Discussion as to whether last week’s Vegas Cup race was a good one or a poor one did something that the race itself failed to do. It evoked passion.
As we discussed last week the hype about the (one of the new) race packages might have had some of our (and I include myself in that number) expectations set a bit too high. Lord knows some elements of the media did their damnedest to whip things up claiming fans were about to see something monumental and game-changing. I forget what network used to use the tagline “must see TV,” but most of the time that was a bunch of hype as well.
Some fans really lambasted the action or lack thereof at Vegas. They’d at least had a few good gulps of the NASCAR Kool-Aid and as it turned out not only did the emperor have no clothes he had a wee little winky as well.
Other fans felt it was a decent race or at the very least OK. And some hastened to add singing at the top of their lungs like that weird little girl in Annie how the sun was going to come out tomorrow if we all just gave the new rules package(s) a little time to mature.
Several drivers, most notably Joey Logano, seemed a bit baffled about how fans might not have liked the race. There were two passes for the lead in the final eight laps and the margin of victory was .236 seconds. The margin of victory at Atlanta was officially .218 seconds. And the MOV at Daytona this year was .138 seconds.
So taken purely on mathematics (greatly increasing the case I will get this wrong) the total margin of victory in the first three points paying Cup races of this year is under a second. Kevin Harvick won the 2018 Las Vegas Spring race by nearly three seconds. By comparison the joint was jumping this year, going round and round. (Hey a reeling and a rocking…..)
Brad Keselowski, the Moe of Penske’s Three Stooges, concurred saying he’d found the race very exciting. I would hope so. I think drivers tend to overlook they’re going 180 mph in tight traffic, inches from the wall. Yeah, I bet that holds your attention and then some, even if it ain’t much fun to watch from the cheap seats or the recliner.
Several drivers seemed to take an opposite view saying they hadn’t much cared for the race either. Either that or they were notably politically correct damning the new package with faint praise. Others were a bit more forthright as they licked the tasty, delicious NASCAR Kool-Aid off their lips and said things along the line of, “Hey if the fans enjoyed it, I’m all for it. And with a Rebel Yell they cried, more, more, more. While a lot of the rest of us went “snore, snore, snore.”
So does a somewhat exciting finish make up for an otherwise somnolent two hours and 35 minutes of racing?
I guess it’s what you consider makes a good race. (The very topic I am here to discuss this week though as usual I am taking my sweet old time about it.)
Take for instance two of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense. Both were rather routine movies until you got to the payoff in the final few minutes when you realized what you thought was happening wasn’t what was going on the whole time. (No spoiler alerts here, folks.) Compare that to the any of the good Star Wars films. Oh, things got rather tense and had you on the edge of your seat more than once but you knew, deep down in your heart, at the end of the film the good guys were going to win. You knew George Baily wasn’t going to lose his house or the bank. And nobody was going to burn a sled named Rosebud in Bedford Falls.
So does a surprise ending always make for a good race? Is it okay to sit through two and a half hours (yeah, I’m still beating that drum) of ordinary for five minutes of exceptional? Or would you prefer the racing action to be hot and heavy for most of the race until the second and third place cars wreck one another while racing and basically hand the leader the win on a tray with a wafer thin mint.
Some more snarky fans who liked the Vegas race cast shade on those who didn’t saying they were only dissatisfied because there were no big wrecks. In fact there were no “natural” caution flags at all at Vegas. (“Natural” doesn’t take into account the stage breaks which are “contrived” to put it politely. And when I have I ever not been polite?)
That’s a sore spot for me. I have spent the last several decades insisting that fans don’t go to the races hoping to see big wrecks any more than people go to Olympic swimming competitions hoping to see someone drown. I think ex-Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler said it best when he opined “the fans come to see the tamer put his head in the lion’s mouth, not to watch it get bitten off.”
Along the way I was forced to admit that there are in fact a (thankfully) small percentage of race fans who do in fact like big wrecks. Typically they were the folks who loved the plate races at Daytona and Talladega and they could be easily spotted as they hoisted beer cans above their heads revealing their badly sunburned guts. But I stick with my basic contention that 99 percent of fans don’t want to see any drivers get hurt.
I have been at multiple race tracks over the years where despite a 100,000-plus fans being in attendance, you could hear a pin drop after a bad wreck at least until the window net went down and track officials indicated everyone was OK. You want to see wrecks go to a demolition derby or any overpass over the Schuykill Expressway during rush hour.
So what else makes for a good race? As hinted at above at least part of it is fan’s expectations. When the circuit heads off to a track like New Hampshire most longtime fans aren’t expecting much. I have watched 1000s of races over the decades and processed a good deal of beer during some of them but the only race that ever put me to sleep was the September 2000 NHMS race when Jeff Burton led all 300 laps. That was the race that NASCAR decided to get even with angry fans and require restrictor plates at the track. It’s perhaps best remembered for Dale Earnhardt the original’s comments about kerosene rags, ants and candy-asses.
So what else makes for a good race? That depends if you are a race fan or a passionate fan of a driver. In days of distant pass drivers like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon would sometimes win three and four races in a row, often by landslide margins. To their fans those were excellent races. For those just there to see a good race, well not so much. In fact if one of those (or certain other drivers) won in a fender banging-tire smoking, fists shaking battle out of the fourth turn detractors of those drivers would tell you it was a lousy race anyway.
So that plays into it. Everyone loves a first-time winner whether they win by a lap or an inch. Most people appreciate a last lap pass even if they’d left the grandstands a half hour before it happened to beat traffic (or switched to reruns of HeeHaw at Grandma’s insistence.)
I’m still working on the exact details but I’ve come up with what I term “The Matt Factor” to gauge how good or bad a race is before the checkered flag flies. As I see it if there’s a two-second gap between first and second during a race, that’s a pretty clear sign it’s not a very good race. Recall when cars are traveling at 120 mph they are moving along at 175 feet per second, so a two second gap is 350 feet. That makes it unlikely the lead is going to swap hands any time soon. At 180 mph the cars are traveling 264 feet a second, A two-second gap is thus 528 feet, almost the length of two football fields. It’s not a matter if the second place driver can make a pass. It’s more a question if he can even see the leader anymore.
But the exciting racing isn’t always up front, someone will protest. You’ve got to watch what’s going on in the pack. Several of you felt the need to write me to remind me of that last week. First off, Cowgirl, this ain’t my first rodeo. I was likely following stock car racing since before you were housebroken and knew the difference between your unit and a pink Crayola, Buckaroo.
You’re going to preach at me about how to watch a race? Yeah, next up why don’t you teach Jerry Garcia how to play the guitar? Yes, I’m watching the racing in the pack. So the second indicator of the Matt Factor is when there’s 10 seconds or more between the leader and the tenth place car you’ve got a potential stinker on your hands. That’s more like formation flying than racing.
So how did Sunday’s Cup race in Phoenix measure up? Call it a mixed bag. By lap 22, there was already over a 10-second gap between leader Ryan Blaney and the 10th-place driver. But the driver running second in those early portions of the race, Kyle Busch, was never more than a second behind Blaney, and began reeling him slowly but surely. Finally on lap 36, Busch used lapped traffic to take the lead for the first time in the race.
At the race’s midpoint a plethora of cautions and varying pit strategies scrambled the field. Ever think that hearing “Johnson has the lead” would sound as strange as “Pass me that piano, Penelope?” (Those four laps Johnson led were the first turns he’d taken at the front this year and the first laps he’d led in a points paying race since Texas last November.) Towards the end of the race there was some drama as Busch began running down Blaney who had retaken the lead. Adding to the uncertainty were questions as to whether both or either driver could make the race distance on fuel.
But by that point the rest of the field was so far in the duo’s rearview mirror it was a two-car contest until both Blaney and Busch had to start backpedaling to save fuel. The official margin of victory Sunday was 1.259 seconds, actually the biggest gap on any of this season’s four points paying races, though before Busch backed off to save gas the gap had grown to close to four seconds. But as that old saw goes, “To finish first, first you must finish,” so there’s no blaming the driver of the No. 18 for backing off. All in all I’d say Sunday’s race was above average for this era though the bar for “average” has been set mighty low the last few years.
Is every race going to be great? In a perfect world, yes, but here in the real world, they never have been and never will be.
But the ratio of clinkers to classics is what keeps the sport’s fan base healthy and growing rather than disappearing and denying. And over the last decade and a half that ratio has been dropping like Billy DeLions on Christmas Eve in 1948 with a full moon over town.
So obviously I’ve got my Irish up this week, a natural state of affairs for the likes of me on a Daylight Saving’s Time weekend and a week till Saint Pat’s. But what got my blood pressure up this week is several notes I’ve gotten saying that I was “biting the hand that feeds me” pretty hard in writing that everything isn’t just swell in the Wide World of NASCAR. There does in fact seem to be a campaign afoot to get some elements of the media not to harsh on the racing quite so vocally if at all.
It’s just a matter of balls and strikes, folks. I may not always be right in my assessment of a race after the fact and folks who read what I have to say likely do not agree with everything I have to say. I’ve never claimed I’m always right, and I don’t suppose I ever will be.
But as long as there are folks who keep shopping this five and dime every Tuesday morning (and I thank you for that, by the way. Sorry about the crack about the crayons) I promise I’ll always be honest.