Alright, NASCAR fans, there’s no sense beating around the bush. You’re spoiled.
There, I said it.
I know that sounds harsh, but hang with me here. Yes, television ratings and attendance are down… again. A certain driver who won Sunday’s race has also won four straight championships and remains the odds-on favorite to score a fifth.
If you’re a fan of anyone but the No. 48, I can see how that’s annoying. Or maybe you’re already past the point of annoyance and into the frustration phase. But if you take a step back, stop complaining, and take a deep breath you’ll find one thing’s for certain: this is the best racing that we’ve seen in quite some time.
That may sound odd, especially coming from a guy whose first NASCAR memory is Dale Jarrett defeating Dale Earnhardt in the 1993 Daytona 500, but you don’t have to be 50 years old to know that the days when King Richard Petty won his titles weren’t nearly as competitive from week to week as they are now.
Yes, Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire was bailed out a bit by the great finish between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch. And yes, long green-flag runs can become tedious. But so can multiple double-file restarts within a span of 20 laps.
In my opinion, the 200 laps that were run Sunday between cautions were some of the best non-restrictor plate, extended green-flag racing that we’ve seen in the Sprint Cup Series. Sure, it may have seemed boring given that the field was strung out all over the 1.058-mile oval, but Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Johnson and Jeff Burton put on a show during that period, running each other down over the cycle of pit stops while each boasting the best car at some point during that sequence.
Still not convinced? Let’s have a little history lesson. The 1979 Daytona 500 (the premise for Mark Bechtel’s excellent book “He Crashed Me, So I Crashed Him Back”) helped put NASCAR on the map and also helped vault Petty to his seventh and final Sprint Cup Series title. But the most competitive races during the King’s final championship could make that green-flag run in Sunday’s race look like the last 20 laps at Talladega.
Of those 31 races in 1979, six ended with the leader a lap ahead of the second-place finisher. In the Southern 500, David Pearson finished two laps ahead of the leader. Only three times did more than five cars finish on the lead lap, and the race at Pocono boasted the most with eight.
Compare that to Loudon, where – after two-thirds of the race was run under green – there were still 13 cars on the lead lap by the time the caution came out.
That clean race also led to a quick one. In an era where shortening races is a serious topic of discussion, Sunday’s 2:48:38 was also a welcome makeup for the four-hour debacles that were Phoenix and Darlington. Isn’t it nice to have the majority of Sunday left after a race concludes?
Sunday’s event may have seemed boring because the promise of any continuation of Infineon’s tiffs was broken, and for the first three-quarters of the race, drivers were content to give each other plenty of room. But a 36-race season is bound to have a few letdowns along the way.
Those letdowns are magnified when we’re used to seeing carnage and drivers “drive like idiots” at every opportunity following a double-file restart. Drivers driving like idiots make for great television both on and off the track, and when those double-file restarts are limited, so are those opportunities.
So readjust those inflated expectations. While Sunday may have been a relatively uneventful race, it sure as hell beats a driver lapping the field or a four-hour, restart-marred event that comes down to the last car standing.
Besides, Daytona’s just days away. Can you fault the drivers for saving their aggression for Saturday night?