Four Gears: Lower Downforce, Young Guns, XFINITY Series and Darlington

It’s time to cycle through the transmission for another edition of Four Gears.

This week, our resident NASCAR analysts rate the three races that used the lower downforce package and  give their takeaways from it. We also consider what three first-time winners this past weekend says about the level of talent with the young guns in the Truck, XFINITY and Cup Series as well as rate the quality of racing in the XFINITY Series over the last five races given the mix of tracks in those five races. Finally, we discuss whether the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is still among the crown jewel events of NASCAR.

FIRST GEAR: How would you rate each of the three races – Michigan 1, Kentucky and Michigan 2 – that were run with the lower downforce package on a scale of 1-10 and what are your takeaways from the package?

Michigan 1, I’d rank it 7/10. Although the racing at times was decent, the race itself was average for Michigan. Joey Logano just had the field in check that day, although Chase Elliott had the lead going into the final quarter of the race. He botched the restart, however, and Logano retook the lead and won the race.

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Kentucky, 7/10: Having been on assignment for this entire race weekend, the lower downforce package saved this race. Hard as rock tires and a freshly paved surface made passing extra difficult. But even with the new surface, the lower downforce made these cars a handful to drive. I remember watching a whole mess of cars spinning out and slamming the wall because of the lack of downforce.

Michigan 2, 7/10: It was another average race for Michigan. Kind of like the first time around, the racing could be decent at times, but it was so hard to pass too. It seemed like clean air proved real key for the race leader on the long green runs. In the end, it had a nice finish that saw Kyle Larson finally earn his first trip to victory lane. Or in his case, burnout through victory lane. — Tucker White

Michigan 1, I’d rank a 6/10 because although the racing was decent at best, this package is normally supposed to host good racing. Logano dominated that show and although it was good for him, ultimately, the race wasn’t fun to watch.

Kentucky, 7/10. Racing was a little bit more fun to watch and the best car won the race.

Michigan 2 was 8/10. There were multiple race leaders, close racing, and it does help that Larson finally got that first win. — Joseph Shelton

Michigan 1: 6

Kentucky: 7

Michigan 2: 8

It seems like the more this package is run, the better the racing gets. That’s a pretty good deal there. — Michael Finley

SECOND GEAR: This past weekend, all three national series had first-time winners. What does a weekend like this say about the level of talent with the young guns, be it in the Truck, XFINITY or Sprint Cup Series?

It says two things: This sport is in no danger of talent saturation when the elder statesmen hang up the helmet for at least the next 25 years and corporate America should really consider attaching themselves to one of the available young guns who’s looking for a sponsor. — Tucker White

NASCAR has gotten a lot of grief for being a playground for rich kids with connections in recent years, but considering these winners it’s clear to see that you have to have a modicum of talent in order to succeed in this sport. Moffitt, McDowell, and Larson are all talented drivers whose persistence paid off. That tends to happen when drivers are doing something right. — Joseph Shelton

There is so much young talent in this sport, but sponsors really do need to start taking chances for the good of the industry. After a decent rookie campaign in Cup last season (for the level of equipment he was in), Brett Moffitt has struggled to find work since and was well on his way to becoming just another promising driver that flamed out before this last weekend. I think Brett Moffitt deserves a big shot in the XFINITY or Truck series more than certain ride buyers who only have big team rides because Daddy wrote a check. — Michael Finley

THIRD GEAR: Since the last weekend of July, the XFINITY Series has raced a standalone event at Iowa, a companion event with the Sprint Cup Series at Watkins Glen, a standalone at Mid-Ohio, a companion event with the Sprint Cup Series at Bristol and a standalone event at Road America. What’s been your take on the quality of racing from this five-race stretch and should NASCAR make the XFINITY schedule more like this?

I’ve given the XFINITY Series so much grief this season and for good reason. This season has showcased some abysmal, lackluster racing. It’s often been Sprint Cup Lite. That’s nothing compared to making the schedule more and more a mirror image of the Sprint Cup Series schedule instead of making it more unique to the XFINITY Series itself, which illustrates my biggest problem with the XFINITY Series today.

But with that said, this five-race stretch has been quite awesome to watch. The only lackluster race during the stretch was Watkins Glen, and even that was more meh than bad.

The best race of that stretch was Bristol. Watching the race from the press box, the first half anyway, I was blown away seeing guys run the bottom groove at Bristol again. It was also fun to see these guys try and run around the entire turn through the night to see what groove was faster. I was even outside the media center in Turn 4 to photograph the finish when Kyle Busch and Larson wrecked right in front of me.

To answer the last part of the question, not just yes, but Hell Yes! NASCAR should make the schedule more like this five-race stretch. — Tucker White

This stretch has held some of the best racing in the series. I hope NASCAR sees this stretch as something that defines what the fans want in the XFINITY Series, not the same song, different dance. It has been an enjoyable month for the division, so not looking forward to it going back to the Kyle Busch show. — Joseph Shelton

I’ve always thought that going to a more balanced, half road course, half oval series, would do the XFINITY Series wonders. It would make a niche for the series that isn’t there now and would deter Cup teams from putting huge budgets into full-time rides because there wouldn’t be nearly as big a technical advantage. Part of the reason Gibbs has been great the last couple of seasons is because it’s much easier to transfer data from the XFINITY Series to Cup after the Cup cars reduced their horsepower a couple of seasons ago. — Michael Finley

FOURTH GEAR: The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is this weekend. Is it still among the crown jewel events of NASCAR? If so, where would you rank it?

To put it simply, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is still a crown jewel event in NASCAR. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would’ve put the Coca-Cola 600 ahead of the Southern 500. But it’s prestige, to a degree, has been tarnished by lackluster racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the last few years. The combination of returning Darlington Raceway to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend and the low downforce package not only produced the best race of the 2015 season but shot the prestige of the Southern 500 back up a few notches. The biggest race in NASCAR will always be the Daytona 500, but the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is a clear second. — Tucker White

The Southern 500 at Darlington will always be a crown jewel in NASCAR. Before Daytona and the 500, Darlington was the be-all, end-all of the sport. It has the history and the levity; it’ll always be a sacred place for stock car racing. — Joseph Shelton

It’s the second biggest race in the sport. Daytona is Daytona and the Coca-Cola 600 has had some boring-to-bad races the past few years that has hurt the prestige of the race just a little bit. Meanwhile, only people actively working in the industry think Indianapolis is still a special race for the most part, as evidenced by all the empty grandstands every year. Finally, Homestead puts on some great races, is in a great location, and crowns the Sprint Cup champion but just doesn’t have the history yet of the other four tracks I talked about. The Southern 500 is almost always a great race, has a great theme, and has more history than any other race on the calendar. — Michael Finley

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