After Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line Sunday with a monster last-lap charge – one that sent his No. 29 Chevrolet soaring past Jimmie Johnson to score the win in his home state – FOX’s broadcast booth was quick to praise Auto Club Speedway’s new, 400-mile format. It was the shorter distance track officials chose for the spring race (read: only one) of 2011 after trying it during the Chase last season, one that ended this event in a speedy two hours, thirty-nine minutes. FOX went so far as to note that the move provided the best race this speedway ever had, showering praise on a decision they claimed was “nothing short of magical.”
Sure, there were elements of this race that excelled, combating the negative stereotypes that circle around a much-maligned circuit which will forever be reviled for replacing the Labor Day Southern 500. The track reported a 22% increase in attendance this Sunday, a far cry from the drastic downturn seen last weekend at Bristol. The margin of victory was a scant .144 seconds, with the race decided on a last-lap pass after a late-race, three-car fight between Harvick, Johnson and the day’s dominant car, Kyle Busch’s No. 18. This event, coupled with a highly competitive 300-miler on Saturday, created a weekend that saw the two-mile oval in Fontana the raciest the facility has been since it started hosting stock cars in 1997.
It’s all a solid foundation to build on for a place that’s looking for any slice of positive history. But none of these facts – absolutely, positively, none of them – can be traced back to the fact that NASCAR and ISC (correction, NASCAR) shaved 100 miles off the race distance. In fact, there was only one thing from this Sunday that a change to 400 miles could be conclusively linked to… that the race was over before the sun went down on the east coast.
Such a small consolation, really is the only reason that this idea of shortening races is being floated around in the first place, to stuff NASCAR’s premier events into neat little boxes that can be televised in clean timeframes. Just like the NFL, the strategy is to hone the product to fit in three-hour windows; as a result, top executives believe the product on-track will just naturally improve. After all, they say, 500 miles of racing forces the drivers out there to stroke it for hundreds of circuits, biding their time until the final run to the checkers where they actually get down to business.
In one sense, those track philosophers got their wish; Sunday’s race was shorter. But that had nothing to do with producing what truly was a hell of a finish, one that saw tires actually a factor in a race, a race won after three of the best in the business left it all on the track battling for the trophy. For whether it’s 400 miles or 500 miles, a late-race caution that bunches up the field and opens up pit strategy is going to produce crazy charges through the pack… especially on an oval that, after over a decade of snoozers has weathered to the point that grip, and thus tires and handling, are at a premium.
Now I know we’re not in the 1970s anymore, where NASCAR truly was a test of machine as much as man. With the amount of money and durability that goes into today’s Sprint Cup cars, be it 400 or 500 miles, the mechanical side of the equation is largely taken care of, no matter what venue the Cup Series is visiting. But 500 miles is still far more of a test for a driver than 400. Longer races mean more opportunities to screw up. There’s more pit stops, requiring the crew chiefs and teams to keep their act together, to make the right call. You’ve got more race runs, where a car has to stay dialed in. In comparison, basketball would probably be more exciting if quarters were cut to five minutes, baseball if it were cut to five innings. At the same time… NASCAR isn’t a stick and ball sport. Long races aren’t ever going to capture the urgency of a sprint at the local bullring.
Clearly, there’s arguments over correcting the distance on both sides; but, be it 400 miles or 500 miles, this race played out like any other at Fontana. For the third time in the last four spring races at Auto Club, or since the Cup Series went to the CoT full-time, the race featured a green flag run of longer than 50 laps within the first 200 miles of competition. There were long stretches where the driver out front drove off and hid from the rest of field, which strung itself out behind him and led to some lulls in the action. Engine failures were down compared to the past two spring races, but higher than seen in 2008, where despite a 500-mile distance not a single car in the field retired with a blown motor.
The nature of how to race the track didn’t change, either. Rhythm still proved tremendously important, as setting up passes took both patience through the sweeping corners and, most often, multiple laps.
In reality, Auto Club Speedway is a huge race track. It’s long, it’s wide, and from a driving standpoint it’s about as technical as the Sprint Cup circuit has to offer short of a road course. 400 miles on it didn’t change the on-track product that was on display when drivers spent 500 miles on it – it simply reduced the amount.
The crowd didn’t get bigger because of a sense of urgency to the event that wasn’t there. In fact, the crowd didn’t get bigger. The only way there were actually 88,000 fans in the grandstands is if ISC started counting seats covered by large advertising banners towards attendance.
So whatever “magic” FOX was talking about, looks like they’re the only ones who got tricked. Truth be told, the race didn’t end in a thrilling finish with a thin margin of victory because 43 drivers woke up on Sunday morning to realize “oh crap, this race is over on lap 200 now.” It ended in a thrilling manner because of pit strategy, late caution flags and asphalt that’s gained character with age.
The Auto Club 400 was the Auto Club 500. It just ended earlier.
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