What makes for great racing? Is it close-quarters beatin’ and bangin’? A mix of strategy and engineering? How about fuel mileage? Is that too slow? Then how about pure, unadulterated speed?
Short tracks, road courses, intermediates, plate races: is any one type of track more conducive to great racing?
Based on television numbers, it would be easy to point toward restrictor plate tracks as being the most popular form of racing. Last weekend’s Daytona race saw a ratings increase of 26 percent over last year. Talladega, a couple of months ago, saw no increase in ratings, but no decrease either, a rarity in a sport that has seen sagging viewership over the past few years across most tracks.
People are tuning in to these races – a great boon for the sport – but for what reasons? Is it due to the racing itself or is it the thrill factor, waiting to see the inevitable big one(s) at Daytona and Talladega? Is relying on plate racing the best way to bring new fans into the sport, or should the focus be put elsewhere?
EARNHARDT SAID IT BEST: IT AIN’T RACING
After taking home what would be his final Talladega victory in 2000, Dale Earnhardt had this to say about plate racing: “this ain’t real racing.”
Stop for just a second and let that sink in. The second-most accomplished plate racer in terms of points-paying wins didn’t even recognize the racing as legitimate. If that doesn’t say something, I don’t know what will.
But there’s more to it than that. Fans, too, agree that plate racing isn’t the best type of competition out there. Jeff Gluck’s weekly Twitter poll shows that through 16 points-paying races this season (the Daytona 500 wasn’t included), the plate racing sits firmly in the middle of the pack. Talladega is number eight on the list with 77 percent of fans saying it was a good race. Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400? It ranks 13th, with only 52 percent of people finding the race favorable.
Both races were filled with action, lead changes and multiple crashes, including cars going airborne and one incident that ate up over half the field. That’s supposedly why people are tuning into these races, yet fans voting in the poll don’t rate them very well.
Which races, then, are considered the best this season? Dover (93 percent favorable), Sonoma (92 percent), Fontana (90 percent), Richmond (85 percent), Phoenix (81 percent). That’s a wildly diverse group there. Short tracks, long tracks, flat tracks, banked tracks, ovals and road courses.
What did they all have in common the first half of the season?
- Great racing. Dover saw an intense, three-way battle for the lead in the closing laps between veteran Matt Kenseth and young guns Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Sonoma wasn’t crash-marred at all but the action around the track was heated and a retiring Tony Stewart took the win. Fontana saw Jimmie Johnson – considered by many fans as the most vanilla driver on the circuit – taking the win but they still voted for it after the race on the wide, fast oval. Richmond got high marks following its first scheduled day race in decades – and a last-corner bump between teammates Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch certainly didn’t hurt. And Phoenix saw another close run to the checkered flag, this time with Edwards on the losing end of a battle with Kevin Harvick that resembled Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch’s finish at Darlington in 2003.
- Safe racing. All of the above-mentioned races weren’t rife with danger to drivers and fans, as plate racing tends to be these days. Larson and Danica Patrick both had hard impacts at Fontana, certainly, but other than those two wrecks the incidents were highlight-making but tame. Compare this to Daytona and Talladega this season – three airborne cars at Dega and the spectacular wreck at Daytona last weekend. Last year saw Austin Dillon end up in the catchfence, a successful test for driver and fan safety but leading many to wonder just how much more lucky could the sport get?
Plate racing shouldn’t be eliminated, but there needs to be some way to reduce some of the risk to drivers and fans. What that is, I don’t know. What is clear, though, is that there have been even better races in terms of competition and finishes – although that photo finish in the Daytona 500 certainly was exciting – in 2016 on non-plate tracks. Their peers have already vetted these races as good – using them to bring new fans into the sport should be the way to go.
DAYTONA AND DEGA: THE BEST NASCAR HAS TO OFFER
Ask anybody out on the street the question, “Can you name a NASCAR race?” and they are more than likely say the Daytona 500. Daytona is possibly the second most famous track in all of NASCAR, only being surpassed by Indianapolis. And Indianapolis, for the record, is not famous because of the usually boring Brickyard 400.
Even if the Daytona 500 isn’t factored in, the Coke Zero 400 is still one of the flagship events in NASCAR. On 4th of July Saturday, one of the toughest nights in television all year, the race still had more viewers than three FOX broadcasts earlier this season.
The other restrictor plate track, Talladega, has races that are among the few that have either held steady or even gained in ratings year-to-year. And Talladega itself is one of the most iconic tracks in NASCAR, featuring nearly 50 years of close races and eventful, if not colorful, history. Hall of Fame driver Bobby Isaac parking his car because of “a voice,” Bill Elliott setting the all-time fastest lap in NASCAR qualifying history, Dale Earnhardt coming from 18th to first in five laps to for his final victory, and many first time winners over the years are just some of the highlights.
Both Daytona and Talladega are institutions. NASCAR can’t get rid of even one race from either facility. Even if the racing sucks, any race held at either track will always be newsworthy.
Plate races are the great equalizers as well. Sure, drivers such as Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are usually out front, but then there are drivers like Casey Mears who can run near the front with a fraction of the resources. Michael McDowell got a top 10 with Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing last week. How many times has that been written on this website?
As far as racing quality goes, the racing is great right now… behind the leader. If NASCAR can figure out how to stop the lead car from taking all the momentum from the cars behind them by blocking, they could really have something with this package. Kyle Larson passed 438 cars last week under the green flag. Compare that to Michigan a few weeks ago, where the same driver passed only 42 under the green flag. That’s complete insanity!
Finally, there’s no defending the safety record at Daytona or Talladega. Many, many people have been injured or have lost their life competing at these tracks. But nobody has passed away during a Cup race since 2001, and plenty have been injured in other races. Ricky Rudd, for example, separated his shoulder and had to miss five races in his final season in 2007 and Denny Hamlin broke his back in 2013, both at Fontana.
There is certainly a chance at there being a terrible, horrible accident. But that’s the risk drivers have always accepted, and that’s not just a problem at plate races. Look at Keselowski’s flip at Atlanta in 2010, or Mark Martin’s pit road accident at Michigan in 2012. Keselowski’s accident showed just how easy it can be to flip while not at Daytona or Talladega, and Martin’s accident was only a couple of inches from at best a very, very serious injury.
There was a slightly higher chance of there being a bad wreck or an injury last week than this week. But let’s not pretend that it’s sunshine and lollipops on non-plate tracks. I’d take the increased prestige, better ratings, and better racing at Talladega over a slightly safer but much more boring and missable race at Kansas.