Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch 5: Things NASCAR Fans Miss From ‘Back in the Day’

1. The short track mentality

Fans certainly have noticed the lack of the beating and bashing that once was commonplace on many tracks in recent years.  There are a couple of reasons why there might be less use of the chrome horn these days.  One of them is that it’s not usually necessary. Many of the tracks on the schedule are multi-groove, designed to make racing side-by-side easier… and they do. Bristol Motor Speedway is the perfect example. The bump and run used to be necessary because there was one narrow groove, and that’s no longer the case. Variable banking and different paving compounds have changed how tracks are built and repaved.

And then there’s the money factor. There are two completely different perspectives here that end up in the same place. The mid-tier and smaller teams live with the reality that racecars are expensive, and tearing up a car for a couple of positions can put a team a quarter million dollars in the hole. Unless circumstances conspire so they are racing for an unlikely win, coming home with a car in one piece is more important than a small handful of positions. The big teams, meanwhile, are in it to win it, and a small “adjustment” from contact on track can mean the difference at the end of the day. In both cases, the reward isn’t worth the risk for most of a race. In the closing laps, the gloves come off for the contenders, but wild and wooly all day long isn’t practical anymore.

2. Massive win totals

Look at most of the drivers near the top of the all-time wins list, and most of them are in the Hall of Fame, a fitting end for a brilliant career. Of 12 drivers with 50 or more wins, just one, Jimmie Johnson, is competing in Sprint Cup on a full-time basis, and one other, Jeff Gordon, recently retired and is doing some fill-in work. Other than Gordon and Johnson, Dale Earnhardt is the only other driver on that list to win a race within the last 20 years.  

While you’ll have a few drivers crack that hallowed ground – Kyle Busch is likely to get there – the competition is deeper than ever.  There are more and more teams capable of winning every week, and that makes dominance more difficult. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s probably a good one in that winning is as difficult as it ever has been. It will be interesting to see how many drivers pass the 50-win mark in the next era.

3. Just maybe

(Photo: Mike Neff)
Seeing these two cars fighting for the lead isn’t unpredictable. In fact, it’s expected. (Photo: Mike Neff)

It’s an interesting paradox: The Sprint Cup field is more competitive now than ever, with probably 15 teams capable of winning week in and week out, yet the idea that anyone can compete is an outdated one. Once upon a time, there was the feeling that if circumstances worked out just right, an unexpected winner could emerge. Different drivers might run inside the top 10 and even crack the top 5, even if they really didn’t have a chance to win. That’s what led to the illusion that they just might.

Now, the same teams make up the top 10 nearly every week and even most of the top 20 is relatively static. It’s part of why many fans long for those days. Anything could happen, or at least you could believe that it might.

4. The spice of life

NASCAR’s schedule, particularly at the Cup level, has lacked in variety for the last couple of decades. Short tracks and road courses have given way to tracks fans refer to as cookie-cutters because they could have been stamped down like cookie dough on the landscape. To be fair, the same thing happened in other sports as well, because dual-purpose stadiums are a good idea on paper.

In other sports, though, the trend has turned back the other way when it became apparent that baseball and football could play in the same establishment, but neither was at its best. That’s also true in racing. While it seems sensible to build a track that can host multiple series, if one of those racing series suffers as a result, the sense goes out the window.

Having more space for fans is meaningless if the fans are not taking up that space. NASCAR should be encouraging the construction of short tracks and other unique facilities rather than discouraging it with a locked-up schedule. And for the sake of the sport, the track owners should be on the same page. Sometimes selling more tickets at fewer facilities would make better use of their resources.

5. Real rivalries

The last real rivalry in NASCAR may well have been Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon in the late 1990s. Since then, the sport has been lacking in that kind of matchup, where the desire to beat the other is tempered by an equal measure of respect for that rival. Matt Kenseth/Joey Logano was not a rivalry last season. It lacked both the respect and the sustainability to be one. It was a spat at best.  

There was no respect, and in sports’ greatest rivalries, even fans have respect for the accomplishments of the rival. After all, it’s these that make their team’s accomplishments meaningful. True rivals aren’t simply about animosity and tit-for-tat brawls.  They’re about beating the other because knowing they did so means something. NASCAR has been without that for now going on 20 years, and may never see another real one, based on passion and respect. That might be the biggest shame of all.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Steve

How about one simple thing fans miss from back in the day: GOOD RACING!!
Every week Nascar went to a different, unique track, which tested the drivers ability and the teams to adjust to the track. That was part of the appeal of the sport. Now if you’ve seen one, you have seen them all pretty much. Yes I’m referring to the cookie cutters. Those tracks have contributed considerably to the downward spiral of the sport.

DoninAjax

“15 teams capable of winning week in and week out”

It’s more like 15 drivers on 3 teams!

DoninAjax

“Back In The Day” the 1980 Daytona 500 included Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant. All in one car teams. 42 cars started and 31 failed to qualify.

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