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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Boring? What Race Were You Watching?

You had a driver on the radio, nerves plain in his voice in the closing laps despite his lead. The driver may be a champion, but he needs the win badly and he’s a nervous sort anyway.

You had a crew chief talking his driver through those laps, knowing they had to run smart. Any other way, and the car closing in the rearview would snatch the victory. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t snatch it anyway.

It was this close. Would the worried leader eke out a win? Or would the hungry competitor roar by to take the race? Until the moment they took the checkers, it was uncertain… either driver could take it.

Does that sound exciting or what?

It was exciting. It was a nail-biter. It was the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix last weekend.

That’s right, a race many fans called “boring.”

Were they watching the same race I was? Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer at the end, but it was never a given. Was never a given that Bowyer could make it either, so it was anyone’s game.

PETERS: DID A THREE-PEAT FOR JOHNSON START AT PHOENIX?

I cannot for the life of me understand why people think fuel-mileage racing is boring. No, it’s not door-to-door, beating and banging to the wire for the win. If you expect every NASCAR Sprint Cup race to be like that, in this or any previous era, you didn’t do your homework. I treasure the races that are like that – they’re the best of the best. But they aren’t going to happen every week, no matter what car they use.

A fuel-mileage race, while not anybody’s top choice of a finish, is better than some guy with a rocket under his butt running away from the field on the last run of the race when nobody, barring a miracle, a blown tire or an invisible debris caution has a prayer of catching up. The excitement comes from not knowing if there are enough fumes in the line to make it to the checkers. From knowing that if something happens, someone will never survive a green-white-checkered finish. From waiting for that telltale wiggle of a driver desperate to get the last drops of gas into the pickup before the engine dies.

While many race fans are not fans of stick-and-ball sports, maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan that I appreciate strategy more than many race fans. Baseball is, as is racing, a game of inches where the slightest miscalculation can mean the difference between winning and losing. Fuel-mileage racing is baseball without a designated hitter; do you pull your ace in favor of a hitter to maybe bring home an insurance run in a close game? Or do you take the probable mulligan at the plate in favor of a couple more innings of fastballs and strikeouts? The guy running away with the race is what the designated hitter is to baseball, a much more sure thing that ends up taking away from the competition in the end. Not every game can be the seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, tie game, with the best hitter up against the best pitcher. Not every race can be Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington, either. Sometimes you have to take the next best thing.

Racing is a game of strategy and finesse. It’s about making the last-minute decision that will make the driver look like a hero or a goat. It’s about using a lapped car for a pick to grab the lead. It’s two tires or four making the difference between first place and fourth. It’s about staying out on old tires, banking on the guys behind you holding up the guy with the new tires. It’s about calculating fuel mileage to the last ounce. It’s about every decision by every team member from the moment the team chooses a chassis for a track until the checkered flag falls, because strategy decides races.

In the end, last week’s race was won on a combination of a risky strategy and the ultimate in trust between Johnson and Chad Knaus. It was anything but boring if you look beneath the surface. They agonized over the decision. At one point Knaus called Johnson to pit road and Johnson made the call to stay out, but it took every ounce of self discipline and coaxing from Knaus for Johnson to slow down the two seconds a lap it took to save enough fuel to finish. Either way, someone was calling them crazy. It turned out to be the right strategy, but it was a nail-biter. They decided not to pull the pitcher, and he stepped to the plate and hit a home run.

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