What makes a good race? That question was posed last week in this column, and one thing our staff agreed on was that a close finish is one thing that makes a race memorable. Everyone remembers the 2003 Southern 500 because the finish was the closest in the Cup Series to date.
And as we navigate the 2019 season, the racing has been a mixed bag. But if closer finishes make races better, or at least more memorable, this year so far is a vast improvement over 2018. Through 20 races, of the 17 that are comparable (the other three had one of the two races end under caution), 13 have had closer finishes this year than last. 12 have a margin of under a second (up from seven last year). That’s an endorsement for a race package that, while not perfect, is showing to be an improvement.
A few weeks ago, we looked at the closest finishes of the year and two of those five are no longer among the best. Michigan and Kentucky have produced closer margins, with Kentucky taking the closest span away from the Daytona 500. Let that sink in for a moment. In order, the closest races of the year have been at Kentucky, Daytona (February), Michigan, Richmond and Kansas, certainly not all venues where close finishes are expected.
This week, we’ll take a look at the largest margins of the year (by some fans’ definition, the worst races), because you have to look at both for a complete picture.
1. Gander RV 400, Dover International Speedway
Martin Truex Jr. over Alex Bowman by 9.501 seconds
One of only four races with a larger margin over the previous year (the 2018 margin was 7.4 seconds), the show at Dover wasn’t one to write home about. The Monster Mile is a tough track, but in recent years, spins and other mayhem have been at a minimum, and that often leads to few cars on the lead lap (just 11 in this spring’s event). Fans didn’t have a lot of good to say after this one.
2. O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Texas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin over Clint Bowyer by 2.743 seconds
Another race that didn’t match the 2018 version (.300 second margin), Texas wasn’t exactly a wild west showdown, as Hamlin cruised to the win. Just 15 drivers finished on the lead lap, and there wasn’t much to write home about after this one
3. Auto Club 400, Auto Club Speedway
Kyle Busch over Joey Logano by 2.354 seconds
Here’s where 2019 begins to separate itself from 2018. The two-second margin is an improvement over the 11.685 seconds that fans were treated to last season, and that rings true a lot. Other than Dover and Texas, only Phoenix and Bristol featured larger spans than last year, and Bristol’s was still well under a second. Great? No. Better? Getting there.
4. Pocono 400, Pocono Raceway
Kyle Busch over Brad Keselowski by 2.224 seconds
It’s not a lot better than a year ago, but again, this year’s version comes in closer. Pocono is a race of strategy and stamina, a combination which doesn’t always mean a door-to-door finish. That’s OK, though, since differing strategies and storylines make the closer races even more exciting.
5. Toyota/Save Mart 350, Sonoma Raceway
Martin Truex Jr. over Kyle Busch by 1.861 seconds
Sonoma has produced some exciting finishes, but this year’s wasn’t one of the best, though it’s a sight better than the 10.5-second gap last year. Watkins Glen tends to give fans a better show as far as road courses go, and the new infield course at Charlotte had a heck of a finish last year. But one thing of note here: Just four races this year have had a gap of more than two seconds between first and second place, down fairly significantly over this point last year. This California battle isn’t one fans will remember in 10 years other than it being Darrell Waltrip’s final call.