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NASCAR racing chief likes what he’s seen from recent rule changes

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell says the new aerodynamic package has produced closer racing, like at Fontana, Calif., between Kevin Harvick (4), Denny Hamlin (11) and winner Jimmie Johnson (48).
NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell says the new aerodynamic package has produced closer racing, like at Fontana, Calif., between Kevin Harvick (4), Denny Hamlin (11) and winner Jimmie Johnson (48). AP

With NASCAR’s Sprint Cup season five races old and heading into an off week, Charlotte Observer motorsports writer David Scott spoke recently with executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell. In the first of a two-part series, O’Donnell talks about the new aerodynamic package and the sport’s charter system.

What kind of effect is the charter system having? When you look at why we put it into place, we hoped for better-quality racing. It’s very early, but we’ve seen great racing on the track and also more stabilization from a race team-owner standpoint. Our relationship with owners has never been better. We’ve started the team-owner council. Historically, we would discuss with owners just what’s happening next week. Now we’re talking about 2017 and beyond, which is great. It’s bringing us together to see what the future will be like. We have to get there there together and it’s a smart way.

Although there are four spots available each race for non-charter “open” teams, they haven’t all been filled since Daytona and fields have been composed of 39 of a possible 40 cars. Is that a concern? When we looked at the charter system, we decided to leave four spots open. We didn’t necessarily think those four spots would be occupied at each race and we’d love to maybe have them filled. But we’re concentrating on the quality of the race teams that do show up each week. We’re happy with that. We’ve got 36 teams and whichever open teams that show up and it’s provided quality racing.

But is that a disadvantage for smaller teams that don’t have much more limited resources? It’s a balance. But the charter system is also helping the little guy. Historically, the little guy might not have the ability to have finished 36th [in the points] and go to a sponsor with a younger driver. That was very, very difficult sell. Now all 36 teams have the ability to focus on the entire year and beyond.

Why is prize money is no longer released after races? All the teams know what they are racing for. It’s listed in the charter agreements. Teams and tracks are aware. We don’t have anything to hide from the team owners and tracks. But it’s something we could continue to look at.

Are you pleased with the new aero package? There is still work to be done, and we haven’t done everything that might be able to be done. But we like the direction it’s headed. You like to see the ability of the driver take over. You used to see a driver come in and take on two or four tires, or none, and he’d drive off [away from the competition], it didn’t matter. Now it does. Having two of the closest finishes is a great foundation. But we want to have as many of those moments as we can throughout the race. That’s the ultimate goal.

What more would you like to see from the package? We’re seeing a lot of comers and goers. The ability to pass throughout the field is great. But there’s still a gap between first and second that we’d like to see reduced; we’d like to see more green-flag passes for the lead. You see the ability to pass within the field, but there’s more work to do to get more side-by-side racing. We want to see as much of that during the race as possible.

Can you do anything about teams wanting to continue to take more downforce off their cars? The longer you stick with the package, the more teams catch up and the more compelling racing you have.


Worth mentioning

The Sprint Cup series takes the holiday weekend off before returning to Martinsville ... The Xfinity series is off for two weeks, coming back at Texas on April 9 ... The Truck series has been off since Feb. 27 and returns at Martinsville. The IndyCar Series, NHRA and Formula one are also idle this weekend.

Power 10

Kevin Harvick (1st last week): Had Fontana won until late caution.

Jimmie Johnson (3): Now alone in seventh place on all-time victories list.

Carl Edwards (6): Has been consistently strong and grabbed seventh-place finish Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (7): Starting to regain consistency.

Kyle Busch (2): Tough weekend at Fontana, especially with late tire problems.

Joey Logano (8): Had unfortunate run-in with Martin Truex Jr. at Fontana. Seems to happen a lot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (4): Wasn’t a factor at Fontana, but finished 11th.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16): One of the season’s early surprises.

Brad Keselowski (10): Won at Fontana in 2015, ninth at Fontana on Sunday.

Kurt Busch (5): Never in contention Sunday after early contact with Earnhardt.

Austin Dillon (9); 12. Martin Truex Jr. (11); 13. Aric Almirola (13); 14. Matt Kenseth (14); 15. Ryan Newman (NR); 16. AJ Allmendinger (NR).