Thomas Bowles · Sunday February 26, 2006
Certainly, the first 400 miles of Sunday’s Auto Club 500 won’t be anything you’ll ever write home to mom about. Greg Biffle was turning the race into a stinker of a show, and with three cautions, virtually no tire failures, and a strung-out field, the race was far from developing into a dramatic conclusion.
Good thing there was 50 more laps.
In the final 100 miles of what was originally a California snoozefest, we saw Biffle and the other contending car throughout the race, Tony Stewart, blow their engines. Four cautions occurred, the last of which set up a green-white-checkered finish. And a driver who had led exactly 7 laps out of the first 200 ended up in front of the pack for the last 60-someodd miles before the checkered flag fell.
Now, what would a 400-mile California race have brought us? A dominating Biffle might have woken up the crowd briefly by doing a few donuts in Victory Lane, then have made an interesting comment or two to a few reporters to give them at least something small to write about. The rest of the Roush brigade would follow by his side, with Mark Martin running third and the other three cars running in the Top 10 by the end of lap 200.
Instead, we were stuck with actual drama in the last 50 laps—- who’d have thunk it—- at a track that is usually devoid of such finishes. The race’s final caution produced a green-white-checkered finish by sudden contenders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, and side-by-side racing throughout the Top 10 ensued in the final two laps to the checkered flag. Compelling evidence, indeed, that points to the positives of having races which run longer than 300 or 400 miles.
Recently, that’s been the norm within NASCAR racing when it comes to writing out the schedule—- shying away making race a 500-mile distance, instead forcing tracks to conform to a made-for-TV window. Just a decade ago, we had two 500-mile events at Darlington, Rockingham, and Dover.
Not anymore. Despite the fact TV networks would cover the full distance of those races without much of an issue, the long race times forced NASCAR to rethink distances as it grew into more of a national sport. Would fans just discovering the beauty of the sport sit down and watch a race for five hours as opposed to four? Unfortunately, NASCAR didn’t think so.
As a result, the 500-mile races at Dover, once a battle of grit and attrition more than almost nay other track except Darlington, have been cut from 500 to 400 miles. As a result, the races have taken on an entirely different complexion, and the late-race mechanical failures have been largely eliminated. Of course, that’s a much lighter consequence than the races at Rockingham, which were shortened then removed from the schedule altogether over time, or the races at Darlington, which have gone from two to one, probably soon to be none.
Now, Pocono is next on the chopping block in terms of shortening the race distance, with continual rumors circulating that those races may be shortened from 500 to possibly as little as 350 miles beginning in 2007.
Now, don’t get me wrong"¦I’m not saying Nextel Cup shouldn’t have a sprint race every now and then. But in this day and age of competition, shortening a race from those longer distances virtually ensures that the late-race engine failures of Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart don’t ever happen, as well as give the competition fewer opportunities to make changes to their car in order to improve their position throughout the race. In other words, when you have a stinker in front of the field, he’ll have a much better chance to win the race in a rout, rather than have his dominance challenged by another driver over time.
Certainly, California has a long way to go before it becomes one of NASCAR’s premier tracks. The strung out fields and aero dependence there leave it largely devoid of great racing. But in a sport where many traditions are going by the wayside, it’s nice to see that California keeps one compelling tradition alive…a simple 500-mile race.
Hopefully, that doesn’t change with the wind. But with empty seats easily seen on Sunday"¦you never know.
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