Remember how amazing the racing was at the start of the 2016 NASCAR season?
• Two of the first five races decided by 0.010 seconds.
• Jimmie Johnson passing Kevin Harvick on an overtime restart to steal a victory at Auto Club Speedway.
• Carl Edwards putting the bumper to teammate Kyle Busch to win on the last lap at Richmond.
Now flash ahead to more recent races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
• Martin Truex Jr. wins at Dover by 7.527 seconds.
• Jimmie Johnson leads the final 18 laps in his victory at Charlotte.
• Kansas winner Kevin Harvick leads the last 30 laps.
• There are no lead changes — none — in the final 45 laps at Talladega, where Joey Logano wins.
• Johnson triumphs at Martinsville by leading 92 laps at the end of the race.
• And last week at Texas, Carl Edwards leads the last 36 laps to win.
Sensing a theme here?
This year’s Chase so far has failed to produce the drama and electricity that it has in the first two years of this format, and the racing so far hasn’t been as good as it was at the start of the season.
But don’t take my word for it.
Take the word of Kyle Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champion.
Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, Busch offered a simple, yet articulate, explanation of why the beginning of the year and the end of the year have seemed so different, competitively.
Prior to the start of 2016, NASCAR drastically reduced front and rear downforce on the Sprint Cup cars, which made them much harder to driver.
But over the course of the 10-month season, race team engineers have figured out how to get most of that downforce back. And when they did, it did not make for a better show on track.
“The beginning of the season was a few unknowns for teams and drivers and things like that,” Busch said Friday at PIR. “And we all kind of had to get used to it, but as in the case of everything else we all figure out what’s going on and how to make our cars better for what our situations are and what the aero package is and everything like that and it just seems like it kind of died off.”
And that had an impact.
“I would agree with we had better racing in the beginning of the season because the engineers didn’t have all that amount of time to figure it out,” said Busch. “Since, they’ve figured it out and it’s kind of dulled it a little bit.”
Then Busch said something that was fairly remarkable.
“The thing that keeps us all alive, is the same thing that’s going to kill racing – it’s air,” he said. “I mean, that’s what it is. If you look at Formula 1, they’re not doing anything special. It’s more than splitters and spoilers that’s going to fix racing. I don’t know what it is, and it’s not for me to figure out, but that’s where I’m at.”
Next year, NASCAR will again reduce downforce in a second round of cuts.
The big question is, will the racing follow the same arc it did this year, or will it stay compelling all year long? We’ll find out next year.