Those of us who grew up attending races at the dirt and asphalt bull-rings peppered around the country had great expectations concerning Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. Of course like in Dickens’ Great Expectations, assigned by many a sadistic high school English teacher, the reality wasn’t as fine as we’d been told to expect. For the first time in the series the 200-lap “Main Event” was preceded by a pair of 50 lap “heat races” designed to set the field for the Main Event.
While at the bull-rings the heat races normally produce some of the most frantic racing of the evening Saturday’s two heat races were duds. Erik Jones led the first heat flag to flag and after a twenty minute intermission, Austin Dillon led every lap of the second. There was a bare minimum of passing in either event with the competitors apparently having decided that they had the 200-lap main event to advance position and as such, there was no sense in risking tearing up equipment in the heats. Unlike a local short-track event, nobody was at risk of not advancing to the main during the preliminaries. The best that could be said about either heat was much like most of my teenage relationships with the opposite gender, they were over quickly.
Hey, it was an interesting experiment. Given the current lackluster state of NASCAR racing, I suppose it is better to nobly fail trying something new then to succeed cynically at doing nothing at all. Perhaps the most memorable takeaway from the heats was that Kyle Busch didn’t win either, an almost unprecedented state of affairs in the NXS this year to date.
But the main event by and large made up for the monotony of the two heat races. Unlike most NXS races (heck, most NASCAR races) this season, fans weren’t subjected to a single driver dominating the event almost uncontested much of the afternoon while the boys in the booth tried desperately to preform CPR on the rapidly cooling corpse of a race. And that leads back to a topic we discussed a few weeks back, shortening the lengths of the races. The main event Saturday at Bristol was only 200 laps long. Now 200 laps at Daytona makes up the entire Daytona 500, but at a half-mile track like Bristol it’s only one hundred miles of racing with the fastest cars completing laps in barely over 15 seconds. As expected, Kyle Busch was a player but it was another Cup regular, Kyle Larson, who let loose with both barrels in the race. Though they’ll downplay it in interviews, NASCAR racers are a prideful bunch. Everyone was tired of Kyle Busch making a mockery of their best efforts not only this season but over the last few years. In Larson’s case, he’d finished second (or as it’s affectionately been termed, “first loser”) to Busch three times previously at Bristol. That’s got to leave a bruise. The racing between the pair of Kyles was frantic and often physical. When it came time to start lapping cars, a near constant state of affairs at Bristol given the wildly disparate speed differential between the “haves” and “have nots,” things heated up nicely with three-wide racing, fenders bent and tires smoking–you know, the sort of action that put NASCAR on the national radar screen in the first place.
Busch seemed poised to strike, but Larson was having none of it, forcing his Chevy into holes that weren’t big enough to contain the car. He was either going to win or wreck trying. A late race caution seemed to favor Larson. He’d only have to hold off Busch for a handful of laps with the lapped traffic no longer a factor. But on that final restart, Erik Jones, restarting the race third, sailed his car into turn one in a “no guts, no glory” move that looked reminiscent of the days of yore. Jones was credited with leading the final three laps of the race while timing and scoring showed the lead changed hands three time in the final five laps of the race. Of note was the fact that Jones was the first NXS regular to win an event in that series this year. We’ll just not and wink ignoring the fact the car Jones won in was a twin separated at birth in the JGR shop, randomly selected from the litter and gussied up in the No. 20 livery rap for this event. After the race, Larson was nearly despondent while Busch was properly petulant, attributing the loss to a stumble the car developed under hard acceleration, the track resurfacing, and bad calls in the pits for depriving him the NXS win, which he apparently feels is his birthright. Jones was very emotional in his post-race press conference revealing his father has recently been diagnosed with cancer and as such wasn’t on hand for the first time when his son won. Yep, book em, Dano, the race was a rousing success on a lot of levels and a slam dunk for those of us tasked with trying to write something about the event afterwards. Would the end result have been the same if the race was a single 300 lap event as had been traditional? One never knows but I find that doubtful.
When I wrote about shortening NASCAR races, I got some blowback from fans who want to see races run at their traditional distances. They feel, understandably perhaps, that given the price of a ticket to attend and the hassles to attend a race in person (oddly even as attendance drops precipitously at NASCAR events, post-race traffic would still have you believe every race was a sellout) they should see a full event and not three-quarters of a race. Maybe it’s time for the tracks to devise some sort of social media app where fans in the area can bid the maximum amount they’re willing to pay for unsold seats the day of the event and have that offer either rejected or accepted. After setting a record for consecutive sellouts, ticket sales at Bristol are so bad they serve as a canary in the coal mine for the sport. Heck, I remember an instance where a one member of a divorcing couple was charged with attempting to have his or her ex killed, so nasty was the dispute over who would retain rights to the Bristol season tickets.
But the sad reality of modern day NASCAR racing is it seems the drivers only go balls to the wall on the restarts and in the final ten to twenty laps of the race. That leaves vast stretches of tepid racing in the middle where drivers cruise and try to get themselves into the pit window to finish the race. Those sections of the race tend to lead to a mass exodus to the restrooms or to stand in line for a cup of overpriced lukewarm beer. Saturday at Bristol any fan who left for their seats for even ten laps for a pit stop missed a whole lot of good racing.
Perhaps fan perception of race length over value are about to start shifting. No less an authority than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came out this week in favor of shortening race distances and to channel Kenny Mayne Earnhardt remains very popular. Between bouts of self-flagellation after the race Kyle Larson went on to say “I think every race should be shorter in NASCAR. Shorter races just make for more intense racing. You look at the Truck Series and every race is pretty intense – when Kyle Busch isn’t in it.” Like I said Larson has seemingly chafed at constantly finishing behind Busch and being labeled the “Other White Kyle.”
I’m constantly testing the language limits here at Frontstretch. There’s one term I’ve told is verboten though it pops up incessantly amidst the candidates in this year’s election cycle and was in the common vernacular amongst the degenerates I grew up with. So to paraphrase I’ll use the term “crap sandwich” most often used in the old truism, “Life is like a crap sandwich. The more bread you have the less crap you have to eat.” So, imagine full current-length NASCAR races as a crap sandwich on a fluffy toasted Amoroso hearth baked round roll, crispy iceberg lettuce, fresh sliced red onion, tangy French dressing and of course the substance the sandwich is named for; fans who are demanding all races run at their current length seem to saying “give me a double helping of crap on mine, please.” For me, it’s a matter of “hold the crap and just serve me up the good stuff.” And that’s to go, please. I want to get out of here before the post-race traffic gets too bad.