Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside The Rising Tide: What’s A Good Race?
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside The Rising Tide: What’s A Good Race?

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.

Support Frontstretch on Patreon

About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

Check Also

Fire on Fridays: You Don’t Have to Compare Richard Petty and Kyle Busch

Richard Petty is “The King” for a reason. His 200 wins in Cup series competition …

15 comments

  1. Avatar

    What makes a good race? Have the tv cameras scan the RACE. Too many individual camera shots, in car cameras do not show a race. Perhaps Fox directors need to be taught the definition of a race ( 2 or more cars trying to pass one another). Sounds simple but Fox does not understand. Plus old DW is just as annoying as ever. Have texted some of the advertisers telling them I’m not watching the whole race because of the above noted complaints. They are wasting their money.

  2. Avatar

    Anytime the punk wins is a boring race to me!! I have no use for toyota or bush!! Sooner or later they are going to lose me!! And I have been attending and a fan since 1957!! Yep I’m an old man..

    • Avatar

      We’re not old. We’re experienced. With memories of how it used to be.

      Now I have a chore to do…splishin’ and a-splashin, movin’ and a-groovin’….

  3. Avatar

    Since I record the race and watch it later in the evening, I judge a race by how much I fast forward through chunks of it. The quicker I make it through a race, the worse it is. That said, I’ve watched way too many 60-minute races. The race at Phoenix took me about two hours to watch, and most of stage two was a FF blur, but overall it was a little above average.

    So…Bad Brad is Moe? Not sure what that’s supposed to mean…

    • Avatar

      “Moe is their leader.”-

      Homer Simpson.

      • Avatar

        Leave it to Homer to be the voice of intellect…

        • Matt

          As noted, Moe is usually the guy in charge although he normally leads the threesome into another misadventure.Larry, in this case Logano, tries to offer some alternative plan but usually gets a pie in the face for his efforts. That leaves Curly as Ryan Blaney though they have very different hairstyles.
          Simply put the three Penskle teammates never seem to work together the way they Gibbs drivers and the Hendrick drivers do even when it would be to the Penske drivers mutual advantage to work as a team. I don’t think Keselowski races anyway as hard as Logano. Middle Child Syndrome?

          No, no, after you. I insist. Sucker. Wham! Why you! I oughta! Cue up the pies.

          One of our local UHF stations used to play three hours of Three Stooges episodes that led right up to race time some weekends, At least back then I was guaranteed three hours of quality entertainment every Sunday which is more than I can say about NASCAR races as of late. So, a wise guy, huh?

  4. Avatar

    Matt, always love your take on races! I think there are many issues with NASCAR at this point. The first is: they have forgotten that the fans are the key to the success of the sport. If we aren’t happy, we don’t watch, we don’t follow, we don’t buy.

    TV coverage is skewed toward the leaders and whichever driver’s sponsor is favored, or who got the most press coverage this week. Both NBC and FOX commentators repeat themselves so much they sound like imbeciles. They get stuck on one thought and won’t let it go for the entire race, whether or not it makes sense. They do not adequately describe the action on the track or in the pits. They’re trying too hard to entertain us with blather and gimmicks when all we want is to see and hear the race. There may be action on the track and in the pits, we just don’t see it.

    I agree with Bill B, tires that wear out earlier would improve racing action and cause natural cautions as well as strategic pit stops.

    It’s sad that I now DVR the race and check to see who won before I watch, especially the boring cookie cutter tracks. We tend to fast forward through the race, stopping now and then if there’s something interesting happening. Time was that I would never miss a moment of any race, no matter who was the winner.

    NASCAR racing has changed, and certainly not for the better.

  5. Avatar

    First off, Penske’s Three Stooges? Please explain. Secondly I’ve come to the point of using the DVR function more than ever lately when it comes to races. Set that baby and go do something other than sitting in front of the TV for hours. I make sure I set it for any run over which is more times than not in case I go somewhere. If I’m home I’ll turn on the race when it’s nearing the end and watch the finish. Then go back and zip through the entire race. Don’t have to listen to the Waltrips or watch State TV commercials for their Stooge’s nightly programs. I can stop at times to check where my driver is in the running order or check if or when there are any pit errors or controversy. So there you go Matt. Do the same and jump on that motorcycle and go out and make some noise. You do ride a Harley right? DVR, the best invention since sliced bread.

    • Avatar

      I second that!!!! Why did he call them the 3 Stooges? Salty no doubt, but for what reason? But then again as a female, I don’t watch reruns of the 3 Stooges. Never did. So I really don’t know a thing about them. Not my brand of “humor”.

  6. Avatar

    I watch the intervals and movement throughout the field on the leaderboard and when lap after lap it doesn’t change much then that is a big indicator of how good a race is. I don’t necessarily need lots of changes for the lead but there has to be movement up and down among the participants. While there are drivers I like and dislike, I am no longer a fan of any one driver so I really don’t care who wins that much (although I do have my preferences). So I think that helps me be a little more objective when watching a race as to it’s entertainment value.

    As for cautions, as a general rule I like 2 or 3 legitimate cautions during the race (stage breaks don’t count). Those cautions don’t need to be for wrecks, they can be for engine, parts or tire failures but cautions do create some added drama and the opportunity for interesting developments. However I am OK with a few races a year having no cautions and likewise I am OK with the majority of the field being lapped once or twice a year.

    For the record I thought the only “dud race” so far this year has been Vegas. The other 3 have been average but not necessarily memorable and, quite honestly, that’s business as usual. Not every race is going to be that great today or 30 years ago even though people would swear that’s not the case.

    I have come to the conclusion that if Goodyear could bring a tire that wears out before the fuel window it would greatly increase the probability that races would be more interesting to watch. On long runs the fastest cars at the beginning may not be all that great at the end. That creates natural movement on the leaderboard throughout the race as some fade and others come on.

    BTW, are the “notes” you’ve gotten warning you not to bite the hand that feeds from readers, Frontstretch peers or NASCAR itself. It doesn’t seem like most comments readers leave are too critical of your musings and I can’t imagine Frontstretch caring as long as you get readers/clicks, so that leave the heavy hand of NASCAR.

  7. Avatar

    I have to believe that a big part of how viewers react to a race is what the TV camera decide to show us…and how the booth presents the action, not necessarily in the front of the pack. There are always going to be races that get so strung out that it’s not a thrill ride, we know that. But at least if you’re attending, you can choose where to put your focus. Maybe TV has just forgotten that every car on the track has SOME fans, somewhere? One of the reason that Bristol used to be a sellout for 25 years is that there was ALWAYS action going on somewhere, even if it was trying to deal with lapped traffic. Didn’t have to wreck, but the art of the bump and run made things interesting. If all you see are tight shots of single cars running alone, how is that supposed to get viewers excited? I really don’t care about the view from the helmet cam. If I wanted to be in the driver’s seat I would pony up for a driving experience. Spending so much time in the cockpit doesn’t do much for me. And a bumper cam shot while a pass is happening just kills it. Time for Fox to figure out how to cover a race and PUT some of the excitement back where it belongs.

  8. Avatar

    i always look forward to your tuesday read.

    what makes a good race….first is someone who can sing the national anthem and know all the words!

    i’m adult enough that if i get bored watching a race, i can find something else to do while checking back. as with last year seems that i can check back with 20 or so laps to go and still figure out what has happened.

    i watched some of the irl race on sunday too. they keep hinting that nascar needs to be ran on a street course. i don’t know about that. i think about that now as i drive on 285 in atlanta which circles the city and come up on one of the numerous pot-hole areas where chunks of concrete are missing from the weight of the trucks that use the road. some are enough to rattle fillings. i could not see one of those sleek engineered cars running into that. talk about upsetting the balance of the car.

    have a good week, and be safe when you celebrate your heritage on sunday!

  9. Avatar

    Your unfiltered comments is what I look forward to on Tuesday morning – whether I agree or disagree. Not too many straight shooters anymore (nod to David Poole).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *