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New NASCAR rules expected to produce closer Cup races

It’s called the 2019 NASCAR baseline rules package, or “The Package” for short.

At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they should call it the “Kevin Harvick Rule.”

During last year’s Pennzoil 400, Harvick took the lead on the second lap by passing pole-position starter Ryan Blaney. That was pretty much it as far as a highlight package. Harvick led 214 of 267 laps en route to a dominating victory.

Now there’s a new rules package in effect that supposedly will prevent him or any other driver from running away from the field.

By late October, NASCAR had announced two baseline rules packages designed to keep the cars bunched closer together and improve the quality of the show. The cars will be fitted with tapered engine spacers and aerodynamic ducts to increase downforce and curb horsepower in 17 of the 36 races.

At some of the bigger ovals, such as last Sunday’s race at Atlanta, only the spacer will be used. At Las Vegas, the aero ducts also will be applied, reducing horsepower from 750 to about 550 for Sunday’s running of the Pennzoil 400 in an attempt to create draft-style racing.

Harvick’s domination of last year’s spring stop in Las Vegas notwithstanding — the fall playoff race run under a blistering sun produced a slippery track and one of the most entertaining LVMS races in years — NASCAR officials said the rules changes actually were a two-year process.

Side-by-side racing

“For us, it’s really getting back to a true focus on the drivers and what NASCAR is all about: close side-by-side racing and trying to deliver more of that,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR vice president and chief racing development officer.

With the sport trying to recover from a downward spiral in which attendance and TV ratings have plummeted and longtime sponsors have pulled out, a more entertaining on-track product is considered crucial to NASCAR’s long-term future.

The new configuration was tested in late January at LVMS. Results were mixed.

The cars ran closer together, as was hoped. But with limited horsepower, drivers found it difficult to get a run out of the corners, pull out of line and make passes at the front of the field.

Jimmie Johnson’s top speed of 178.885 mph in race trim was almost 13 mph off the pace of Blaney’s pole-winning speed of 191.489 for last year’s Pennzoil 400.

Behind the scenes in the garage area, drivers grumbled about the lack of engine oomph. Only one did it publicly.

‘You could probably do it’

“We’ve taken the skill away from the driver in this package,” 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch of Las Vegas told reporters. “Anybody could go out there and run around wide open. You could probably do it.”

Busch did not change his opinion based on Sunday’s race at Atlanta won by Brad Keselowski.

“Traffic is really bad, aerowise,” said Busch, who started last in a backup car and ran as high as second. “You get behind somebody, and they take your air away and you’re junk.”

Added pole-position starter Aric Almiora about slipping back in the field: “My goodness, was it a challenge. The cars make so much downforce, and we’re all going so fast that it’s really, really hard to make passes until late in the run.”

Other drivers were more diplomatic.

If the changes produce closer racing, NASCAR fans probably are going to like it, they said. If the fans like it, it’s good for the sport.

“It’s gonna be very similar to Daytona, Talladega-style drafting, (only) at a mile and a half track,” Busch’s older brother, Kurt, said after Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Daytona 500 that produced close racing, multiple multicar crashes and a decent overnight TV rating.

“With all this downforce and drag and restricting the horsepower, you’re gonna be on the throttle a long time, and you’ve got to be able to master the draft at a smaller track. Consequences are going to be bigger. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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