Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: How to Make a Good NASCAR Race

A lot of people have taken me to task lately – either by email or in the comments section below my articles – claiming I’m too negative. They feel I am lost in rose-colored remembrances of times gone by, referencing races that weren’t really all that great after all. Some go as far as to claim that the racing this year is better than it ever has been, thanks to the “excitement” of the Chase.

Well, a couple of quick points. First, most of those who say today’s racing with the new car and the Chase are better than years gone by weren’t around in the glory days of this sport or, if they were, they were sucking at their mama’s teat – not watching races. Secondly, if the Chase and the new car appeal to you, that’s fine. Your opinion is valid, and I respect your right to feel that way.

But I feel differently. And these columns are my opinions, no more or less valid than your own. If you really can’t stand reading what I say, feel free to stop and use the time you are no longer wasting reading this aging hippie’s opinions to write some columns of your own. If you have a way with words and a little luck, maybe one day you’ll be published too, and then people can comment on your opinions.

Hey, I’m not going to be doing this forever. I could walk away tomorrow with no regrets. It’s been a blast. The competition to take over the Monday race recaps and Thursday morning’s Mouthing Off (a title I’ve never been fond of by the way) columns starts here. All you’ve got to do is write those columns and convince the editors and readers of this site you’re better at it than me. Go on and give it a shot, Cowgirl. This ain’t my first rodeo, but eventually somebody’s going to get the draw on me. Bring it on.

I’ll forewarn those of you determined to put a positive spin on the ghastly state of stock car racing today, you’re going to draw some fire, too. In a recent column, respected longtime NASCAR journalist Ed Hinton asked for readers’ opinions on the state of the sport. In his unscientific poll, 96% of his readers expressed great dissatisfaction with the state of the sport today. I don’t own a business yet, but if I did and 96% of my customers were dissatisfied, I’d be losing a lot of sleep. If my longtime customers stopped showing up, I’d be even more anxious. The number of empty seats last week at NHMS last week was troubling. That’s not to single out NHMS; a lot of tracks have seen bad ticket sales this year.

But some of you feel that this old hippie and the 96 percenters are impossible to please. Some folks even felt that last week’s race at New Hampshire was good – or even outstanding. That explains a lot about how Miller Lite still sells, Chevy keeps selling Cobalts, Britney Spears has had a career and ugly nasty chicks end up married. Some consumers have very low expectations, and will settle for crap if someone spins it well enough. It might also help explain a lot about politics – but I’m not going there.

So what is it I want to see that makes me decide a race was good or even great? For one thing, there’s a sense of anticipation leading up to the event. Admittedly, that’s partially biased on my part. When I look at the Cup schedule, there are certain events I genuinely look forward to for weeks in advance of the race. Some tracks that come to mind include Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol. On the flip side, some of the cookie-cutter tracks drop me into a funk for a week beforehand, dreading a wasted afternoon.

If you’re fair though, you’ll give me this much. If a race at Darlington is lousy, I’ll say so. I have about zero affection for the Kansas track, but the 2004 race there featuring the final-lap battle between Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd was a classic, and that’s what I wrote at the time. It surprised some of my longtime readers who were waiting for me to tee off on Kansas as usual – but it was a good race, and that’s what I wrote.

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Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR Critics Have Been Silent... At Least, Until Kansas

As most of you know, I (and a lot of folks like me) like to see lots of green-flag passing for the lead. No, I don’t count it as a lead change when the leader pits and the second-place car peels off a lap later, handing the lead to the driver who had been running behind him and so on. That’s not a lot of fun to watch. What’s fun to watch is one driver take a bead on a driver ahead of him and employ varied strategies to get by before finally finding one that works.

In a perfect world, the former leader who slipped up and fell to second will then begin working the new leader’s rear bumper like a chew toy trying to find a way back around him. When two or more drivers are passing and re-passing each other for dozens of laps at a time, I’m grinning ear to ear. When one driver lets another driver pass him because in the big picture it’s better to finish second rather than risking a wreck to save a few points, I am sick to my stomach. There’s a reason they call these events races, not “strategies.”

What might even be better than passes for the lead is side-by-side racing. There’s nothing as exciting in sports as watching two or three drivers going at it lap by lap and side-by-side, with fenders rubbing, tires smoking, irritation growing, but each of them unable to shake the other as they race through a shroud of tire smoke into the autumn sun setting over turn 1. My biggest beef with the Car of Horror is that it has all but eliminated side-by-side racing (with last weekend’s Dover race a notable exception).

Drivers can’t afford to bend up fenders, and the cars get so loose beside one another that most drivers will bail out on any actual side-by-side racing. And lately, with points more important than race wins, drivers spend the first nine-tenths of a race cruising before finally getting after it in the final 10 laps or so. That’s just not much fun to watch, and that’s why I hate the Chase. It rewards such behavior, not actual racing and winning.

Another thing that makes racing interesting to watch is rivalries, and there haven’t been many good ones over the last few years. Back in the day, you had drivers like Bobby Allison and Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, or Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott who genuinely seemed to dislike each other, at least on the track. Week in and week out, you knew those guys were going to be running up front and, whenever they were running in close quarters, things were bound to get interesting. Allison and Petty seemed intent on killing one another for a few seasons, and fans stood in line to get tickets to watch the next bout.

Nowadays though, if a driver bumps another driver on the cooldown lap or calls him a “dirty rotten so and so, son of Budgie” after a race, NASCAR will probably fine him 100 points and his corporate sponsors will go into cardiac arrest. For a while there, it seemed Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were going to develop a genuine rivalry, but then I guess Gordon’s handlers told him that all that nastiness was having an adverse effect on the pre-teen female, private school horseback lessons and tennis demographics.

Nothing makes a race more interesting than a little suspense. To knowledgeable fans at the Atlanta season finale in 1992 (the greatest race ever, by the way), it became clear that the title bout between Alan Kulwicki and Elliott would likely be decided by which driver led the most laps. Lap after lap, Elliott and Kulwicki ran side-by-side for the lead. On one lap, Elliott would be inches ahead of Kulwicki, and on the next the No. 7 Thunderbird had the lead. It was gripping stuff to behold.

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Adding yet more suspense was the fact Kulwicki’s team wasn’t sure they had gotten enough fuel in the car on the final stop to make the distance. Had he run out of gas, Kulwicki surely would have lost the title. More recently, Gordon was leading at Darlington, but his car was clearly overheating, and fans were on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the engine would expire before the end of the race.

Suspense has kept Gil Grissom and company in business on Thurday nights for over a decade now, and we could use a little more of it most Sunday afternoons. But lately, any suspense NASCAR has managed seems to be as part of the artificial excitement of the Chase. Oh, no! Kasey has the sniffles! Can he still make the Chase? Hand me that barf bag, all right?

Closely related to the above, in a good race there are a few surprises. OK, so Driver X has dominated the race but, late in the going, Team B gambles on a fuel-only pit stop to take the lead. Team B’s driver has never won a race before (first-time winners are always good for an extra point in my ratings) and the team hasn’t won a race in six years.

Driver X is buried back in traffic because most drivers took two tires and we’ve got eight laps to go. Team B’s driver is all over the track on badly worn tires trying to keep his opponents behind him. Driver X is taking no prisoners roughing his way back towards the front? Who’s going to win? I don’t know. I like surprises. Surprise me. The new car’s aero-push problems in traffic have all but eliminated this sort of scenario.

What some folks have accused me of wanting in a race is a lot of wrecks. Sorry, but you’re shopping at the wrong five and dime. Wrecks don’t make for a good race. Nothing is worse than watching the field parade under caution lap after lap as the track crew cleans up rather than racing. I’ve never been a wreck fan. I want to see the athletes walk the tightrope, not fall off. I want to see them catch a badly out of control car and not lose a spot. I don’t want to see anyone hit the wall.

Wrecks still scare me because you never know. Geoff Bodine had his horrible Craftsman Truck Series wreck into the catchfence at Daytona with his car reduced to scrap, fire all over the place and the engine 300 yards down the track, and when all the smoke cleared, he wasn’t badly hurt.

Earnhardt’s wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 looked like a fender-bender by comparison, but he was killed. That gutted me. I spent the next three days doing radio shows and banging out columns, but I remember little of it other than putting my fist through the wall when I first got the official news, A framed picture of the No. 3 car hung over that hole until I moved. No, I don’t like wrecks at all.

What I like best of all is last-lap drama and passes for the lead. Let’s face it, as years go by and memories fade, the last lap is what everyone remembers – just as you might not recall a single other scene in the movie The Sixth Sense, but you remember how it ended because it knocked you speechless. Let’s recall the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s, Bobby Labonte and Earnhardt or Gordon and Kevin Harvick at Atlanta, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, or, perhaps best of all, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in March 2003, with Craven prevailing by .002 seconds.

I was at that race. I don’t recall a whole lot about the other three hours, 10 minutes and 15.998 seconds of the race other than it wasn’t up to Darlington’s standards. Only 10 drivers finished on the lead lap. But if someone were to come over tonight and try to tell me stock car racing is boring, I’d whip out that tape and make him watch it with me because I never get bored of watching it myself.

No, not all races can be classics. Sometimes one driver is going to dominate. Sometimes the field will get strung out. You’ll have occasional travesties like this year’s Brickyard, and it’s going to rain on race day from time to time. But the last few years, and this year in particular, the ratio of clinkers to classics is unacceptably high. That needs changing; and until the ratio is restored to an acceptable level, you can expect me to be occasionally negative or sarcastic.

I’d like to conclude with a Youtube video by another fellow with fairly negative opinions about modern NASCAR racing. It would be interesting to hear what he might have to say about this season; but unfortunately, we can’t ask him, because a year to the day later, he wasn’t around the sport anymore.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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