The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Debunking The Theory Of Green Flag Passes For The Lead by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday April 10, 2008

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NASCAR is doing a full court press right now trying to convince fans and even us cynical media types that the racing with the new car is as good, if not better than, ever. I'll admit that some of the numbers I've seen thrown around about the number of passes for the lead in races that I found incredibly boring really surprised me. So I decided that next time a race bored me to the point I was doodling hot rods in my notebook (note to the under 30 crowd—a notebook can be a tablet of paper in which one writes with a pen, not just a laptop computer), I was going to analyze those statistics. I figured I'd only have to wait until the next cookie cutter 1.5 mile race and, in that regard at least, Sunday's race at Texas didn't disappoint me. If everything is bigger in Texas, Sunday's race was the biggest farce, masquerading as a race, since the first time the Cup boys raced at Texas and half the field crashed out in the first corner.

NASCAR statistics claim that there were 16 passes for the lead at Texas on Sunday. Sixteen? Was I daydreaming about black Pontiacs with birds on the hood and V-Twin motorcycles in springtime when all these alleged passes took place? Had in fact drifted off for a nap, as I felt I might during the entire second half of the race, as Carl Edwards put a hurting on the field? To check, I fired up the DVR, armed with NASCAR statistics as to when these 16 passes for the lead took place. I went back and reviewed the entire race—Here's what I found:

About the only time Carl Edwards could be stopped on Sunday was pit road.

Lap 14 Kyle Busch powered around Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take the lead. Yeah, that was a legitimate pass for the lead. At that point it looked like a foretelling of a potential battle between two strong cars to the end.

Lap 30 The field is under caution for Michael Waltrip's latest display of near criminal ineptitude at the wheel. Carl Edwards gets credit for taking the lead in the pits because his pit stall is beyond the start-finish line. No, I don't see that as a legitimate pass for the lead.

Lap 31 Dale Earnhardt exits the pits first to take the lead from Edwards. This is the second alleged pass for the lead in two laps. While a testament to good pit work by the 88 bunch, this isn't the stuff of legends. Again, I don't consider this a real pass for the lead.

Lap 48 Jimmie Johnson makes a power move around the outside of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take the lead. This looks like a legitimate pass, not Earnhardt pulling over to allow his teammate to collect some bonus points. The pass might have had half the folks in the stands sit back on down in disappointment but this was a real pass for the lead, the second of the race.

Lap 83 After a long green flag stretch, leader Jimmie Johnson ducks into the pits for a stop. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. reassumed the lead and there was much rejoicing in the stands. But Johnson surrendered the lead, Earnhardt didn't take it. This is just the beginning of a routine set of pit stops, not the sort of stuff that Sports Center replays over and over.

Lap 85 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. heads to the pit and the Earnhardt Nation in the stands sit back on down and mourn. Martin Truex, Jr. officially takes the lead. Herein is the problem in looking at the total number of lead changes in a race—Any time there is a long green flag run, particularly early in the race, the lead is going to change hands each time the driver at the front of the field makes a stop. It is a lead change, but it's not much fun to watch.

Lap 87 Truex, Jr. surrenders the lead to make his stop and Jimmie Johnson reassumes the lead. No one is greatly surprised or enthused. Presumably, Johnson is pleased by this turn of events, but three passes for the lead in five laps hasn't exactly sent fans' pulse rates soaring. Yes, occasionally drivers must pit and get more gas and fresh tires. If that surprises you, you haven't been paying attention.

Lap 111 The yellow flag flies again on lap 109. Well there's something you don't see everyday Vern, Jeff Gordon has backed his ill-handling race car into the wall to bring out the caution. We're a third of the way through this stupidity and something somewhat interesting has actually happened. Matt Kenseth wins the race off pit road to reassume the lead. Again, kudos to his pit crew, but race fans are somewhat underwhelmed by the "dramatic" pass for the lead. Half of them were in the bathroom when it happened anyway.

Lap 133 The race has gotten so bad that NASCAR throws a caution for debris. Maybe one of the members of Chip Ganassi's team was filling out a resme and it blew onto the track? Jimmie Johnson is credited with taking the lead because his pit stall is beyond that of Matt Kenseth's. Yawn. That's a Mulligan.

Lap 134 Kenseth once again wins the race off of pit road and reassumes the lead. It's almost as if he never surrendered it. In fact, in the eyes of most fans he never did. Kenseth is going to lead this one for awhile. I am adding flames to the hot rods I am drawing.

Lap 177 J.J. Yeley hits the wall hard. Fortunately, he's OK. Unfortunately, the race still stinks. Johnson once again gets credit for taking the lead based on the position of his pit stall. Yawn.

Lap 178 Well, here's a surprise—Matt Kenseth takes the lead again by winning the race off of pit road. Haven't I seen this Looney Tune before? The race is half over and we've had two real passes for the lead.

Lap 180 Wake up, Heather! Something interesting has just happened. As the race restarted, the lapped car of Juan Pablo "The Menace" Montoya loses it trying to make up his lap. Kenseth is forced to lift out of the gas and is passed by a gaggle of cars. Kyle Busch assumes the lead. This one is a judgment call. It's not like Kenseth got passed because someone in a stronger car blew by him, but it is one of those unexpected turn of events that makes racing interesting, so I will call this one legit. During a race that feels like it's been dragging on since the Reagan presidency, we now have our third legit pass for the lead. That's about it for Kenseth and the 17 car as far as threatening to win the race, but he did get some lovely parting gifts……Montoya continues to be a hazard as the race drones mindlessly on into its third hour.

Lap 215 Heather Locklear is still not here lounging beside me, but on the track something amazing has happened. Carl Edwards has run down and passed Kyle Busch. We've seen a legitimate pass for the lead for the fourth and final time in a four hour race. Call in the dogs and put out the fires. This one is done, though it will drag on another excruciating hour or so.

Lap 230 Hey, guess what? Edwards needs gas and new tires, so he pits. Johnson retakes the lead. Boy Howdy, that was exciting…not.

Lap 233 Who would have thunk? Johnson's car requires fuel to run too! The 48 ducks into the pits and Edwards retakes the lead. There's still 101 laps left to run before this farce draws to its merciful conclusion, but Edwards will lead every lap the rest of the way. Hooray for him! At times, Edwards will lead by almost eight seconds. After restarts, the lead will seem to be in peril and FOX's analysts will holler and shout that "bidness is about to pick up." Because Jeff Gordon is about 100 laps down, they will most often predict it is Kyle Busch who will make things interesting. But as Busch begins to flounder, Darrell Waltrip breaks out his book of sonnets — "Hendrick Motorsports-How Do I Love Thee?" —and predicts that Jimmie Johnson is running down the leader and at any moment there's going to be a real race. Lord, if only that was the case. Eventually, everyone agrees that Carl Edwards is pretty much stinking up the show and, in sheer desperation, they continuously find ways to show Jeff Hammond wearing his cowboy hat saying stupid things to prove there is indeed something more contemptible than this sorry ass excuse of a race.

Lap 339 The stupidity finally drags to its long overdue conclusion. Carl Edwards does a back flip while the fans napping at home drool out the corner of their mouths. Carl Edwards is quite pleased to have won. Jimmie Johnson is satisfied to have finished second. Kyle Busch rambles on so inarticulately it's impossible to fathom if he is happy that he finished third or if he even knows what state of the union he is currently located in. Exhaust fumes seem to affect the Busch boys more than most drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is interviewed simply because he is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Fade to black and start counting the minutes to a new episode of Cold Case. It's just another Pleasant Valley Sunday. It's been a bad day…please don't take our pictures…

So the official tally will show that there were 16 passes for the lead on Sunday, while the Matt-O-Meter has recorded only four such passes with any legitimacy. Let's compare that to the Richmond race in the spring of 1998. Between laps 98 and 121, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt swapped the lead eight times officially as they thundered around the track side by side lap after lap. You're going to have to trust me on this one because my half-frozen ass wrapped in a torn pair of Wranglers rarely touched the chilly concrete that constituted my seat that afternoon. I watched two legends of the sport run lap after lap side by side with fenders occasionally crunching and tire smoke billowing off the No. 2 and No. 3 cars. The end of the race might have been considered an anti-climax with Terry Labonte leading the final 78 laps, but Earnhardt and Wallace were right there keeping the Ice Man honest until the checkers flew. That was an era when you never knew who was going to win a race even if one fellow was leading handily with 10 laps left to go. And I left that frigid race track that chilly Sunday grinning ear to ear feeling I had got my money's worth for the ticket I'd worked so hard to score in an era where Cup tickets sold out months in advance of an event.

Please don't tell me the "good old days" weren't so good. I was there in the grandstands with a light wallet but a hoarse throat, not struggling to stay awake during a parade posing as a race. Some will say that we just need to give the "new cars" some time until the teams get them figured out and competitive racing returns. My guess is by the time that happens, the grandstands will be ghost-towns and cockroaches will be ruling the earth. Back in 1998, the year of the Five and Five rules, NASCAR finally had to admit their "new car" was a dog that just wouldn't hunt before they sent those mutts off to the gas chambers. Will they come to the same overdue realization concerning the Car of Tomorrow?

The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but I believe it was actually Benjamin Disreali who once said "There are three sorts of lies; lie, damned lies and statistics." His words were prophetic when it comes to NASCAR's statistical and data division. They can doctor the numbers all they want to try to make it seem races lately have been exciting, but fans who actually sit there through monotonous parades know better. It was, in fact, Twain who once called golf, "A good walk spoiled." Lately Cup racing has become a "good nap wasted."

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Douglas
04/10/2008 07:07 AM
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WOW!

Yet another GREAT piece of writing, and oh so accurate!

Ed
04/10/2008 08:36 AM
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You go boy!!!

Jerry F. Mallard
04/10/2008 08:55 AM
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But, say you compare it with the race that Kasey Kahne won from the pole in 05 at Texas and let us know?? Were there many more? Now, your argument might get somewhere.

marc
04/10/2008 09:45 AM
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Matt – Let me see if I have this straight. You witnessed a stirring race at Richmond in the spring of 1998.

Froze your butt off so I assume it also took place somewhere near the time when the record low for June at Richmond of 40 °F occurred.

Otherwise, it probably wasn’t that cold. Although different people react differently to what they may perceive as “cold.”

I’ll give you that much.

That aside you claim “Earnhardt and Wallace were right there keeping the Ice Man honest until the checkers flew.”

Curious, Wallace may have been, but Dale Jarrett finished second and Rusty third.

Earnhardt was no where to be found. Well, actually he was, buried in 21st place 2 laps behind.

You cite that race as evidence that ’98 was better than what you witnessed at Texas this year.

Not Too shocking revelation, I’d admit.

However then you go on to claim “in 1998, the year of the Five and Five rules, NASCAR finally had to admit their “new car” was a dog that just wouldn’t hunt before they sent those mutts off to the gas chambers.”

That would seem to indicate NASCAR made a rules change during the ’98 season or before 1999, do you know what they were?

There were a few rules changes with rear spoilers and front air dams in an effort by NASCAR to make the Taurus, Monte Carlo, and Grand Prix more evenly competitive.

Nothing unusual in that, they tweaked areo devices on a regular basis according to which manufacturer screamed loudest.

However, what else did they change Matt? Anything?

Travis Rassat
04/10/2008 09:53 AM
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I would be curious to see the numbers for previous Texas races based on your approach. Obviously, that information is going to be hard to get, but it would be interesting to see if anything has changed.

I think the biggest problem with the racing heavy cars on big tracks with high speeds is that the drivers are now just more or less holding on, trying to survive rather than really “driving” and being in control. The driver is simply responsible for maintaining momentum. Momentum is boring to watch.

With that said, I would suggest a rule change: Open up the transmission rules so they can run 6 speed gearboxes with whatever transmission and rear-end gear ratios they want, as long as they run the same tranny and tranny gears all season.

Let the drivers shift more, and bring more driver skill into the equation. When all they have to do is let off, brake a little, and get back on the throttle again, it’s going to make for boring racing. When you have to pick some gears, every corner becomes an opportunity for a different driver strategy. You don’t have to shift, but you might not get off the corner as well as the guy that chooses to shift. With well-timed shifts, a completely new line can be utilized.

A small track doesn’t provide as much momentum. Denny Hamlin was doing a good job at Martinsville by “diamonding” the corners – he gave himself passing opportunities by running a different line than everybody else. I thought that was fun to watch, and that’s what NASCAR needs to leverage on the bigger tracks.

Kill the momentum and reintroduce driver skill.

Linda
04/10/2008 09:55 AM
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And the two “passes for the lead” around JR by Busch and Johnson were more JR “fading” and moving back than power passes.

Ken in Va.
04/10/2008 01:19 PM
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The fans are voting on the quality of the racing by the many empty seats at “sold out” races. I think the TV ratings have been up only because most of us have endured bad weather and there is nothing better to do. Wait til it warms up and see what the ratings are.

mindcrime
04/10/2008 01:28 PM
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I agree overall but I’m not sure it can all be blamed on the COT. Still, from what I’ve seen, I wish NASCAR would give the teams some latitude on what they can do to the cars. They just might be able to make them better. God knows NASCAR has little incentive to do so.
Oh yeah, and I’m sick to death of statistics being thrown at me. By sports, companies, politicians, etc, etc. 90% of all statistics can be negated once you peel back the layers and see how they were determined. (BTW that 90% number is not an official statistic).

the old 3rd sacker
04/10/2008 02:29 PM
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Hey all you kids, take a pill. Go to your local track to see real racing. Tune into NASCAR for showbiz. WoO is coming our way again this July. Eh?
From the Great White North
Hot Rod Don

Ron Bickel
04/10/2008 04:02 PM
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And I thought I was the only one falling asleep..LOL…Right on the money,with this one Matt.

marc
04/10/2008 04:39 PM
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Ken in Va – “The fans are voting on the quality of the racing by the many empty seats at “sold out” races.”

And the empty seats are all caused by the car?

That’s a little simplistic isn’t it?

Have you missed the dozens and dozens of stories attributed to track owners, sponsors of teams, NASCAR officials and economists detailing how high gas prices and higher prices of other commodities have led to the slow-down in ticket sales?

Missed all that have ya?

Copperhead
04/10/2008 10:02 PM
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High gas prices must have kept the fans away from the TV’s last week also, as ratings were down 4% for the Texas snoozer.

marc
04/10/2008 11:31 PM
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Copperhead “High gas prices must have kept the fans away from the TV’s last week also, as ratings were down 4% for the Texas snoozer.”

Your point being?

It’s also true every race with the exception of the delayed ‘til Monday Cali event had higher ratings than last year.

Of course the Texas Sunday was the first one after the MLB openers and 25 games were on the tube as competition.

That may have effected ratings, doncha think?

It’s also true on the same Sunday Speed’s NASCAR RaceDay program increased viewership by 12 percent.

And while on the subject, the one event that was supposed to knock Sprint Cup’s TV ratings for a loop (‘cause all the “pundits” said so) and didn’t was the NCAA tournament. CBS ratings for the final game dropped slightly and ratings for the 64-game tournament were down about 8 percent overall.

Meanwhile NASCAR’s went up.

Funny how that works.

Copperhead
04/11/2008 12:29 AM
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Raceday was probably up 12% because of casual fans like myself ( I used to be a fanatical Nascar fan) who have given over 30 years to Nascar and can’t stand the “New and Improved” Nascar and have had enough of the dumbed down race broadcasts. Fans like myself now get our info from such shows, and also sites like Jayski instead of wasting a fine Sunday watching what passes as the Nascar Show nowadays.

I’m trying to ween myself completely off Nascar but after investing so much time into the sport it’s hard to go cold turkey, so now I just catch up on Mondays.

My opinion about the higher initial ratings is that we were promised a new and exciting season with the COT and the fact that Jr. moved to Hendrick. Jr. has not won a points race and the action is the same as last year, and we still have the 3 stooges in the Hollywood Hotel. I look for a return of the Jr. cautions after the 4% drop last week to get the ratings back up.

I’m glad some of you like the direction of Nascar but wonder why the constant cheerleading for the corporate line here. Back in the ’80s I was happy as heck with the show every week but could care less what other people thought about it, and it was not my job to cheerlead and convert new fans to our sport. If you like what we have now just enjoy it and don’t worry about what others think about it.

Ren Jonsin
04/11/2008 05:09 AM
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I’d say the reason that Speed’s Raceday ratings are up is because it’s a very good prerace show.

Also, since FOX took over control of SPEED, they have increased distribution of the network into 78 million more homes so that could account for a portion of the increase.

But I believe that the main reason that their ratings are up is due to The Frontstretch running Kenny Wallace driver diaries this season. :^)

Ren

Jimmy Virginia
04/11/2008 08:06 AM
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Matt,

You are always dead-on in your assessments, and your writing skills, like a fine wine, get better with age. Thanks.

Bill
04/12/2008 03:11 AM
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Matt’s the best in the business (note to Frontstretch)he’s the best,he love’s the sport, writes about it that way, and to be brutally honest, he speakes for us, ignore us if you will, but we Love him, signed True Race Fans Everywhere, that shold cover us even if theres a few delusional F1 fans out there, even you guys are making me think, this is real racing?????????????????????????????????????