It’s too early to judge NASCAR’s new low-downforce package

So how did the Sprint Cup Series’ low-downforce aerodynamic package fare in its 2016 race debut?

The all-new aero rules — intended to make the cars more difficult to drive but as a result make passing more prevalent, especially near the front of the field — not surprisingly was a topic of much conversation after Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

While the package was shaken down in one-off races last year at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway, Sunday’s race at the high-banked but rugged 1.54-mile suburban Atlanta track was its first real test since being instituted for all but this year’s four restrictor-plate races, including the Daytona 500.

Jimmie Johnson wins Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

"From the driver’s perspective it’s a way better package to drive," Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards told after finishing fifth at Atlanta. "You can make some things happen. The tires gave up. I think NASCAR can make more progress just by keeping going in this direction. I know there weren’t a lot of cautions, but the fans that know what they’re watching, know that we’re just driving, wheeling as hard as you can. My shoulders are worn out."

Edwards was hardly alone in his approval.

"I love that the cars are harder to drive," second-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think all the drivers wanted that, and I think all the drivers will get out of it after today, even the ones that didn’t run good, and say this is the right direction to go. This is a unique racetrack, and we run from the apron to the wall, so you’re not going to have debris laying around on the track for NASCAR to find and for cautions to develop as often as you will at other racetracks, because we keep that track pretty clean by running on it and using every inch of it. 

"So I love it. The race played out naturally. If it’s going to go green, that’s a different style of race, and maybe it suits one guy and doesn’t suit the other as far as the viewer. But for me, I had a blast."

Jimmie Johnson ties the late Dale Earnhardt on all-time wins list

The first 210 laps of Sunday’s race were run caution-free, and the yellow flag eventually waved just three times for a total of 13 laps under caution.

As a result, the field spent much of the afternoon spread out, which limited passing opportunities. 

The most telling proof?

Just 12 of 39 cars finished on the lead lap, and just eight drivers led.

Still, Edwards was upbeat.

"It was interesting," he said. "We still have a huge aero load on these cars, but it was better (than 2015). I could run closer to people than I have for the last couple years, so I thought it was still better. This track, it’s easy when somebody’s catching you, to move your line and make some time, but overall a great race."

3 keys to Jimmie Johnson's historic victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion, believes it’s simply too early to judge whether the aero rules will have their desired effect — which is to ultimately create better racing, especially at the intermediate tracks where aero push has been a source of much consternation for drivers, crew chiefs and fans in recent years.

"We still need less of an effect of dirty air," Busch told "When you’ve got a car right in front of you, your car kind of wanders around, and we needed it to be more stable in dirty air."

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver believes that Atlanta’s abrasive track surface played a role in Sunday’s struggles, however.

"A little bit of that, a little bit of the package," Busch said. "It’s hard to tell. We’ll know more in a few weeks after we’ve run Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana."

From his perspective atop Earnhardt’s No. 88 pit box, crew chief Greg Ives found Sunday’s race to be inconclusive in terms of the package doing what it was created to do.

"This place is so different than some of the races, with the high line coming in, the tires wearing out and the green-flag run," Ives said. "So it was really hard to really determine what the package did, as a whole, because of that green-flag run. You went over 210 laps without a yellow flag, and that doesn’t give a lot of guys a lot of time to work on their cars and pack everybody back up.

"There was a long of strung-out racing and there was passing. … I  think this package is going to prove fruitful for NASCAR in the future, so it’s hard to say after just one race."

Cole Pearn, the crew chief for seventh-place finisher Martin Truex Jr., agreed that Atlanta’s aging asphalt contributed to some of Sunday’s passing difficulties.

"It was the just fact it was so damn slick out there," Pearn said. "It’ll be interesting next week, I think, when we’re at a little bit more higher-grip place, to see how it plays out. But I think it was just slick. You watch those cars. They’re fighting in every corner. The package debuted at one of the lowest-grip tracks on the circuit."