A lover of NASCAR history Dale Earnhardt Jr. commonly watches old races and on Sunday, following the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he felt like he participated in one.
The second race of 2016, Atlanta marked the season debut of a low downforce aerodynamic rules package designed to increase side-by-side competition and passing opportunities and by turn, showcase a driver's skillset. And throughout Sunday's event, the desired effect was noticeable.
Although manhandling cars that were on the verge of spinning out due to a combination of reduced downforce, persistent tire wear and an aged slick surface, drivers could make passes and not be hindered by factors such as clean air and a lack of track position.
"It was kind of like old school racing," said Earnhardt, who finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson. "You had to take care of your tires and be smart about how you drove the car and driving the car straight, not really swinging the car around or getting sideways, and when you get around another car or a lap car you had to be careful to drive the car straight when you got around them.
"Everybody just wasn't hooked up and hauling tail. You had to drive the cars. The cars were a real challenge. It reminded me a lot of the 1980s and ‘90s, the good ol' days -- I never drove in those days, but it sure looked fun."
Earnhardt wasn't alone in praising the low downforce aero package used in two races last season and to be utilized in all 2016 events with the exception of restrictor-plate races. Martin Truex Jr., who led 34 laps and finished sixth, affectingly described Atlanta as "out of control."
Defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, who battled Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski extensively mid-race, credited the configuration in challenging drivers and crew chiefs to find a proper chassis setup. Busch finished third after starting 39th, last, following a technical violation that disallowed his qualifying time that would have earned him the pole.
"(Earnhardt) and Brad and me that were just battling back and forth and slide-jobbing one another and high lane-ing it and cutting each other off and everything, so it was pretty fun," Busch said. "This package lends itself to that. Pretty good race I felt like."
Carl Edwards, a vocal advocate of NASCAR taking away downforce, finished fifth Sunday and again spoke favorably of the aero package. In fact, if the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had his druthers officials would go even further.
"They just need to keep taking more," Edwards said. "This is real racing. We're driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they're worth. I'm worn out. That's a tough race and just a lot of fun."
Surprisingly despite the challenging conditions, the first caution didn't occur until Lap 210, and that was for a piece of debris. The next yellow flag didn't emanate until Ryan Newman lost a tire and spun with six laps remaining, with the third and final caution coming on the last lap for a multi-car accident.
"I was surprised that nobody had any tire issues, but you saw us all start to short pit very soon, none of us ran to the fuel run," Earnhardt said. "I think that's great for the sport that we have the tires that are falling off and the cars that are challenging to drive.
"You don't want cars that are easy to drive. You don't want to look at the guy beside you and think, he ain't got the talent I've got but he's got the same opportunity because the cars are so easy."