*ONE: Green Flags Are Good*
The Nationwide Series race featured long green flag runs all afternoon. The Cup race was run caution-free until it ultimately ended for rain. And the Auto Club Speedway got a distinction it perhaps never has held…hosting two races worth watching in the same weekend.
Sure, abrasive asphalt and tires that actually wore out were largely responsible for producing a compelling on-track product. But more than that, long green flag runs allowed for drivers to explore lines on the track and to wheel cars that came and went throughout the event. Just look at how Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart traded the lead over the course of Sunday’s 129-lap sprint. Both had their strengths throughout the run, had to adjust on the fly rather than wait for a debris yellow to offer a reset and a free shot at making their cars better, and both put on a race–an actual race! Even if it was just 258 miles in length.
NASCAR would do well to take note here. Even without the phantom debris yellows that still popped up through Saturday’s 300-miler, there was plenty of long green runs, and the action, especially up front, was thick for all of it. With rain bearing down on the Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR and their officials didn’t have the option to throw commercial break caution flags. In the midst of all that green flag racing on a track that’s earned a reputation for being a snoozer, the pace and intensity level seen rivaled anything that’s been seen on intermediate ovals in recent years (the Stewart/Edwards showdown at Homestead notwithstanding).
Lay off the yellows, let the race play out and give the drivers tires that actually require driving talent. This isn’t rocket science. For crying out loud, it made Fontana worth watching.
*TWO: Incentives, Not Shorter Races, are the Answer*
There will undoubtedly be a chorus out there of those that will cite this Sunday’s race, and the 400-mile reduced race distance, as reasons for Fontana’s improved on-track product in recent years. Here’s the issue with that attribution; the intensity of the on-track action didn’t drop the second lap 101 flashed up on the scoreboard for halfway. The same frenzied pace that characterized the entire Cup field’s charge to halfway as rain threatened continued not just from lap 1-101, but from 101-129 as well.
The length of races is not what’s led to countless Cup events over the past few years amounting to snoozefests and lazy Sunday drives before a wild finish. The problem is there’s no incentive, no reason to push hard. Leading 128 laps this past Sunday, hard charging every step of the way, would have earned a driver only one point in the standings. The first start-and-parker to load up his car on the hauler Sunday afternoon earned only 12.4% less cash than David Reutimann did for going the distance and finishing 27th. The only difference this time was an incentive to be leading or up front at halfway, and the whole field stirred to life like piranhas in bloody water.
The point? There’s millions of dollars at stake every week in the purse, offering up nearly six figure sums for everyone finishing from 10th or so on back. Why not reallocate that money for bonuses that encourage making passes, leading laps? Maybe paying off crew chiefs to tell their drivers over the radio that rain is coming every Sunday?
Reducing race distances is not acceptable on a number of fronts. Tracks sure as hell aren’t going to reduce ticket prices alongside a reduction in mileage. There’s a very large difference between cars and motors lasting 300 miles or 500 miles. And in terms of concentration and physical exertion, well, there’s a reason races last 500 miles. Cup races are the top tier of racing stock cars, and they’re meant to be a true test of man and machine. No matter how entertaining sprint races can be, removing that element from Cup racing is effectively neutering the sport and removing it farther from what is meant to be.
It’s like repaving Bristol. Before doing something radical, work with what’s already there (i.e. tires, purses). The results will come.
*THREE: One Race Date Does Wonders for Attendance (2008-2010, never broke 80,000)*
Two things worth noting about the attendance at Fontana this weekend. One, there were not 90,000 people in the grandstands. That grandstand has a maximum capacity of 92,500, was not full, and had a number of seats covered by sponsor tarps in turn 1. Now that being said, the grandstands certainly looked better than they did a few years back. And based on the NASCAR-provided estimates of attendance, ACS has averaged 89,000 over the past two years since losing their second race date. In the three years before that, not one race at the Fontana track eclipsed 80,000.
This is good news for ISC, ACS and the fans in southern California that ultimately are being counted on to keep NASCAR’s most maligned track in business. The worn asphalt has finally made the track’s racing surface something that stock cars can put a show on. And with the grandstands actually showing crowds now, the annual Auto Club race weekend is primed to capitalize on being both a good show…and the only show race fans will have to turn to. Absence does make the heart grow fonder…just look at how the “Southern” 500 has done well even while racing on a traditional off weekend, or how Atlanta’s attendance has improved since Labor Day became their only race.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, it really was a sound weekend for NASCAR in SoCal.
FOUR: Next Few Weeks Key for Smaller Teams
2011 is gone, and the 2012 owner point standings are in. Starting at Martinsville, BK Racing has only one car locked in the top 35, RCR’s fourth car is leading a tenuous existence only five markers to the good of being guaranteed a spot in the field, and David Reutimann and TBR narrowly avoided the disaster of having Danica’s No. 10 being forced to…gasp…actually time its way into the field.
Take a look just outside the cutoff, and there is a lot of uncertainty. BK Racing has not found any sort of major corporate backing and will have to time their No. 83 into the show this weekend; David Stremme’s team has proven unable to recover from an engine failure at Daytona and a wreck at Bristol; JJ Yeley’s No. 49 team is way on the outside looking in…and the No. 98 team that made such a big deal to announce their intent to race in 2012 has already start-and-parked twice this year.
After missing the past three races, Robby Gordon has already announced that his team will be cutting back their Cup schedule. And now that the first five races are in the books and the line has been drawn, history shows that movement in and out of the top 35 will be reduced drastically. Which, in turn, will tone down the incentive to race for teams operating on a shoestring; after all, without that locked in position to race for, it becomes harder to justify the expense that comes with contesting the distance.
Seeing longtime Nationwide Series owner Jay Robinson making it work, David Stremme and Michael McDowell getting to race some, all have been welcome sights this season. Here’s hoping they keep up.
FIVE: Where is Timmy Hill?
Sadly, though Hill has been a visible presence in the garage area so far this season, the one place little has been seen of the 2011 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year has been on the race track. Moved to Cup racing after only one full season on the NNS tour, Hill has gone only one for four in qualifying for Cup races so far this season (Mike Wallace drove his No. 37 ride at Daytona), with a DNF in that race after blowing a tire at Las Vegas.
Obviously, qualifying 25% of the time is a big-time problem racing at any level. But for Hill, a driver that at only 19 is still early on in terms of driver development, the most important of all facets in that process is seat time. By running for a team with limited resources and missing races, Hill is not getting a plethora of practice time, and he’s going weeks at a time without competing on the track. Not only is this an asinine way to try and keep a sponsor happy, its doing a disservice to a driver in Hill that both advanced Rick Ware Racing on track a year ago and further made tremendous progress on his own accord wheeling a stock car.
Sam Hornish Jr. is perhaps the best example of how listening to a sponsor’s wishes above all else in moving a development driver to Cup is a recipe for disaster. In the end, it took years and the fierce loyalty of a well endowed owner to finally get Hornish a Nationwide ride, and get him the seat time he needs to become a force at this level. One can only hope that Hill is so lucky…or even better, that the folks backing Hill wake up and realize their mistake before the entire 2012 campaign goes up in smoke.
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