NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Shut Up & Drive

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Sunday’s 500-mile race in the heat at Pocono was apparently a long, tiresome day for drivers on the Cup circuit. Following the event, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was interviewed by the hosts of the Victory Lane show on SPEED, where his exhaustion led to outward frustration: he stated that the car needs to be fixed and the race needs to be shortened, period. Jeff Gordon also was quoted as saying that the day was very long, claiming NASCAR should consider tightening up the race from its traditional 200 laps. Even race winner Kasey Kahne was able to sneak a jab in; the young driver said this was the first time he’d run the race where he didn’t feel like it was a long day.

Well hey fellas, you know what? I’ve got news for you; there are thousands of racecar drivers around the country who’d love to be in your seat. If you can’t handle it, get out and let them take a shot!

Concerns over race length are nothing new; in fact, complaints have been a running theme in the series over the past decade or so. The races at Dover used to be 500 miles long until multiple complaints – so, they were shortened to 400. Ditto for Rockingham, whose races went from 500 to 400 miles before the track was abandoned by NASCAR after 2004. More and more, you hear drivers complaining about something as simple as time; they claim that the races are too long, leading us to believe they don’t race hard until the very end. They think races should be shorter and believe that driving the new car for such a long distance is doing nothing more than wearing them out.

STAFF: MIRROR DRIVING AFTER POCONO

But the way these drivers complain today, you’d wonder if they’d even survive a race from just a generation ago. Amazingly, in the 1970s, drivers drove 500 miles without cool boxes – some even without power steering – but they took it all in stride, as they were happy to be running racecars for a living. They weren’t making millions of dollars, jetting around in private planes and staying in million-dollar motor coaches back then; they were running for the love of the sport and to put on a good show for the fans. As such, they didn’t want to cut the race short or not run all out, all because that would not give the fans their money’s worth.

Richard Petty made $561,000 during the 1979 season when he won his seventh championship. Reed Sorenson made $564,000 for finishing fifth in the Daytona 500 this year. While that is great news for Sorenson, it does speak volumes about how far the sport has evolved in 2008. It is great that drivers can make such a fantastic living driving racecars today, but it also means that they have begun to get just a little spoiled. Everyone witnessed Denny Hamlin‘s attitude after the dust up with Brad Keselowski at the end of the Nationwide race at Charlotte, talking about the fact that Keselowski didn’t let him go when he was almost clear of his car multiple times during the race. He went on to say that Cup drivers know when to let people have a spot and when to make them earn it.

Well, the last time I checked, picking your spots is in direct contrast to the very definition of racing. The object of the sport is to be the first one to make it back to the checkered flag, and letting people go past you without a fight is very contrary to that philosophy.

Speaking from a fan perspective, the races are as short as they should ever be… and in some cases, they’re simply not long enough. 500 miles should be the length of all Cup Series races. That’s right, Martinsville should be 500 miles, not 500 laps – the same thing with Bristol. To save you the effort of doing the math, that’s 951 laps at Martinsville and 939 laps at Bristol. Michigan races should be 250 laps, not 200. 667 laps at Richmond, 500 laps at New Hampshire and Dover, and 366 laps at Darlington is the kind of entertainment the fans deserve, even if it’s one date a year. That philosophy even expands to road courses – a solution which equates to 252 laps at Infineon and 204 laps at Watkins Glen.

Granted, the casual fan might not be able to watch races that long, but for the most part they don’t anyway. Most of the casual fans watch the start of the race and then tune in for the last 50 miles. If all of the races are 500 miles, they’ll just tune in a little bit later.

Bottom line, drivers are making a fortune for driving racecars for four to five hours on Sunday. Yes, they test and practice and qualify, but that is all about putting yourself in the best position possible for the main event. Make no mistake about it, the race on Sunday is what puts the bread on the table, and I understand that. But if the drivers don’t want to put in that time and sweat and work, retire or go to the Nationwide or Craftsman Truck Series and let someone who truly appreciates being in a Cup car take over the seat. The old adage has never been more true: Shut up and drive.

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