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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR’s Late-Season Swing Produces a Memorable Event – No Legislative Help Needed

Things are so rough in NASCAR these days that last week’s race at Texas had enough action and storylines to actually jar a collective NASCAR press from its habitual cynicism. Even our own Matt McLaughlin rated the race a “four-and-a-half cans of Lone Star,” quite an esteemed rating from a writer who rarely ranks intermediate races above “one can of filthy generic stuff.”

Throughout the week I have read article after article strongly suggesting that this was the kind of race NASCAR needed. Greg Engle at NASCAR Examiner called it “a season’s worth of drama in one race.” Richard Allen at Racing With Rich said that “races like that will cause people to start watching NASCAR again.” Marty Smith at ESPN called it “just what the NASCAR doctor ordered.” And so on.

Maybe all of this is true. So how much of the buzz around this race had anything to do with NASCAR’s excitement-creating legislation?

Yes, they put the long-established brand on it. They negotiated the contracts that enabled it to take place at the track and be seen on television. They hired the officials, approved the paint schemes, arranged the schedule, you name it. For all that goes into putting on a NASCAR race, they do deserve credit for that.

If only the sanctioning body weren’t such workaholics when it came to putting on a compelling event. What NASCAR did Sunday to air an exciting, worthwhile show was no different than what they had done 10 or even 20 years ago.

NASCAR’s reach these days extends beyond just making a race happen and letting the fireworks go, and instead goes into trying to engineer exciting finishes to races and seasons, bringing parity to a sport that by definition cannot achieve it, and generally repeatedly changing long-established ways of doing things in a knee-jerk fashion whenever ratings and attendance dip. Or, in some cases, when ratings shoot through the roof. You could probably give rule makers credit for double-file restarts being a factor last Sunday — but double-file restarts became a necessity when the new car design put clean air up front at a premium.

Last Sunday Denny Hamlin raced from the 30th starting spot all the way to the front, hanging on to fend off a hard challenge from Matt Kenseth at the end. The team set the car up to run at night and his pit crew was nearly flawless. When Greg Biffle lost a gear and the opportunity presented itself, the team stepped up and grabbed it.

One could argue that with the Chase-induced championship battle as close as it is, Hamlin and the No. 11 team knew they had to go all out for a victory. One could also argue that when racecar drivers have a win in their crosshairs, their standing in the points doesn’t matter quite as much. Or that were we racing with the proper points system, Hamlin would have had little to lose and would be going all out for a W anyway.

Think what you like. Why was Kenseth racing hard enough to make an uncharacteristic overdriving error, when he had no chance at winning a championship?

That is what the smell of victory lane does, Chase or no Chase.

Watching Jeff Gordon walk towards Jeff Burton after getting wrecked was a moment of anticipation, especially for Gordon fans who have been frustrated at their driver’s performance in recent years. And the end result lived up to it for once, if only momentarily, with the two throwing punches as officials stood between them. The crowd roared. There was a fight in turn 3 again. The sport’s participants took a break from being corporate robots, even if Gordon later doubted they’d be able to get the “DuPont Chevrolet” back out.

Does anyone think that before the famous “have at it” announcement that Gordon’s reaction would have been any different? Gordon went after Kenseth at Bristol long before “have at it,” and that was hardly an isolated incident for drivers at short tracks.

“Have at it, boys” wasn’t intended to mean that NASCAR wanted more televised fistfights anyway. It was geared towards allowing drivers to police themselves on the racetrack, especially at places like Talladega, where there is constant contact between cars and frantic attempts from NASCAR to control the uncontrollable. It didn’t mean a driver could come back out 100 laps down just to put his antagonist on his roof. That “have at it” has become a catchphrase repeated ad nauseum in response to every feud on the track doesn’t mean it has helped create a suddenly more exciting sport.

Kyle Busch completely lost his mind after being penalized for speeding, costing himself a strong finish with a temper tantrum that included flipping off a NASCAR official. Once again, the No. 18 driver provides plenty of dysfunction for journalists.

Busch is like any accident on the highway; you can’t ignore him. He’s been called a lot of creative things, but “bad for ratings” isn’t one of them. NASCAR may welcome the controversy often created by the temperamental driver, but it wasn’t as though they had created him as a character. NASCAR and the networks don’t even market him all that much. How many enigmatic hotshot drivers have made it to Sprint Cup through the Diversity Program? How many polarizing superstars have managed to score a ride against the odds because the Car of Tomorrow allegedly made it more affordable to field racecars?

Even as NASCAR is accused of altering race outcomes, fixing championships, favoring one team, any kind of WWE comparison, it’s really tough to make the case that NASCAR threw a penalty flag on Busch just to get a reaction and ratings boost. They enforced the rules as written, no more and no less, and — surprise! — it made for entertaining television, even if you wished your kids weren’t watching.

The No. 48 team benched their pit crew when they weren’t performing like champions, in a rare moment of apparent panic from a champion head wrench. The switch added drama and inspired even more diatribes on Jayski. A rule limiting the number of teams in an organization did not prevent this from happening. And it could have happened even if teams were limited to one car… ask anyone who worked on Benny Parsons’ car on the day he won his only Cup championship.

Texas Motor Speedway produced a more memorable event than what is very often the norm there. No NASCAR legislation required. There wasn’t even a green-white-wrecker finish.

In recent years, NASCAR’s problem all along has been the belief that they could improve the racing with the rulebook, imposing all manner of twisted regulation to “create excitement.” Had the sanctioning body not changed a thing since 2003, the sport would likely be in better condition today. Changing the game was a response to rising popularity and it is now the response to falling popularity. It rarely works in either circumstance. All the while, events like the AAA Texas 500 happen that prove that racing can be great if it is just left the heck alone.

When NASCAR ponders more changes to the Chase, one wonders if they will ever understand that no one buys a ticket or tunes in to see what cool new changes to the rules NASCAR will come up with. Races as exciting as this have continued to take place throughout recent years, despite what some naysayers have claimed.

It’s the mucking with racing rules by marketing people that turns people off.

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