1. Real Rivalries
A good race needs to combine close competition with a balanced field. Dominating performances are only fun for those who are fans of the dominant driver/team, so having a majority of cars capable of running well and challenging for the win (or at least a top five) seems ideal. The funny thing is that we’ve rarely (if ever) seen such a situation in NASCAR; back during the “good ol’ days,” you’d often have two or three cars on the lead lap with the rest trying to keep pace. As a fan, I’ve always been thrilled by races where any team truly has a chance of winning.
As a journalist, on the other hand, rivalries between two or three drivers make for good racing. Filtering the narrative of a race through the stories of a few drivers focused on out-running their direct rivals seems more natural. Maybe it’s a throwback to the stick-and-ball dichotomy of two teams competing for a victory. Toss in a third challenger, and suddenly the narrative assumes another level of relevance. Consider the Harvick/Busch/Truex trinity atop the Cup standings this season. We can follow the exploits of these three because they channel our attention in their dominant directions. We all love stories of the little-team-that-won, but we secretly desire dogfights among the two-or-three drivers who outrun the rest. Think Petty/Pearson or Earnhardt/Bodine, and you’ll see how much those narratives mean. – Mark Howell
2. An Air of Mystery
A good stock car race is like a good mystery novel. You choose to pick up the book or watch the race hoping for a few hours of entertainment. Perhaps for the first 50 laps or pages, it seems obvious who murdered the night watchman or who will win the race. Then bang, out of nowhere, the maid who found the body has an airtight alibi or the leader has a slow pit stop then compounds his error by getting a speeding penalty exiting the pits. On to the next obvious suspect or race leader until another unexpected plot twist brings another name to the forefront.
Add in another shocker, the witty detective who carries on his shoulder a Siamese cat is suddenly in a life or death struggle in the dark basement but his assailant escapes. Convinced it’s the butler, the detective focuses on him, or the leader starts lapping strong cars and it appears that he’s a shoe-in for the win until a late yellow scrambles the running order and a driver who has never been in contention all day goes with no tires on the pit stop and hangs on the last 10 laps against faster opponents to take the surprise win.
When I watch a race I want some surprises. I want to see the running order shaken up. I want to see drivers who have no love for one another squabble over a piece of real estate, bending some sheet metal in the process. Most of all I want to be entertained. It’s no mystery what’s wrong with stock car racing. It was Brian France in the boardroom with the balance sheet trying to wring every last dime he could out of the sport. Book him, Dan-o. Ain’t it hard when you discover that, he really wasn’t where it’s at? – Matt McLaughlin
3. It’s only human
Is there a human-interest angle? Maybe a driver has a past history of doing well at the track in a lower series, or a team has had particular success there in the past. Maybe a superteam is continuing an amazing streak, or an underdog team has a fantastic day. Passes for the lead relatively late in the race help, as does some attrition to shake up the field. On rare occasions, there are moments that clearly relate back to an earlier incident (Edwards-Keselowski at Talladega/Atlanta, Logano-Kenseth at Kansas/Martinsville, Hamlin-Elliott at Martinsville/Phoenix).
Weather-shortened races are usually a little bit of a letdown as to how the finish came about but can produce fantastic racing and surprise winners, which is fun. – Wesley Coburn
4. Variety is the spice of life… and racing
There’s definitely not a concrete definition of a “great race.” There are so many variables that can make a race good or bad. I’d say new and unexpected winners help make races good. The same guy winning every week makes racing bad. Lots of crashes might be good. Long green-flag runs without much drama is bad.
Lots of leaders throughout an event usually helps improve the entertainment, but on the other hand, if a driver is dominating a race and late caution comes out, then things might get dicey toward the end. In this case, it could be considered a bad race with a good ending. Everyone has their own definition of a good or bad race, and I suppose it all depends on if a fan is rooting for or against someone. The way I see it, any racing will always be better than no racing. Because then there’s nothing for race fans to talk about! – John Haverlin
5. No foregone conclusions
There are a lot of things that have to align to make a really great race. I want to see cars that can be made competitive by a team that makes smart decisions, but that takes a car that relies more on mechanical grip, a slick, worn track, day races, a tire that wears out, mechanical attrition. Give me a while and the list could grow to proportions not conducive to a couple of paragraphs. I want authenticity, and by that, I mean no convenient debris cautions late in the race, but sometimes that can lend itself to a blowout. The most recent example of a very solid race was probably the race at Chicagoland a couple of weeks ago. It was competitive and not contrived. Above all, nothing about any race should be a foregone conclusion. That takes away the excitement.
On a slight contradiction, I didn’t mind the All-Star plate package as much as some people, because it did allow cars to close on the leaders, which was fun to watch. NASCAR needs to find a way to do that without plates, and passing the leader was still an issue. The problem is how to keep the competition close without breeding wrecks, and that’s where plates will always be a problem. But at the same time, a race with no crashes at all is not what some fans want. There needs to be a balance of that risk.
Drivers rarely take risks these days. The bump-and-run seems to be a lost art, given over to the dump and run or drivers not willing to move anyone at all. There’s a time and place for the chrome horn and using it right is a skill many drivers do not have anymore.
I do think for fans, a lot of what makes a race “good” or not is based directly on who wins, or at least if their favorite driver is competitive. I have wondered if part of the reason fans are more critical of the races lately is that they have not replaced a retired favorite to the same degree of fandom. Without someone to really pull for, are they more critical of the action?
If your guy is moving up, it’s exciting, and if he’s falling back, it’s nerve-wracking, but you keep watching to see what he can do. Without that, does the sport as a whole lose something? I would argue that for many fans it does, and if the drivers aren’t as engaging and relatable as they once were, it contributes greatly to a lack of interest for some fans. If the race isn’t a nail-biter and your driver doesn’t have a chance, or if you don’t pull for anyone, in particular, to focus on and get excited over, what’s left? – Amy Henderson