Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Driving in Circles

Obviously, the reconstruction of the Bristol Motorspeedway is a huge boon for the racing there. Even a cursory glance at the last thirty laps of the Busch race Friday night, where four racers swapped the top two positions again and again while racing three wide, would be proof that the “racing” is better. The picture represents how those three guys ran lap after lap after lap after lap. Everyone raved about the Busch and Truck race- and they were fantastic.

Conversely, I am not surprised that the Cup race has gotten a lot of thumbs down from fans. I think this guy and David Poole have a point killing the Cup race- similar to one I wrote about earlier this year.

Jim McLaurin wrote after the race: Bristol racing is not guys being able to pass each other, it’s two guys fighting over the same spot, usually to the detriment of one or the other. Like the plate races, Bristol was always more of a show- theater if you will. While NASCAR will always ultimately be about “racing”, the spectacle, the banging, shoving and temper tantrums- made Bristol a must see event, not the race itself. As this anonymous writer says (some of the comments are good too):
After all the hoopla, specially designed colored flash cards in the stands, testimonials of drivers all week...singing the praises of the most fantastic track surface in the universe and the promise that fans would witness one of the best races in history, the truth is things simply didn't pan out. The race was somewhat sedate and comprised mostly of green flag runs. The entire personality of the Bristol Experience was altered by the redesign and reconfiguration of the track surface and banking and the introduction of the vehicle that represents the future of NASCAR racing to it. Depending on the particular tastes of fans, those who desire aggressive, feisty, rowdy racing have seen the last of it. Tonight's race was anything but that, and was probably much enjoyed by the safety conscious and purists who love the sight of cars monotonously making left turns, especially side by side.
That theatrical scene is gone now in the showplace division. Right now, Bristol is not a rock’em, sock’em event at the Cup level.

The track is better (so far)- but unfortunately, winning at Bristol is no longer important to the Cup guys in the big scheme of things. It is no accident that the top guys in the Chase- Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, Stewart, Harvick- spent the night content to merely make laps, stay out of trouble. Running twelfth, protecting their big advantages over the 13th place driver, crossing off another date until the Chase starts was a more-than-satisfactory day for those guys- particularly at a track that introduces so many chance variables.

It is not surprising that all the guys who ran well, or who were entertaining, were drivers either battling for the twelfth spot who needed to run aggressively with their competition to make up spots (Busch and Earnhardt) or guys so far back that only a win meant anything (Kahne, Yeley).

Frankly, there were just too many guys on the Speedway who were incentivized to run Top 15 and park it- then try to win. That is what the Chase regular season does- it distorts behavior in the guys who are comfortable in the Chase. Your best drivers and teams merely want to run eleventh and go home as quickly as possible- quite content to have knocked the schedule back another day.

The Trucks and Busch series will never have this problem- a top ten finish means you lose points to nine guys- the antithesis of securing your post-season run. Short of killing the Chase, NASCAR simply has to start really rewarding guys now more for winning, or finishing top five, in the first part of the season. The enticement problem fixes itself in the Chase- so I don’t care- as you got to chase the leader then. The old way rewarded consistency over the season and encouraged high car counts (important in the 1970-90s)- so a bonus was actually counter-productive. The current system clearly provides an incentive to happy with eleventh place- so you gotta do more to discourage that complacency.

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