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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Professor Of Speed: Good Finishes Make A Good Start

So there I was … pretty much finished with NASCAR, when …. Wham! There’s Kyle Busch slipping and sliding, and there’s Brad Keselowski running through the grass, and there’s Marcos Ambrose beating and banging his way to a .571 second margin of victory in the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen. It took just a moment for the final lap of that race to become etched in NASCAR folklore; all the radio announcers said so, as did the television commentators. The newspaper/internet writers who covered the event echoed the same fact when their stories were posted.

What a difference an exciting finish makes.

Even the most diehard NASCAR fans have voiced their frustration over the 2012 Sprint Cup season so far, and the quality of racing it has produced. Despite the fact that there’s been some decent races in both the Nationwide and Camping World divisions this year, it’s been the Cup Series (and its overall lack of what many fans consider excitement) that’s captured the most attention. While it was wonderful to see Carl Edwards back in Victory Lane following his triumphant return to Nationwide competition – in a race that featured a diverse list of top-ten finishers, no less – the Cup event was coming off a dark-and-stormy Sunday at Pocono. After a rain-delayed/rain-shortened event that was better known for spectator injuries and one death than its finishing order, the Cup race at Watkins Glen International needed to be more than just a parade of colorful cars running single-file around the Southern Tier.

Fortunately for NASCAR, last Sunday’s finish was one for the history books. Just when it looked as though Kyle Busch was going to turn the event into another of those “should we leave early?” Cup races, along comes Bobby Labonte, fluid in Turn One, and a wild, last-lap scramble to the checkered flag. Fans weren’t the only ones cheering, jumping up-and-down, and waving their hands in the air on Sunday afternoon; Brian France and NASCAR’s brain trust were doing the same thing.

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Sure there may have been five quarts of oil all over the track, but if that’s what it takes to curb talk of pill popping, one of the Big Three bailing, and six second intervals, so be it.

But isn’t this kind of turnabout the NASCAR way?

As soon as competition begins looking dull and uninspired, along comes a seat-of-the-pants finish that gets people talking come Monday morning. A brief clip on a highlight reel of weekend athletic events seems sufficient enough to re-certify NASCAR as a legitimate professional sport. Naturally, there will always be the devoutly faithful who feel that stock car racing is and always has been a major sport, but those of us who’ve been around the garage for a few decades can attest otherwise. The _Wide World of Sports_-era on ABC treated NASCAR racing with the same respect as cliff diving, curling, figure skating, and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Not that “the thrill of victory” was missing during the decade of the 1970s. It was ABC that brought fans – in its classic segmented fashion – the final lap fireworks of the 1976 Daytona 500. The classic Richard Petty/David Pearson duel came during the heyday of their racing rivalry, and the finish that unfolded that day gave NASCAR a new lease on life among more traditional mainstream sporting events.

NASCAR’s socio-cultural fortunes all changed at Daytona when CBS gambled and aired live, flag-to-flag coverage of 1979’s Great American Race. We know the story all-too-well: a blizzard had snowed in most of the East Coast, which provided the event with a captive audience on an otherwise quiet Sunday in February. The last-lap, fender-bending duel between front-runners Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough (with its eventual wreck, post-race infield fisticuffs, and Richard Petty’s sixth Daytona 500 victory) became the stuff of legend. So did the response of Madison Avenue advertising firms that suddenly “discovered” an attention-grabbing, high-speed means by which to sell products. History was made as an essential pattern in NASCAR took shape.

This was the same pattern we saw last Sunday at Watkins Glen International. It could not have come along at a better time given recent events in the Cup Series. Jimmie Johnson’s dominance at Indianapolis late last month gave fans yet another reason to gripe about how mind-numbingly dull the Cup Series was becoming. Not that these complaints were merely sour grapes against the 2012 success of Johnson and his collective Hendrick Motorsports brethren; as Garrett Horton – my Frontstretch colleague – wrote the other day, the Finger Lakes 355 marked only the second time this season when there was a lead change during the final lap of a Sprint Cup race (the other such lead change occurred at Daytona in July).

So it appears that a last lap shootout between two talented and aggressive drivers for the win is precisely the tonic NASCAR Nation needs. It’s not as if other dry spells haven’t been helped by door-to-door, nose-to-tail scrambles to the finish. It seems as if a close finish cures all ills, even in situations when the overall malaise of race fans comes from non-competitive sources.

Take the beginning of the 2001 NASCAR season. Dale Earnhardt dies on the final lap of that year’s Daytona 500 and the entire sport spins into a spiral of anger, sadness, and depression. Dark days of uncertainty overwhelmed the sport, the teams, the media, and the fans. Attention paid to NASCAR at that time was more curiosity over Earnhardt’s death than it was about the quality of racing.

Not even the next week’s race at Rockingham – won by Steve Park in a Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated Chevrolet – could generate a more positive vibe. Park crossed the finish line 0.138 seconds ahead of Bobby Labonte in what was a close sprint to the checkers, but the mood of NASCAR Nation remained bleak; not even a popular (and emotional) win by a DEI car following the tragedy at Daytona was enough to turn the tide.

The dark cloud that hung over NASCAR finally lifted, but it wasn’t until Kevin Harvick drove his No. 29 Goodwrench Chevrolet to a .006 second victory over Jeff Gordon in the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta. Harvick’s margin of victory may have been irrelevant given the fact that he won the race in what had been Dale Earnhardt’s ride, but the attention lavished on his win was helped by the amazing closeness of the finish.

In NASCAR, winning by .6 seconds means far less than when you shift the decimal point a couple of spots. A close finish tends to restore our faith in what Big Bill France hath wrought, but so, too, does a wild-and-crazy one.

You want proof? Take a leisurely stroll through the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte. The legacy of the 1979 Daytona 500 is on exhibit there in all its glory, complete with video footage and the cars of Yarborough and Allison parked in a garage stall – both scarred machines displayed near a watchful (and smiling) statue of Bill France, Jr.

The closest finish in NASCAR history (a margin of .002 seconds) has also been immortalized at the Hall of Fame. An exhibit honors the legacy of Ricky Craven, Kurt Busch, and their down-to-the-wire battle on the final lap of the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington in 2003. It’s not that these two drivers enjoyed many races against each other for points and prize money, nor is it that these two men were simply doing their jobs and doing them well – the emphasis at the Hall of Fame is on their photo finish that captivated sports fans from all walks of life… a finish that reflected everything NASCAR wants the world to believe it is.

Not that such a close finish (or any close finish, for that matter) is always so clean and simple. I remember traveling around NASCAR back in the early 1990s when there were rumors about NASCAR making “the call” from time-to-time to insure that certain teams had a better chance of winning races, especially if valuable sponsors were dropping hints about dropping a team from their marketing budgets.

These rumors were often attributed to drivers, crew chiefs, or car owners who were unhappy about a streak of poor luck. What better way to discredit your successful competition (and NASCAR) than to point an accusing finger and cry foul. The problem was, based on what I was told by those in the know, was that teams were indeed getting the opportunity to help their less-than-competitive causes.

One easy way to get the upper-hand was to run an oversized engine. Since it was understood by those involved that a particular race car and motor combination was illegal, it was also understood that inspectors would likely turn a blind eye to that car’s compression numbers. Getting “the call” didn’t mean a guaranteed win, but it supposedly shifted the odds in the chosen team’s favor.

My mention of “the call” here is not intended to raise suspicions about NASCAR and the urban legends so often surrounding the sport. These make for fun reading and heated debate, but it’s not as though there’s concrete evidence that such rule breaking ever took place. The pink elephant in the room is the fact that cheating has always been part of sports, regardless of the event. My mention of “the call” here is meant to ponder why – if such liberties are extended to teams-in-need – we haven’t seen more fantastic, yet fabricated, finishes?

Wouldn’t a hard-luck driver like Jeff Burton or a popular name like Danica Patrick benefit greatly from such a supposed free pass as getting “the call” at a particularly high-profile race? If close finishes and successful fan favorites add to NASCAR’s value, why, then, haven’t we seen more races like the one we saw at Watkins Glen last weekend?

Maybe it’s NASCAR’s focus on earning points and making the Chase that causes us to relish wild finishes like we saw in the Finger Lakes 355. When the white flag flew and Kyle Busch’s Toyota slid into the guardrail, both Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose were free to do what they do best: race. Points were on the line, including the added incentive of a possible “wild card” slot for Ambrose, but the goal for both of these talented athletes was not simply to play it safe and secure their places in the Chase.

Excitement in NASCAR comes not from the payoff, but from the performance. Most fans don’t really care about championship points, and even fewer care about prize money. All fans, on the other hand, care about the quality of the racing they pay to watch, and last Sunday at Watkins Glen gave fans their money’s worth.

As second-place finisher Brad Keselowski said on ESPN immediately after the race, “That’s what racing’s supposed to be, right there….”

The response following Sunday’s unforgettable finish back this up, and NASCAR Nation seems to agree.

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