportunity to turn his Brickyard polesitting presser into a criticism of NASCAR's Xfinity set-up experiment—restrictor plates and aerodynamic gimmicks aimed at creating a more entertaining race. "All it did was pull the fast guys—me—back into the rest of the field," said Busch, who's famous for driving fast, loose racecars—which no longer exist with this rules package.

This is Mario Andretti and his Indy 500 pole winning car of 1966—some 51 years ago. His speed of 165.899 mph was faster than this year's Xfinity pole winner Elliott Sadler, which might explain why there were about 500 fans (not much of an exaggeration) in the stands for this year's race. Why would this racing have any appeal to fans who know what speed and thrills look like?

There was a vocal, regressive group of racing fans and media that wanted to see the Indy Racing League go back to roadsters when the open wheel racing split occurred in 1996. Those guys (that are still alive) finally got to see what they wanted at this Xfinity race—front engined cars racing at pre-1965 speeds. Make Racing Great Again my ass.

Sadler leads the restrictor plated field into a slow rolling start in the #1 car.

TV commentators (I'm looking at you Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton) seemed to think the crowded restart packs qualified as "great racing." Wow guys, come out of retirement and start driving in the post-Indy 500 traffic jam if that looks exciting to you.

Packs like those depicted above lasted about a lap and a half before single file racing resumed. Hoped-for drafting and slingshotting from the new package never materialized.

As for restarts, adding two via the stage racing contrivance means more bunching the field and inevitable lead changes. This does not mean this was good racing.

Teenager William Byron held off veterans Paul Menard and Joey Logano over the final laps to become the youngest winner of a major race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, capturing a victory in the Lilly Diabetes 250 NASCAR XFINITY Series race on Saturday. Byron, 19 years, 7 months, from Charlotte, North Carolina, edged Menard by .108 of a second in his No. 9 Liberty University Chevrolet fielded by JR Motorsports, owned by NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Matheus Leist was the previous youngest winner of a premier or major support series race on the oval at IMS when he won the Freedom 100 Indy Lights event at age 19 years, 8 months in May 2017. Marco Andretti won an Indy Lights race in 2005 and Marc Marquez won a Moto2 motorcycle race in 2011 at IMS both at age 18, but those events were on the road course.

"This the first time I've come here, a couple of days ago," Byron said. "It's such a special place, just walking into the place. I've watched a lot of races here on TV, and seeing the history and to make laps around here is just really special. To see the front stretch, how narrow it is with grandstands on both sides when you come down the front straight, it's a really special place. It's neat to get a win and does a lot for us this year and hopefully propels us to a championship."

A new NASCAR rules package for the cars in this race, which included restrictor plates for the engines and aero ducts on the bodywork, was designed to create more passing and closing racing.

On paper the mission looks accomplished. Three event records were set in the sixth edition of this race: Lead changes: 16. The previous record was nine; Leaders: Eight. The previous record was six; Margin of victory: .108 of a second. The previous record was .411 of a second.

But two stage restarts and questionable pit strategies pretty much accounted for the lead changes, and ridulously slow cars accounts for the MOV.

"I think a great race is the objective," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR Vice President of Competition, after the race. "I think what fans saw today was that. Certainly I think it passed the eye test."....if not the critical brain test, but who has one of those these days?

Byron started third and won the first stage. He and Logano marched in lockstep around the famed 2.5-mile oval as the top two cars late in the final stage after leader Kyle Busch and second place Erik Jones pitted on Lap 82 of the 100-lap race.

Busch and Jones' teams figured the other leading cars would pit later for fresh tires. They were wrong. "We could make it on fuel, but we were worried about tires," Jones said. "We were cording tires every run after 15 laps, so we made the conservative call, came in and put tires on. Unfortunately, it was the wrong call."

"I don't know why we would do that," Kyle said about his team's strategy. "At that point in the race you drive it until they (the tires) pop."

Logano stalked Byron over the closing laps in his No. 22 Discount Tire Ford, never falling more than half of a second behind the leader from Lap 85 to Lap 97. But Menard powered his No. 2 Richmond/Menards Chevrolet past Logano on Lap 98 and set sail for Byron.

"Yeah, I was nervous," Byron said about the closing laps. "I definitely thought he (Menard) and the 22 (Logano) were really strong. Looks like Joey faded at the end. Over the last 15 or 20 laps, I thought the tire was going to go. But it hung on."

2011 Brickyard 400 winner Menard pulled to within .119 of a second of Byron after Lap 98 and .112 of a second as the white flag flew to signal the final lap. But Byron drove an inch-perfect final trip around the 2.5-mile oval to earn his third win in just 18 starts in his rookie season, marking him as one of the brightest future stars of the sport.

"Man, it sucks being that close but the kid is really good," Menard said. "I was better in (Turn) 2, 3 and 4. Turn 1's the slowest corner, so I actually had to come quite a bit out of the throttle, and he was able to carry a little bit more speed through there."

Logano ended up third. Pole sitter Elliott Sadler, who won the second stage, finished fourth overall in the No. 1 OneMain Financial Chevrolet. Cole Custer placed fifth in the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford.

Busch, looking to win this race for the third straight year, ended up 12th in the No. 18 NOS Energy Drink Rowdy Toyota.

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