Did You Notice? … NASCAR winners aren’t just squeaking into Victory Lane — they’re rolling over their competition. Three of five races in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season have been won by 2.5 seconds or more. Martin Truex Jr. coasted to the win at Auto Club Speedway by nearly 12 seconds Sunday; only 10 cars finished on the lead lap.
It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen in both the MENCS and XFINITY Series since Daytona. Check out the finishes in each division over the past month:
Atlanta Motor Speedway
MENCS Winner: Kevin Harvick (led 181 of 325 laps, 55.6 percent). The margin of victory was 2.690 seconds, and only 13 cars finished on the lead lap. Without a late caution for Trevor Bayne’s incident, that number might have been as small as five.
XFINITY Winner: Harvick (led 141 of 163 laps, 86.5 percent). He led all but three of the final 124 circuits while cruising to a 4.1-second margin of victory. Just seven cars (think about that, considering how short the XFINITY races are) wound up on the lead lap.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
MENCS Winner: Harvick. (led 214 of 267 laps, 80.1 percent). The No. 4 car typically lost the lead only during a cycle of green-flag stops. The 2.906-second margin of victory was deceiving; just nine cars wound up on the lead lap.
XFINITY Winner: Kyle Larson (led 142 of 200 laps, 71 percent). The No. 42 car stuck itself out front consistently over the second half of the race, holding off Christopher Bell after a late caution that left 17 cars on the lead lap.
MENCS Winner: Harvick. In easily the most competitive race outside Daytona International Speedway, Harvick led just 38 laps and held off Kyle Busch by .774 seconds. 15 cars finished on the lead lap.
MENCS Winner: Truex (led 125 of 200 laps, 62.5 percent). Once Truex passed Busch during stage three, that was all she wrote as the No. 78 cruised to that nearly 12-second margin of victory. But not only were 10 cars on the lead lap at the end, just three drivers led more than one circuit: Truex, Busch (62) and Joey Logano (nine).
XFINITY Winner: Logano (led 139 of 150 laps, 92.7 percent). Logano was dominant and raced out to a 1.4-second margin of victory despite the final caution ending eight laps from the finish. Consistent yellows in stage three did leave 22 cars on the lead lap, a season best since Daytona, but many were well off the pace of the leaders.
Now, racers have dominated events since the beginning of time – that’s nothing new. Heck, Cale Yarborough led all 500 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway back in March 1973.
But what’s different in this modern NASCAR age is the focus on parity. So much of the 2018 storyline has been NASCAR inspectors vs. NASCAR teams to ensure everyone has an equal chance at success (See: cars failing to get through tech inspection before qualifying). But at a time where the gray area is virtually nonexistent, making it near impossible to find an edge clean air is still producing domination up front.
Race fans also respond to sustained success differently than other sports fans. If Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are bidding for four straight titles, people want to see history made. Even the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which won its opening-round NCAA tournament game by 88 points, attracts an audience.
Harvick going for four straight wins? Yawn.
Part of that is what attracts fans to racing in the first place: side-by-side competition. Harvick rolling the field by seconds at a time, facing limited challengers, isn’t exactly riveting television. When the UConn women dominate, they’re playing at a whole other level. That other level you see Harvick and the No. 4 car performing at on TV is akin to a car blowing by you on the highway and pulling away.
The NASCAR playoff system, which virtually locks in race winners six-to-seven months before the postseason, doesn’t help either. While Harvick is racking up those points that are helpful in the charge to Homestead-Miami Speedway, fans know he’s earned a spot in September. So how much does the third, fourth, fifth win matter to those who aren’t already obsessed with Harvick?
No, what attracts racing fans into the stands is parity, the risk/reward of side-by-side competition and fender-rubbing excitement. It’s why Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway still have restrictor plates and almost every NASCAR fan universally loves this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.
The cookie-cutter tracks, when one driver pulls away from the pack, fail to provide those perks. So it’s no surprise that one of NASCAR’s problems as of late is getting people to pay attention for the entire race. It has to find a way to eliminate the clean air advantage on larger tracks to the point where the leader is literally on another planet.
You also have to feel for the sanctioning body; NASCAR can’t win. These dominating performances turning fans off are what likely led to a lot of the questionable debris cautions fans hated in recent years. It’s great officials are letting the race play out, attacking one of the symptoms of their illness. No one likes to feel the sporting event they’re watching is being manipulated.
Now it’s time to work on the core problem. If inspection is supposedly air tight, how can we fix this aero advantage so it doesn’t seem like every cookie-cutter track is going to produce a cakewalk victory?
Did You Notice? … How little qualifying means nowadays? It’s no secret many of the 13 MENCS teams who failed to make an attempt at Auto Club Speedway were fine with it. While track position is still important, there’s no risk of failing to qualify. So starting 30th with sticker tires, armed with a setup where you can drive to the front, doesn’t hurt a guy like Jimmie Johnson as much.
That’s why I applaud NASCAR for its XFINITY Series rule the next day, likely applied to the MENCS at Martinsville: a pass-through penalty after the start of the race for anyone who fails pre-qualifying inspection. Combining post-qualifying and pre-race inspection will also tone down on the failures. I agree the storyline of “teams not legal,” over and over again, does nothing but hurt the sport.
But we should go a step further. We’re awarding NASCAR playoff points already for performance in the regular season standings. How about playoff points for who earns the most poles? Or even bigger stakes: an automatic postseason bid? That would thrust guys like Alex Bowman into the mix in an altogether different way. Bowman, who may spend the season on the playoff bubble with struggling Hendrick Motorsports, would have another chance to make the field.
Amping up the stakes in qualifying could also result in some fan excitement again. It used to be that 15 years ago, the fear of a dreaded DNQ would keep fans on their toes and teams giving 110 percent. But the top 35 rules, and later, the charter system, eliminated those fears. Even when 41 cars show up, most people aren’t tuning in to see if Carl Long Racing misses the field (sorry, Carl).
So why not give bonus points, then, to the pole winners. Award a NASCAR playoff point per pole and then an automatic bid to the guy with the most. Otherwise, I fear as time goes on qualifying will keep diminishing in importance.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Hendrick Motorsports wins the award of biggest disappointment to start 2018, but Roush Fenway Racing is a clear runner-up. Five races in, it has no top-10 performances and Trevor Bayne has failed to finish twice. Keep in mind this slump is happening with the Ford Fusions that have (mostly) run circles around the competition in 2018. Bayne in particular is already 47 points out of a postseason spot and may be a driver on the hot seat as the season progresses.
- Also without a top-10 finish? Jamie McMurray, although his seat at Chip Ganassi Racing is a bit safer. McMurray could easily win at a track like Talladega in a month or so and turn his season around completely.
- Is Truex on the way to getting the last laugh? The talk at Daytona was how behind the No. 78 team was to start the season. Consolidation from two cars to one, many feared, would hurt it with information sharing. An offseason of media obligations would leave them trailing the other top contenders. Instead? He’s got four top-five finishes since Daytona, including Sunday’s Auto Club win, and is now leading the points. Compare that to last season, where Truex ran in the top five only twice, sat third in points after five races and was hardly referred to as the intermediate track dominator he is now. The No. 78 team, albeit quietly, might be in the catbird’s seat to battle Harvick in the postseason once again.