NASCAR Race Weekend Central

No Bull: Is There Any Reason Pocono’s 2 Cup Races Shouldn’t Be Shorter?

I know, I know, it’s been a topic that’s been beaten to death, but it bears repeating: Pocono needs to shorten its Cup races as soon as possible.

As usual, racing wasn’t the greatest for the first 100 laps up there, with Jimmie Johnson proceeding to destroy the field. At one point, only five cars were within 20 seconds of the leader, with the No. 48 car in front for 96 of 99 circuits. But beginning when a debris caution bunched up the field on lap 122, the racing in Sunday’s Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 turned out to be the best Cup Series competition at Pocono in quite some time. Of course, a lot of that can be attributed to the urgency many teams felt with rain potentially threatening to shorten the race, but the craziness that ensued under the threatening skies was something normally reserved for a green-white-checkered finish.

Add to that the spectacular racing during the Truck Series event on Saturday, and Pocono and NASCAR should have an easy decision on their hands.

Keep in mind the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono was shorter than the qualifying races for the Daytona 500, and while some drivers felt that the distance was too short (when was the last time you heard that complaint about a NASCAR race?) it made it almost impossible for them to ride around for a significant number of laps.

The inequity in the Truck Series showed, as some trucks were as many as five seconds off the pace set by polesitter Elliott Sadler, but the trucks at the front of the field put on an incredible show. The 50-lap, 125-mile distance forced people to be aggressive at all times, and the battle for the lead between Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne produced an instant classic.

Sure, the race took less than two hours, and went by so quickly that SPEED made a decision to delay the coverage of the last half of the race to prevent a ton of post-race filler content. (The race ended seven minutes before the checkered flag flew on SPEED). But I guarantee that many NASCAR fans would trade a boring, four-hour race for an exciting 90-minute one, no matter how the content gets presented.

Truth is, Pocono’s three tricky turns can provide some fantastic racing – just look at Denny Hamlin‘s outside three-wide pass late in the race in turn 1 – but the distance prevents any of that excitement from happening in the Cup Series until the bitter end. The June race got wild, but that was only when there were a handful of laps left. The first 180 were standard Pocono fare; hit your marks, count off laps and hope the fans in the stands don’t doze off in the process.

The Pennsylvania track gets a bad rap because of the boring races, and track president Dr. Joseph Mattioli has shown no sign of accepting shorter events, saying that his fans pay for 500 miles of racing. But what fun is 500 miles of competition when up to 450 of them are boring?

The rain and two red flags made Sunday’s race almost unbearable from a time standpoint. Had the rain not been threatening, it might have even seemed longer than the 3-hour, 46-minute official time of the race.

Whether we like it or not, our attention spans are getting shorter, and if you were a casual fan tuning in for one of the first times of the year during that long green-flag stretch Sunday, would you have been interested? Sure, it helped get the race over in less than four hours, but it probably induced thousands of channel changes or naps across the country.

But as Sadler showed, shortening its races isn’t Pocono’s top priority at this point. Choosing between a 400-mile event and a much safer racetrack is a no brainer. So there’s no reason that both couldn’t happen for 2011; but if only one can, I’m voting out the Armco barriers.

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