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Opinion: NASCAR off to a promising start in Monster Energy era

The 2017 NASCAR season has offered plenty of promise.

Monster Energy trailer
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
NASCAR Official
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Trevor Bayne, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Monster Energy logo
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet spins
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after a fight on pit road
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Monster Energy signage
Monster Energy girl
Race winner Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet celebrate
Winner Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Car of Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in Victory Lane
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet celebrates his victory with a burnout
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning

With a new format, a new sponsor and a new car, there was plenty of reason to expect a spark, one that had the potential to reverse declining trends in attendance and TV ratings.

So how has the new and improved NASCAR fared after the first five races?

From someone who has attended every event this season and — with the exception of Phoenix Raceway — had a bird’s eye view from the press box at every race, the action and the story lines have been the most entertaining in some time.

Parity and riveting finishes

Not only have there been five different winners in the first five races, there's also been parity among the manufacturers. Ford, Chevy and Toyota have all won races and stages. Three drivers representing Ford (Kevin Harvick — 26.1-percent), Toyota (Martin Truex Jr. — 17.2-percent) and Chevy (Chase Elliott —11.4-percent) have combined to lead more than half the laps raced this season.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s races has been the unpredictable outcomes. Yes, Kyle Larson had the dominant car on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. He led the most laps and finally closed the deal after three straight second-place finishes.

But in the four previous events, the winner didn’t emerge until the end. Even Martin Truex Jr., who led the most laps at Las Vegas, benefitted from a bad hub on the No. 2 Ford in the final three laps to clear his way to Victory Lane.

Unlike football and basketball, where first-half blow-outs offer viewers an excuse to make an early exit or change channels, fans won’t want to miss the closing laps of a Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series stage or race where the results can change in a blink of an eye. And an ego or two might be bruised along the way.

More emotion

Certainly some of the post-race fireworks between drivers are well worth the wait. After all, isn’t Monster encouraging drivers to be themselves?

That’s one of the reasons Monster offered hope to NASCAR’s top tour. Could some of the sponsor’s edginess rub off on a sport that had flattened out? The previous sponsor over-promised and under-delivered. There was nothing sexy about the telecommunications sponsor, and the relationship became less beneficial after Sprint swallowed Nextel. All the cool technology that could have been developed to provide fans with real-time data never blossomed.

The jury is still out on Gen-6.5 car which debuted at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Last year, there were more lead changes at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway. Last year, the margin of victory was also closer in three of the four races (Atlanta ended under caution).

Even with nine additional cautions in the first five races of 2017— and at least two guaranteed yellow-flags per race due to the introduction of stages — the field has not been tight enough to keep the competition close at the end. In clean air, the lead car still sets sail.

Perhaps it’s just perception that the stages have upped the action on the race track. The data suggests otherwise. In the first four non-restrictor plate races, drivers executed 2,866 quality passes (passes for position among the top 15) in 2017 compared with 2,918 last year, a marginal difference. Still, the jockeying for position — particularly when stage points are on the line — seems more intense throughout the stages.

Variety up front

The most refreshing change this season is the new faces emerging at the front of the field. Only one of the four drivers who won in the first five races of 2016 — Brad Keselowski — has visited Victory Lane this season. Kurt Busch claimed his first Daytona 500 victory — and he’s still enjoying his Harley J. Earl trophy tour. Ryan Newman slugged his way to a win at Phoenix to end a 127-race drought.

Larson is enjoying a breakout season — as Ganassi Racing has finally found the needed support from Chevy to run up front. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are far from experiencing sophomore slumps. And although Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are technically rookies, they look like anything but.

There’s a renewed energy on race day again. The excitement in the garage is palpable. The stages are holding the interest of competitors and fans alike and will likely ratchet up going into the first short-track race of the season this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

After years of experimenting, NASCAR has found a formula that's working. But the sanctioning body's most difficult task may be simply to leave it alone and let it grow.

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