Minter: Long Races Producing ‘Stupid’ Finishes
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
As blasphemous as it seems to even type the words into a computer, it’s beginning to look like 500- or 600-mile NASCAR races are way too long, based on the latest rules and trends.
In my earliest days of attending races, 500 milers were marathons. The World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was even more so. Relief drivers actually got behind the wheel at times, even in the front-running cars. Now, even a driver with a stitched-up knee can win a race, as Denny Hamlin has shown.
At Texas Motor Speedway on Monday, 15 drivers proved that 500 or 600 miles is no big deal. They ran both the Cup and Nationwide races, which if they completed all the laps added up to 800 miles.
Back in the day, engines and cars often gave up long before the finish. Hard-chargers usually paid the price for putting on the show in the early laps, and those who conserved their equipment were the ones who wound up battling for the win at the end.
At Texas, only one driver, David Reutimann, blew an engine. In the last 600 to go to the full distance, only three drivers blew engines.
But the real problem with long races, at least lately, is that more often than not, the first 90 percent of a race often has little impact on the outcome. A late-race caution often resets the field and gives multiple drivers an opportunity to win.
Jamie McMurray led just two laps, both of them in overtime, to win the Daytona 500. Jimmie Johnson won at Bristol after a late-race caution took away Kurt Busch’s advantage. At Martinsville, Denny Hamlin had to ram his way through the field after a late-race caution scrambled the running order of a race he seemed destined to win. Then it looked as if Jeff Gordon would win it, but the timing of the last caution flag worked against him.
At Phoenix, Ryan Newman used a two-tire stop during a late caution to beat the race’s dominant drivers, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Then on Monday at Texas, Jeff Gordon saw another race whih he dominated get won by another driver, Denny Hamlin, who avoided the late-race wreck that eliminated Gordon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had this to say afterward.
“I was having fun until all those cautions kept coming at the end,” he said. “We run 450 miles to sit there and settle it in a bunch of mess there at the end of the race, and it is kind of stupid.
“But, that is way it went down, so we will see what happens next week.”
That ought to be really interesting. It was the Cup race at Talladega last fall, one in which drivers “rode around” for the first 450 miles or so before getting down to serious business, that was labeled as boring and was the impetus for the rules changes that facilitate rowdy driving at the end of races.
It could be argued that late-race cautions make the racing more interesting. But some of NASCAR’s all-time classic battles didn’t need any help from the yellow flag. The very first Daytona 500, which ended with a photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp, was a caution-free race. And the race that many describe as the best World 600 ever, was actually better because of the lack of cautions.
In that 1980 race, Benny Parsons, driving M.C. Anderson’s No. 27 Chevrolet, battled Darrell Waltrip, in DiGard’s No. 88, in what many have called the best 600 ever.
The three best cars that day belonged to Parsons, Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. When Earnhardt blew a tire and crashed on Lap 276, it left Waltrip and Parsons as the top two drivers.
Over the final 26 laps, the two swapped the lead eight times. Parsons took the lead with two laps to go then held off a last-lap charge from Waltrip to get the victory.
Somehow I don’t think people would still be talking about those two races if late cautions had flown and surprise winners had emerged.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments