CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Two races is just too early to form a definitive opinion about NASCAR's new rules package, which was tweaked as part of a concerted effort to improve the racing.
Has the 2015 rules package made things any better? No, not really. Especially if it's being compared with the high-stakes racing that punctuated the end of last season, when the 10-race Chase displayed some of the strongest competition in years.
NASCAR wants bumper-to-bumper racing every week, with aggressive passing all through the field. So the rules are an evolving process, and the 2015 package was a compromise between what the drivers wanted vs. how many changes tire provider Goodyear could immediately accommodate.
The result was a reduction in downforce — not nearly enough to satisfy the majority of the drivers — and less horsepower.
It's yet to be seen if the changes will lead to significant improvements because races at Atlanta and Las Vegas the last two weeks didn't look much different from past events on 1.5-mile speedways. Three drivers combined to lead 292 of the 325 laps at Atlanta, where the 28 lead changes weren't all that dramatic. Jimmie Johnson went on to the win, beating Kevin Harvick by 1.802 seconds.
Harvick, Johnson and Joey Logano again dominated Sunday in Las Vegas, where the trio led 234 of the 267 laps. Harvick sort of made it look easy in the end, with a vibration in his car the only thing that kept him from trouncing the field as he took the victory.
The new package was supposed to excite fans and please the drivers, but three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart was fuming on his in-car radio about his car. He seemed to suggest the cars were more fit to compete on Saturday, when NASCAR's second-tier series races.
One vocal driver does not make or break a case against the new rules package, but two races into the season and NASCAR has got to be hoping the on-track action picks up a tick or two very soon.
Some other things learned over the first month of the season:
SOFT WALLS NEED TO BE A PRIORITY: Jeff Gordon has a Tuesday meeting scheduled with NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell, and the four-time series champion has said he wants a timeline on when energy-absorbing SAFER barriers will be fully installed at all tracks.
Almost all facilities that host national NASCAR events have the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier in certain walls, but there's been an outcry for total coverage since Kyle Busch broke his right leg and left foot last month when he crashed into an unprotected wall at Daytona.
Gordon hit an unprotected wall the next week at Atlanta, and Erik Jones hit a portion of wall just past the SAFER barrier in the Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas on Saturday. Gordon and Jones both walked away, but Gordon gave vivid detail in how much harder the impact is when a driver hits a concrete wall vs. a SAFER barrier.
NASCAR and its tracks are doing the right thing in reviewing the safety standards at all facilities, but they must act with urgency in getting soft walls on every inch of a race track that can safely accommodate the barriers.
Even though Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said after Busch's accident he would cover "every inch" of the track, it's not always the smartest route: There are some areas on some tracks where a car could hit a SAFER barrier and ricochet back into traffic, creating another dangerous scenario.
Whatever the safest routes are, it must be done as soon as possible. Every additional hit into an unprotected wall is a very bad look for NASCAR.
KURT BUSCH UPDATE: Kurt Busch is currently participating in a process that is expected to lead to his eventual reinstatement to NASCAR. He was suspended indefinitely Feb. 20 for an alleged domestic assault against an ex-girlfriend and has missed three races.
There's been no timetable given for his return, but after Delaware authorities last week declined to charge Busch, it would seem that his reinstatement could come as soon as this week. NASCAR has not detailed the steps Busch must take to return to competition.
One interesting aspect about the situation was raised on Sunday by Gene Haas, the Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner who hand-picked Busch to drive for the organization and pays for Busch's car out of pocket. Haas seemed to indicate he wants Busch back in the No. 41, but also said he's curious about the drivers' eligibility in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The current rules say a driver must at minimum attempt to qualify, or race, in every event. A waiver can be granted by NASCAR in certain situations: Tony Stewart received one after missing three races last year following the fatal accident of a sprint car driver, and Brian Vickers received one after missing the first two races of this year after offseason heart surgery.
It's not clear where NASCAR stands on the waiver for Busch. At a time when NASCAR is trying hard to be transparent, and trying hard to make rules very black and white, the issue of waivers pertaining to Chase eligibility should by crystal clear.