Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR Saves the Universe 
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR Saves the Universe 

I guess I’ve gotten a bit slovenly in cleaning out my inbox at the end of every hard day’s night. Time-to-time I’ve been told I can be a bit obtuse. Well, I’ve been told I can be a bit obtuse more than I’ve been told I tend to be oblong anyway. 

I’ve also been told in matters of great import or great complexity that it takes a long time to turn around a big boat. I somehow missed the newsflash that NASCAR’s two new “packages” have fixed everything that’s been wrong with racing over the last decade or so. To recap, those packages are being commonly referred to as the 550 (as in horsepower) package and the 750 package. The 750 package is used on oval tracks of less than 1.2 miles in length and the road courses, while the lower horsepower package is used on the bigger ovals. Put aside a somewhat surprising dichotomy here. If you are well-heeled (and potentially suicidal), you can visit your local Jeep sales emporium and buy a Jeep SUV with as much horsepower as NASCAR stock cars are running on the speedways. Your mileage may vary. 

There’s more to the two packages beyond those tapered spacers that limit horsepower. There’s an aerodynamic component to the two packages as well that involves ducting and where the air off the front of the race cars exhausts itself under the hood or in the front wheel-wells. The one package also involves an almost comically large rear blade spoiler, so tall the upper portion has to be rendered in clear plexiglass so those cars drivers can get a glimpse of what’s going on behind them in preparation for them to throw another block, and for Brad Keselowski not to lift when they do it to him.

Even as awkward as those new spoilers are, they still aren’t the visual affront that those on the “Car Of Horror (Tomorrow)” were. Those Gen 5 (5.5?) cars featured rear wings that looked like something pirated out of the closeout bin at the local Pep Boys intended to be mounted on the back of a Honda CRX, Civic, Corolla, or some other implement of automotive mediocrity. 

Here’s the startling part: These two packages have made the racing better than it ever has been before, creating a virtual Nirvana for the race fans who have almost universally embraced the 550 and 750 packages. Oh, some of the drivers weren’t too quick to get on board. They said nasty, unnecessary and unpleasant things about the packages. They said the packages made passing all but impossible. They said the new cars eliminated the importance of driver skill in turning fast laps and reduced the field to the least common denominator.

Kyle Busch was particularly pointed in some of his comments despite grabbing up trophies like a fat kid goes through M&M’s. But we all know how churlish Kyle can be on occasion (like when he opens his mouth, for instance).

What do the drivers know anyway? They are only out there driving race cars. They are not watching someone else drive race cars and enduring a ninth KFC ad in less than an hour. Besides, by and large, the drivers have now gotten aboard the Narnia Express. Or at least they’ve been less vocal and loud in their complaints having realized it won’t do them a damn bit of good, and that those same NASCAR officials that they’re ragging on are the guys who get to decide when a tire is outside of an arm’s length from a crew member during a pit stop.

Now, they tend to say things along the line of “It is what it is. I just go out there and drive the car the best I can. Nobody gives a damn about my opinion so I’ll stop sharing it.” This is what my buddies would call “less than a ringing endorsement.” And drivers can be quite good at endorsing things, particularly their sponsors. That’s how they make the big bucks. 

I was caught quite unaware what a huge percentage of NASCAR’s fan base has embraced the new packages as the greatest thing since pop-top beer cans and SUVS with hatchbacks that pop open automatically when you kick their rear bumpers. I expected it would take a few more tweaks to the packages, tires and tracks before the racing improved noticeably. But apparently I was wrong. I mean I’m only going by emails I receive, comments on my and other writers’ columns, and the occasional chat at the local ale house or grocery store with like-minded individuals. Apparently, I need to spend more time on this Tweeter thing. I’m somewhat apprehensive to do so.

When I visit various sites alleged to be run by loyal NASCAR fans, I am not seeing the universal adoration for the new packages. I’m not even sensing that fans have finally come to their senses and embraced stage racing, built-in breaks during the races to allow the networks to wedge in yet another commercial break or to send fans scurrying from the grandstands to the concession stands. That’s worrisome. It is, after all, our duty as consumers, viewers and sheep to blindly adhere to and endorse anything that benefits one of the big four TV networks. They’re paying a lot more to be in the game than we are, so in the infamous words of Eddie Gossage, General Manager of Texas Motor Speedway, “shut up and race.” 

So how did I unearth this seismic reversal in fans’ attitude towards NASCAR? Blame that Tweeter thing. There are suddenly a whole bunch of newer Twitter accounts that are like the open range in that seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day (except perhaps in Daytona Beach in July). And that’s cool. My guess is Twitter was invented to let people with varying opinions on varying topics discuss their views between calling each other horrible names, expressing toxic opinions and banning one another. 

On the pro-NASCAR side of Twitter, Steve O’Donnell seems to be the ringmaster of Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. There are other shiny, happy, people websites as well, including a new one that caught my attention called “33 Lead Changes.”  Odd thing is there hasn’t been a single race this NASCAR season with 33 lead changes (there were 38 at Talladega, not 33). To be fair, if you add up the lead changes at Cup races in Martinsville, Richmond, Sonoma and the Daytona 500, you do in fact get 33 lead changes.

But the inestimable Mr. O’Donnell has done the research and found out the reason for the fans’ increased enthusiasm toward this year’s NASCAR racing has to do with the fact there are many more lead changes. Oodles of them to be exact. What was somewhat lacking in that statement was any sort of statistic to back it up, you know like the actual amount of lead changes in this year’s Cup series versus the amount of lead changes at this point in the season last year. Call me cynical, but when hit with surprising information not backed by hard and fast statistics, I tend to mutter “bull-feathers” or something to that effect. I’ve always wanted to speak directly to that one dentist who didn’t recommend Trident to his patients who chewed gum somewhat fearful he might have taken up residence in a slab of concrete in the Meadowlands alongside Jimmy Hoffa. As it turned out, some other researcher was already barking up that same tree. Based on her research, it turns out that dentists by an overwhelmingly huge percentage strongly recommended that their patients not chew gum at all and enjoy some healthier snack as an alternative. 

So I did a little digging on the internet, which I’m now convinced won’t be a passing fad after all. I went to Racing-Reference.info and pulled up each race over the last couple years. That site offers not only the number of lead changes during a race but a chart of on what lap those lead changes occurred and which two drivers swapped the lead. All very handy stuff. Somewhat to my surprise, there’s some validity to the statement there have in fact been more lead changes in some of this year’s race versus the same event last year, particularly on the 1.5-mile-type tracks often referred to as the “cookie cutters” as they took over such a large percentage of NASCAR’s schedule. 

By my counting, in the first 19 Cup races of 2019 (up through and counting Kentucky Speedway but not New Hampshire Motor Speedway), there have been 391 passes for the lead. At this same point during the 2018 season there had been 304 lead changes. One figure I saw in an article claimed that there were 31.8 passes for the lead average this Cup season so far. Umm … no. That would be a total of 572 plus passes for the lead, not 391. 

Comparing individual races at various tracks, in some cases, the difference between the two events isn’t significant. For instance, there were 23 lead changes at Chicago this year as opposed to 24 last year. At the Firecracker 400, the totals were 24 last year as opposed to 25 this year. Other differences were quite significant (Texas: 26 this year versus 16 last year; Kansas: 23 this year versus 13 last year; Michigan: 28 this year versus just nine last year). Perhaps most significantly, at Charlotte there were  30 passes for the lead this year as opposed to just nine in 2018. (Historically there’s been on average somewhere between mid-teens and mid-30s when it comes to passes for the lead at Charlotte over the last couple decades. The most ever at a Charlotte points race was 54 in a race won by Darrell Waltrip back in 1979. The nine lead changes last year matched the least ever in the Charlotte May event.) 

In some instances, there were significantly less lead changes this year than at the same event run last year. The 2018 Daytona 500 featured 24 lead changes to this year’s 15. Martinsville this year only had three changes for the lead as opposed to 11 last year. Richmond had eight this year as opposed to 16 last year. 

Going back further in the archives reveals that in some cases, there will be more lead changes than others, often if not usually without any concurrent changes to the cars or rules meant to increase the drama of the races. It would seem overall that there tend to be less passes for the lead since the current playoff method of determining a champion was introduced and revised, meaning perhaps the drivers are racing differently with an eye toward a year-end goal not just winning that day’s race. 

One thing is inarguable: Over the last few years there have been way less caution flags during Cup races annually. A few years back, things were getting way out of hand. The caution flag often flew for something as innocuous as a hot dog wrapper or soda straw well out of the racing groove. Conspiracy theorists sometimes labeled those cautions “Johnson Cautions,” “Earnhardt Cautions” or “Gordon Cautions” based on which driver those fans felt benefited unfairly from an unnecessary caution right when they were about to go a lap down or desperately needed a pit stop to avoid running out of fuel or for new tires. 

It was an issue that greatly incensed fans, and to its credit, NASCAR has gotten a little less trigger happy throwing yellows. Perhaps the stage breaks have helped in that regard as I often felt some of those bogus caution flags used to fly when the presenting network really wanted to get a station break in. 

Now what NASCAR needs to do is work on being consistent as to when to throw a yellow. They seem to take into account when a timely caution might benefit the majority of the field or the quality of the race (say for instances when there’s only three or four cars left on the lead lap or the event is turning into a fuel mileage contest, not a race with a lesser known driver having the edge over the favorites). However good their intentions might be, there’s no room for that sort of thinking in the decision making process if NASCAR is going to be considered a top tier sport and not the WWE on Wheels.  

Week to week and even during the course of the same race, there’s too much inconsistency in what will or won’t bring out the caution. A driver gets sideways and tags the wall but gathers up his car and drives on undaunted if not undented. Some weeks that will draw a caution, other weeks it will not. Some weeks they’ll throw a caution for a piece of roll-bar tubing off to the side of the racing line, and other weeks it would need to be an anvil in the center of the racing line. When a race threatens to run long or weather is threatening, it will likely take a dozen cars upside down and on fire to draw a caution. 

More properly, the caution flag should only be thrown when a driver in a wrecked or mechanically crippled car finds himself stopped in such a position there is a good possibility another driver rolling onto the scene full chat will strike the other race car, endangering both drivers. Cautions are also absolutely necessary any time track safety personal must enter the track to attend to a potentially injured driver. 

But to some at least some degree, the lesser amount of cautions also artificially ups the “passes to the lead” stat. How so? Stick with me here a minute, as this is tough sledding until you think it through. About forty laps into race with an 80 lap long first stage Driver A is leading Driver B who is in second. It’s not a particularly competitive race and gap between Drivers A and B is several seconds. Fans in the stands have started to collectively yawn. Driver A’s crew chief has decided on a strategy where he will pit his driver halfway through each stage. Thus driver A surrenders the lead and peels off into the pits. Driver B takes the lead. That is counted as a lead change though it wasn’t a skillful move or particularly exciting to watch. When Driver A returns to the track, Driver B notes his nemesis is over a second a lap faster on fresh rubber. He can’t afford to give up a second a lap, so Driver B pits out of the lead, handing the lead spot to driver C on a platter. Again, no drama, no tempers flaring, no fenders bent and no fingers flashing. Just strategy. Then driver C pits, handing the lead to driver D. We’ve now had three changes for the lead in four laps but nobody in the grandstands is standing up and cheering “the action.” 

Naturally, the drivers do not surrender the lead in alphabetical order from Almirola to Zanardi. But as the green flag sequence of pit stops plays out, there are many passes for the lead but very little action. So you’ve got your 33 lead changes but what you’ve also got is a tedious race utterly without redeeming value. If those green flag pit sequences continue all day, what you have is a whole lot of lead changes but minimal drama. Perhaps somewhere in there a valid caution does fly. Say someone’s little red “Make America Great Again” cap has been blown off their heads in the grandstands and landed on the track where it’s in danger of getting run over by a race car. The leader dives to pit road but has a slow stop. Another driver leaves pit road ahead of the former leader. So maybe there was just that one lead change. Or perhaps some other team or teams decided since they can’t make it from that point forward without at least one more stop they’re not going to pit at all. So that driver goes from 16th and an also-ran to the point. Lead change.

What I, and I believe most fans actually want to see, is Driver B in second using either a superior car, superior driving ability, or some combination of both to pass Driver A in the lead. 

If Driver A then digs down to the depths of his talent and sails his car into the fourth turn on a wing and a prayer (and a badly worn set of Goodyears) to retake the lead, so much the better. Or perhaps best of all, Driver A knocks Driver B sideways trying to retake the lead, they both spin and Driver C comes out of nowhere to take the win by inches coming out of turn 4. That’ll get the fans hollering and buying up souvenir T-shirts. 

Yes, the finish at Chicago was a good one. It was very enjoyable to watch Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson duke it out, particularly for people who had no dog in the fight. The fact that fans were slobbering all over themselves and labeling that race an “instant classic” (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) is a pretty clear indicator that sort of finish is not only no longer the norm in NASCAR racing, it’s a once in a blue moon happenstance. 

So maybe the bright shiny happy people on Tweeter are right. Maybe the fans are becoming re-energized and re-engaged. The proof isn’t going to be in whether the pessimists or the optimists post more tweets, it’s going to be evident in ticket sales and TV ratings. I know a lot of tracks have removed substantial amounts of seats. I can’t recall any track adding additional seats lately. 

The TV ratings for last week’s race at Kentucky were a 1.2, a new low for a points-paying Cup race that wasn’t delayed by weather. I’m watching to see if a race this summer actually falls below the 1.0 ratings point and my guess is at least one will. The way I had it explained to me is a 1.5 rating is about what you’d get from bored housecats rolling around on the sofa and accidentally triggering the remote. 

Though I didn’t see an official figure discounting the bored housecats, that’s about 2 million fans who tuned in to watch the Kentucky race. That’s always confused me. NASCAR has stated (multiple times, usually in prospectuses given to potential sponsors) that there are 50 million NASCAR fans in America. That’s roughly one in every six Americans. But what exactly is the criteria for being a NASCAR fan? It would seem to me watching most if not all races in the Cup series would be a requirement. I’ve never watched a professional soccer game in my life. Am I being counted as a soccer fan simply because the Philadelphia Union plays in the closet major city near me? (Oddly enough in Chester, not Philadelphia.) 

Like I said, I have little use for bold statements absent some proof of their validity. Back when I was still naïve enough to fill out personal information forms to register with a new website under “hobbies and interests,” sometimes NASCAR would be listed. I’d dutifully click that box. Of course I’d usually check “sailboarding” as well though I don’t have a sailboard and have never ridden one. If I am at the shore and I see some people sailboarding in the harbor or the sea, I’ll watch a few moments, but don’t count me as a diehard adherent of the nation’s fastest growing new sport. You’re not going to sell a lot of fried chicken to me if you’re counting on me watching a sailboarding competition. 

Perhaps some new forms are needed:

Question 1: What is your level of interest in NASCAR racing?

  • A) Make time every week to watch Cup race and usually the truck and NXS races as well.
  • B) Watch most Cup races if I’m not tied up.
  • C) Watch an occasional Cup race still, and if I miss one I’ll search online or in the paper to see who won.
  • D) If there’s absolutely nothing else on I’ll sometimes watch part of a race because it tends to promote good napping.
  • E) Zero interest in the sport any longer.

I’d only count respondents who selected A or B to come up with a new and more accurate look at how many of us fans are left.

NASCAR’s Steve Phelps is very impressed with the quality of the Cup racing this year. I know this because he said so on Tweeter, and if you see it on Tweeter it has to be true. He seems a bit confused that some fans don’t agree with his assessment. He notes that the racing he’s seen this year passes “the eyeball test.” 

But as they say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Someone looking at the photos of the new Gen 8 Corvette might say that it’s prettier than the 1967 model, right Stevie? By the way, how’s your health lately Mr. Wonder? 

Rather than the “eyeball test,” I’ve always used the sniff test. When it comes to an assertion NASCAR racing is currently better than it’s ever been and can’t be improved on any further thanks to the stage racing, playoffs and the 550/750 packages, well, I’m smelling something you might expect to from the south end of a bull facing north after a long day’s grazing. 

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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.

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10 comments

  1. Avatar

    I was a diehard fan who seldom missed a televised race and attended at least one race per year.
    I have become bored with NASCAR and the spoiled brats who drive them. (Most…not all are spoiled brats)
    I want horsepower… I want competition…. I want personalities….. I miss the wild west days of NASCAR.
    Black hats and White hats….

  2. Avatar

    NASCAR needs to name the mile and a half track package the Matt McLaughlin package. aka long and boring

  3. Avatar

    B.5- Will absolutely watch if it is on regular tv. Cable got too expensive to keep.

    :/

  4. Avatar

    Matt, you need one more selection between “D” and “E”:

    “I really want NASCAR to be great again, but as it is I refuse to invest time, money, or energy into a product I no longer enjoy. I still check in on a few NASCAR related websites to stay in touch with the sport in hopes they turn it around and the racing actually does become genuine and interesting again. If I start hearing people exclaiming “Man, you should have seen that race Sunday!!” in conversation, notice ratings and attendance going up, then I’ll tune back in and give it another chance.”

  5. Avatar

    Fantastic work as always Matt. I remember being interested in sports analytics when they first began to enter the mainstream, but it became very clear to me quickly that truly authentic, entertaining sport cannot be boiled down to a magic statistic.

    It’s embarrassing to watch Steve O’Donnell trot out the lead changes statistic as “proof” that the racing is better, or trot out margin of victory as “proof” that the racing is closer. Or the most comical of all: the “green flag passes” stats that count a “pass” as any time a car’s nose gets an inches in front of another car’s nose, thereby automatically triggering a ton of “green flag passes” on every double file restart.

    But you get the feeling that NASCARs establishment would rather keep flaunting these meaningless statistics to “prove themselves right” about how smart this new rules package is, rather than actually dig any deeper to provide fans with the kind of racing that made so many of us loyalists years ago.

  6. Avatar

    I have never considered “number of lead changes” an indicator of how good a race was because there are too many lead changes that are circumstantial. Until they start counting “racing lead changes” (lead changes that occur when two cars are racing and one overtakes the other for no other reason than they are faster or one makes a mistake) the number really doesn’t measure anything meaningful. Just like last week when one writer mentioned a Tweet (I hate the concept of Twitter) where someone pointed out that a car with old tires had a better lap time then two cars that had just got new tires. Those times could not reflect the other circumstances that may have caused that difference, such as lapped traffic. The lap times do not convey any information beyond that with which to draw any conclusion. However those stats were used to imply that tires didn’t help a car’s speed.

    I find it hard to believe that there are that many people on Twitter that think the racing is the best it’s ever been (did I mention that I hate Twitter) but my bet is most of those Tweeters haven’t been watching for more than a decade or less. So, yes, compared to the last several years maybe the racing has been a tick better this year but so what, most weeks it ain’t that great.

  7. Avatar

    TLDR. Man, you gotta cut this down to somewhere south of a gajillion words.
    Bottom line is there is no question the racing is better than it has been in past, especially on the hyper boring cookie cutters. End of story.

    • Avatar

      Not at all surprised that the same guy who thinks high downforce racing is good is also incapable of finishing a well-written article of more than a few paragraphs.

  8. Avatar

    Couldn’t agree more! Taking into consideration that a lot of the ‘better racing’ is due to the fact that they have, in effect, put sticky stuff down on the track to glue the cars to the pavement seems suspect to me. So far they have 2 different ‘packages’ for different tracks. Are we heading toward having several different ‘packages’ for every tiny variation of tracks on the circuit? That ‘passes for the lead’ stat is bogus as long as they count green flag pit stops. But, padding the stats make things look good, and these days, isn’t that what it’s all about? Like the Hokey Pokey.

    • Avatar

      Actually, I think they need to have a package for each track (or at least each type of track) if they want the racing to be the best it could be. Unfortunately NASCAR doesn’t want to have to police 20 different packages and the owners don’t want to have to spend the money it would take to develop 20 different packages.