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. )
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 …