The Frontstretch: Happiness Is... Esses and Ovals by Huston Ladner -- Tuesday June 25, 2013

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Happiness Is... Esses and Ovals

Huston Ladner · Tuesday June 25, 2013

 

While our European brethren were focusing on The 24 Hours of Le Mans, this past weekend was kind of like a bizzaro world for American motorsports. Or maybe it was a flip-flop, because both Nationwide and Cup were on road courses, while IndyCar was on an oval. And what can be gleaned from that, other than IndyCar’s conspicuous start time? Well, that both series were at home at those tracks and should figure ways to keep those kinds of formats. So let’s set aside the common criticism and look at the positive things.

Happiness Is…The Road Courses

Martin Truex’s margin of victory does not paint an accurate picture of the close and exciting race Cup put on at Sonoma.

Sure, Martin Truex Jr., won by a margin of over 8 seconds. By that stat alone a person would think that the race was some kind of bore and that NASCAR needs to quit messing around with road courses. But it’s way off the mark. What the road courses showed was that there are a lot more factors than tire wear and the dreaded aero-push in a race. The combination between driver skill and car set-up is one of those factors – which is also one of the reasons that smaller teams are given a chance to win at these tracks.

But the big thing that made watching both road course races was the ability to pass. Sure, the passes might take a couple laps to make happen, but it could be done by setting someone up. Another positive is that it’s easier to stay on the lead lap after an incident than at most tracks, which mitigates the somewhat contrived Lucky Dog rule. (Though Kurt Busch showed that 2 mistakes might set you back – but then again, he raced back on to the lead lap.) Then there was the fact that the cars could lean, bump, and punt each other and still race. On any oval over a mile, once the car’s aerodynamics are compromised, there tends to be an issue, but not on the road courses. Which leads to…

Happiness Is…Driving A Crappy Car

The road course races are kind of like Martinsville and Bristol in that a damaged car still has a fighting chance. Though all the top 10 finishers passed the checkered flag with what looked like clean vehicles, there were others throughout the pack that were dinged up and still competitive. OK, that might be a little bit of a stretch, at least with regards to some drivers.

What the road courses have shown ever since NASCAR switched to the durable (but detestable) C.O.T., is that the car can take a beating and still perform. Tony Stewart, after banging into Jeff Burton and then a stack of tires, was still competitive for a while, in 18th, but later fell out. The good thought to have here is that the more a race can have good competitive cars, the better the product.

Happiness Is…Strategy

OK, one final positive on the road courses. On the oval tracks, crew chiefs tend to call a race in a similar fashion with one another. They tend to pit at the same time, and then the big decision is whether to take 2 or 4 tires. For as smart as these guys are, that seems like a waste of brain power at times.

The road courses bring out difference plans – like scheduling stops before the race; determining the number of stops. Notice that in the Nationwide race Trevor Bayne pitted a lap or two in. Or recognize that the Cup guys had different plans – Jeff Gordon’s late stop is what helped him drive through the field and take the second spot.

Happiness Is…Small Ovals

Meanwhile in a bizarro flip weekend, IndyCar put on a great show on the short oval at Iowa.

James Hinchcliffe may have stunk up the show a little bit at Iowa on Sunday. He maintained what seemed like a 3 to 5 second lead on the field the entire day. No one was in his class until his teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, made a late charge and could at least see him nearby. So the race was lame, right? Not so much. Because for as much as Hinch-town was dominating, the rest of the field was racing in tight quarters at around 180mph.

The battle between Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti showed why short, fast ovals are the way to go. They cleanly raced side-by-side for a number of laps. Of course, in IndyCar, it’s not like the cars can really lean or bump one another to gain an advantage, making car control in the tight battles all the more important. Though it’s been noted that NASCAR needs to race more on tracks like this one, it’s also clear that the IndyCars do well on them.

Happiness Is…Night Racing

This week will be an interesting test for those who think that night racing is what the sport needs to focus on. The Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup will all race under the lights at Kentucky. Though it might be easy to poo-poo the track, the action will still be under the lights. The viewing numbers for night races have not been stellar, and in some cases they’ve been down.

If people really do want to see more races that don’t conflict with doing yardwork or other chores, then they need to support these races by turning them on. It may never happen, but how cool would it be to move one of the Dover races to night (which would be a good idea just because of the fans who wilt in the sometimes unrelenting heat). Long a proponent of more night races, and yes the conflict with short track racing is an issue, this weekend can be a chance to see if it really is the better way to go.

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jerseygirl
06/26/2013 09:53 AM
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I like the road courses, too. I always did and they are a nice change from the same old same old racing we see at ovals.

I disagree with your Saturday night racing theory though. I do think it makes sense in the summer for the fans attending because when the heat is an issue, it is better. However, unless and until NASCAR puts on a better “show” and does something useful about the poor tv broadcasts, saying the fans should “support them” is disingenuous on your part. I USED to plan my weekend around the racing, whether in person or on TV. However those days are long gone due to boring racing and bad broadcasts.

Give the fans something worthwhile to watch and maybe NASCAR will once again be “must see TV”.