Taking the final 50 laps, only into account it’s hard to view Sunday’s Sprint Cup show at Texas as anything other than a positive for NASCAR. Down the stretch, during a series of final restarts the two men fighting for the championship were side-by-side, exchanging sheet metal and clearly the two fastest cars. You had Kyle Busch, one of the sport’s most aggressive and controversial drivers lurking third and ready to poke his nose in at any time. The action stepped up considerably, making the final 45 minutes a rare moment of 2012 NASCAR “can’t miss” racing television.
What’s the problem? For all its “highlight reel” moments, condensed into a fireworks show on _Sportscenter_ we took well over three hours to get there. As with far too many races this season, NASCAR’s intermediate ovals, typically 500-mile affairs have been contested correctly in just the final 100. Only then does the sense of urgency pick up, drivers working to collect as many positions possible instead of just staying in line, playing it safe and making laps. Heck, I counted at least three times, during the middle portion of the race where _Chase drivers and crew chiefs,_ when interviewed, said, “We’re just out here making laps.” Oh really, then? Sounds great. You just told the studio audience to make some popcorn, run some errands and come back in two hours when you’re really trying to race someone.
That was just one of the underlying themes I wrote down, continuing to eat at NASCAR’s popularity during the 400 miles before Texas got worth watching. Once again, the dominance of select drivers up front, combined with the importance of _track position_ (the nice way to say you can’t pass anyone) made too much of this event drivers running in place. It doesn’t help that by the first 100 miles, the traffic they need to contend with is reduced by nearly 20 percent; seven of the day’s 43 drivers chose to run around slowly, then pull in the garage afflicted by the dreaded disease of “start and park.” Mechanical perfection, showcased by one legitimate engine failure (David Gilliland) is a reminder this grueling distance is no longer a test of man _and_ machine.
As the race continued, NASCAR’s concern over predictability, parity resulting in stale competition up front became evident in their long line of debris cautions. Five of the night’s nine yellows were thrown for pieces of metal the public never saw, including the most questionable one thrown with 58 laps remaining. At the time the caution came out, ESPN’s play-by-play Allen Bestwick was even confused, claiming there was a call on the NASCAR Channel for debris but that he had no idea where it was. Seconds later, as if read to him off a script that description was corrected to “a piece of metal on the backstretch.” It was a moment that should have followed with a camera shot, letting the public inspect the decision the same way NFL replays show you a penalty. Instead, as has been the norm the topics got refocused towards pit stops, Chase notes and sponsor elements – anything to divert fans’ eyes from a decision that could have changed the outcome of a race.
Let’s think on that one for a second. All of a sudden, a yellow with 58 to go when most teams are on the tail end of their fuel window? What better way to turn up the wick on what appeared to be a ho-hum, 1-2 finish by Johnson and Keselowski then to throw the fuel mileage card into play? That’ll keep people around with baited breath, right? Any good conspiracy theorist could jump on the bandwagon; any major sport run with transparency would do anything possible to shoot those theories down on the vine.
NASCAR did not. And their broadcast partner, ESPN continues to do the series no favors by forgetting fans tune in for far more than just the drivers up front. Too often, over the course of 500 miles drivers just “appeared” inside the top 10 as if it was some sort of magical event. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth jumped inside the top 5, both solid stories in their own right the network reacted as if they had just been teleported in from space. “Oh my gosh, Dale Jarrett? Did you see that!” “Yes, Andy Petree… I can’t believe it. There’s other cars on the racetrack than just those fighting for the championship!”
In ESPN’s defense, NASCAR’s rules over the last several years have made it far more difficult to cover cars running at the back. It’s out of sight, out of mind now where lapped cars are no longer running at the front because of the necessity of double-file, lead-lap restarts. At least, back then the network would “bump” into these guys, holding up a second-place car on camera and be forced to mention their names. Instead, those one lap down or more now fall into one of two categories. A) They’re a contender, and will naturally work their way on-screen because the Lucky Dog and wave-around rules give laps back down the stretch faster than NHL owners say the word “lockout.” B) They’re mediocre, without the speed to get back in it which means they’re starting at the back, every time, never on camera and inconsequential in a storyline system focused on the big names and one holier-than-thou title.
That battle, when marketed right can occasionally lead to a well-watched season finale (See: Edwards vs. Stewart, 2011). But more often than not, at this point the damage inflicted by its presence through disastrous ratings in the nine events run to get to that point hardly make the Chase a worthwhile affair. Some say, with the last two years what we’re seeing from these mano-e-mano championship competitions is enough to put the “end the playoffs!” talk to rest. But many of us in the media know better. Even after Texas’ sizzling finish, one where I was on the edge of my seat I was a half-hour removed from reading emails like this one:
“I’m retiring from watching NASCAR.”
Too many people are saying those words these days, and it would be a shame if the next two races, even if becoming another “battle to the last lap” title chase give NASCAR an excuse to ignore the many problems created leading up to them.