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Beside the Rising Tide: Was That a Good Race?

All right then. Was that a good race? Well, in this instance since this is being written several hours before the Road America race is scheduled to go green, I can’t answer that. But such is the question every week there is a race across Twitter, on countless message boards and forums and Monday mornings around the water cooler for race fans (presuming there are, in fact, still water coolers in these post-pandemic times). I know, after all, there are still race fans. It just seems sometimes there are a lot less of them than there used to be.

Jeff Gluck conducts a weekly “Was it a good race?” poll on his Twitter account. I usually glance at that for comparative purposes. It does seem that Gluck’s polls tend to attract more positive responses than other outlets. I mean, some of these folks have not only drunk NASCAR’s Kool-Aid, they’ve invested their life savings in Kraft Foods, Kool-Aid’s parent company.

Was it a good race? There will never be a single correct answer. When deciding, the topic turns from objective, based purely on facts, to subjective, as in colored by that fan’s opinions and experience.

For example, I know of no one who thought the 2003 Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington wasn’t a great race. (That’s the one where Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch staged an epic final laps battle, with Craven edging Busch by .002 seconds.) On the other hand, I know of no one who recalls the 2016 World 600 too fondly. (That’s the one when Martin Truex Jr. opened an economy-sized can of “whup-ass” on the field, leading 392 laps in the course of beating Kevin Harvick by 2.5 seconds plus.)

To cite more recent examples, look at last week’s doubleheader at Pocono. Most people I’ve talked to greatly preferred Saturday’s event. Not because Kyle Larson had a chance to tie a record. Not because he failed to do so either. It’s just not often that a race isn’t decided until the final corner of the final laps of a race. The Pocono race Sunday came down to a fuel mileage event. Personally, I’ve never cared for those. It’s too damn confusing and it has nothing to do with driver talent. I don’t recall hanging out in my high school parking lot in the Mach One bragging to a buddy in his hot rod, “Hey I bet a I can make it to Valley Force Park and back on a single gallon of gas!”

The other thing Sunday’s race result had going against it in many fans’ eyes was the eventual winner. Kyle Busch claims he leads “Rowdy Nation,” but to his credit, he often acknowledges the boos and boorish behavior some fans direct his way. And in an attempt to rate races objectively rather than subjectively, who wins the race often has a lot to do with how a fan feels about the race. Most race fans have a favorite driver, and perhaps some others they don’t mind seeing running well (as long as they’re not beating the Chosen One).

You don’t have to work real hard to figure out who a fan pulls for. Look at their ball-caps, T-shirts and bumper stickers. (Presuming there still are bumper stickers post-pandemic.) On the other hand, most race fans have a couple drivers they don’t care much for. Any race one of those drivers wins is likely to draw a negative response.

Was the Circuit of the Americas race earlier this year a good race? Well, the weather was horrible. The race probably should have been red-flagged an hour earlier, and most of the fans on hand looked like they were having a miserable time and wished they were somewhere, anywhere else. Except for those wearing Chase Elliott gear, of course, and there were a lot of them. Not only did Elliott win; in doing so he punched his ticket to the 2021 playoffs, so he’ll at least have a chance to defend his 2020 title.

Another factor that plays heavily in a lot of fans’ perception of how good a race it was is the venue where it was hosted. I don’t have a favorite driver, but I’ll go on record as saying I’ve never seen a bad race run at Darlington. I tend to look favorably at races run at Richmond, Bristol (pre-dirt) and Martinsville as well. Fontana? Not so much. In fact, when they moved the (name at least) Southern 500 to Southern California, I refused to write about the event for many years.

I have my reservations about the Cup race at Road America. It strikes me at four miles in circumference, it’s likely there will be no single spot a fan can position himself and see the entire course absent a handy blimp or helicopter. Presuming there still are blimps post-pandemic. I think Goodyear is actually flying dirigibles, not blimps, these days. Or some fans will probably park themselves somewhere with a view of one of the big screen TVs in the infield, which sort of defeats the purpose of going to the race live. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper, more convenient and comfortable to stay home and watch the race on your own TV?

Objectively, what makes one race “good” and another “poor?” Over the years, I’ve developed some telltales I’ll keep an eye on to form an opinion. In a good race, the top five competitors are all within five seconds of the leader. That’s close enough that if the leader brushes the wall, has the car get loose on him or gets hung up behind a lapped car, any of those five drivers could take the lead. I also prefer to see the entire top 10 remain within 10 seconds of the race leader. That’s still within striking distance at most tracks. Will the guy in 10th suddenly hit the afterburners and take the lead within five laps? Most likely not. But as fresher tires and other strategies play out in the normal way, that 10th-place driver may play a part in deciding who takes the win.

Passes for the lead are also a good indicator of the quality of the racing. But I’m talking about real passes for the lead. In a lot of races these days, the leader will peel off and dive into the pits surrendering the lead to someone else. Yes, technically it was a pass for the lead. Objectively, that lead change was about as exciting to watch as a little girl’s game of hopscotch. I am talking about a lead change like this summer’s Saturday Pocono race, wherein Larson spent 15 laps stalking Alex Bowman and using every trick in his not inconsiderable book of them to track down and pass his rival while the crowd roared. (Of course Larson went on to lose the race anyway. When figuring out if it was a good race or not, a completely unexpected pass for the lead on the final lap goes a long way toward tipping the scales in an events favor. )

See also
Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2021 Pocono Doubleheader

When it comes to passes for the lead, a “good” race should have more of them than it does caution flags. And I’m talking about naturally occurring caution flags, not including these pre-scheduled aberrations that NASCAR uses to signal the end of a stage. Those are just speeding up NASCAR on the highway to hell and future irrelevancy. There are no timeouts in auto racing. Not the legitimate sort, anyway.

What the stage breaks do do is to bunch the field back up and put them in side-by-side formation. As far as having the top five within five seconds of each other and the top 10 within 10 seconds of each other, that’s a good thing, but unfortunately it only stays that way for three or four laps.

The sad fact remains that just about every week at just about every track, there is actually some good racing going on. We just don’t get to see it watching at home on TV. The TV cameras are too hypnotized by the most popular drivers and the sponsor logos on the cars that also paid a chunk of change to buy commercials during the event. It was hard not to notice that TV viewership for that Saturday event at Pocono was down more than a million fans from last year. But then again, what do I know? Except what’s a good race and what’s not.

So was Sunday’s race a good one? I’ve painted myself into a corner here. Elliott was leading second place Christopher Bell by 16 seconds in the waning laps. Somehow, the official margin of victory is listed at just 5.075 seconds, Eventual 10th-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto was an additional 10 seconds behind. So Elliott’s win was a popular one, but it wasn’t a competitive race. Give Elliott some style points, though, Due to some procedural errors in qualifying, Chase had to start 34th, but still went on to win. Kyle Busch had to start shotgun on the field after wrecking his primary car, but recovered well enough to eventually take the lead on his way to a third-place finish.

Random Notes: Hey, another Saturday night, and I did catch this week’s SRX event. On a brighter note, CBS worked out its issues showing commercials during green flag racing. I just wish NBC could do the same or even attempt it. Of the SRX races to date, this week’s IRP event was the least compelling of the bunch, at least right up to the GWC finish. Yes I got the memo; an oil supplement company now owns naming rights to IRP. I think fans ought to research the owner of that company’s stand on puppy mills and the slaughter of American wild horses (Mustangs) before sampling his wares.

Next week, the series heads off to Slinger Speedway. At just a quarter-mile in length and with 33 degrees of banking in the corners, that track ought to be a hoot next Saturday night. Meanwhile, the SRX powers that be seem intent on manufacturing out of whole cloth some sort of blood rivalry between two drivers (Paul Tracy and someone else, currently). Don’t bet the farm the alleged rivalry will result in fisticuffs worthy of the ’79 Daytona 500. Unless they let Tracy speed up his walker with some lithium-based lubricant …

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jobe

The 100,000 fans at Road America loved it.

And just for the record, Elliott didn’t have a 16-second lead on Bell in the waning laps. Try to actually pay attention, Matt. (Or have your trifocals adjusted. Or get a TV with a bigger screen.) And of course, Elliott had to pass Kyle Busch to get the lead, but we can only assume Matt slept through that as well.

I doubt that Matt would ever enjoy a road course race, since that requires a different skill set on the part of the drivers and a different mindset on the part of the viewers than a Demo Derby at Dega or Daytona.

But then anyone who watches SRX on Saturday night has set a fairly low bar for quality entertainment.

And BTW, was the 1990 Daytona 500 a favorite of yours, Matt? It seems to have had all the elements you require for a good race including a blown tire on the last lap. Of course, since said tire failure befell your beloved, maybe not.

Last edited 26 days ago by jobe
Bill B

Can’t say I have a “Chosen One” but there are drivers I like and drivers I dislike and whole bunch of drivers to which I am indifferent. While I would never wish to see Kyle Busch win, I could still appreciate the finish given his issues and say it was a decent race. Especially since some front runners ran out of fuel. Sort of a “tortoise and hare” scenario.

I thought the Road America race was OK (although I have to admit I could only watch it with one eye because I had other fish to fry). It was fun watching guys run off the track and plow into the ground. It was a welcome sight to see kitty litter back. I’ve missed kitty litter. For my money, one of the things I want to see when they run a road course, is for cars that run off the track to get a penalty (not from NASCAR but from the damage incurred by leaving the track).

As for SRX, I can’t get past the “caution just to bunch them back up at the end of the race” deal. It just ruins the flow to the point I can’t watch it.

janice

bill b – yeah i couldn’t figure out why srx threw that caution. just like nascar, their series their rules.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR hasn’t had a real “race” for years.

Bill B

So when was the last “real race”?

DoninAjax

When was the last event where the green flag started the race and the race was allowed to play out without any questionable calls?

Bill B

That would depend on who you asked?

DoninAjax

It’s probably the last event to be caution-free. And I wouldn’t count the embarrassment at New Hampshire.

Kurt Smith - Ex-Frontstretch Staff

I would have thought that the limited view of everything would have been a problem for fans in attendance too, but no one there seemed to mind…I kind of wished I was there, in the shade anyway, but I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the actual race itself if I was only seeing a small portion of it.

That said, I thought it was an enjoyable race to watch on TV, even if a couple of my favorite drivers faltered towards the end. It had a fair amount of leaders, a lot of drama played out with guys like DiBenedetto, and as you pointed out Matt, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott passed a bunch of cars throughout the event and that was fun to watch. And I thought both the Pocono races were great.

I actually don’t mind stage racing, although I’ve never been a fan of double file restarts. Stage racing seems to have reduced the number of debris cautions, which I frequently question. Also, this year’s 600 excepted, it reduces the number of races where one driver utterly dominates, although I’m one of the fans that enjoys seeing if a dominating driver can close the deal.

I’m fine with NASCAR adding more road courses to the schedule, but I would like to see tracks like Kansas and Texas be replaced with more bullrings. Glad to see that Fontana is turning their venue into a short track…that is something to be applauded. Putting variety in the venues, IMHO, has greatly improved the races this season, and it was something long overdue. COTA sucked, but that was due to trying to race during a downpour. Just kill that idea.

Still always enjoy your articles Matt, even if you are still actually writing them post-pandemic. :-)

janice

when i saw the fans sitting in fields and whatnot, i wondered if you bring your own seat is your ticket cheaper?

having spend many hours over the years in post-race exodus, i wondered how long it took the fans to get home.

they’re here in atlanta this coming week. i’m sure an afternoon storm from daily humidity will cause a delay. anyone attending, pack your patience on the roads and leave your road rage at home, especially when passing through the city of atlanta.

Danny L Burton

It’s okay, Matt. There’s a few of us who still call it Indianapolis Raceway Park, no matter who the sponsor is.

MarkM

For a 1st race at a new, (for NASCAR, sidestepping 1956). facility it was a decent race. I kinda expected a bit of caution exhibited by the drivers as they learned & adapted to the track. I’d rate it a “B-” race. Let’s see what happens there next year. The potential is there for it to be a great race course for Cup racing.

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