Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, April 13, 2015, 7:15 p.m.
I had a bit of a “Eureka moment” this morning.
The racing at NASCAR’s intermediate tracks has fallen into disfavor, and I was wondering why. By intermediate track, I’m referring to those that are intermediate in several ways. They are 1.5 to 2.0 miles in length, ovals by approximate configuration, 14 to 24 degrees in banking, and unrestricted in power.
They comprise about 44 percent of the tracks and 39 percent of the races, the difference reflecting the fact that not every track has two annual points events.
As seems the case with every great burning issue in NASCAR and a goodly percentage of those elsewhere, it’s much easier to list the problems than it is to assign importance.
Among the reasons frequently mentioned are, in no particular order: (1.) the simple, intuitive “the racing stinks”; (2.) whoever is in front invariably pulls away; (3.) not enough passing; and, (4.) too many tricks designed to make it look better than it is.
We now live in a world where some approve of debris cautions even if they are bogus. If they bunch up the field for a few laps and inject some strategy, more and more fans are basically saying to NASCAR, “More power to you.”
I’m not willing to call for institutionalized corruption myself. If they’re waving a caution flag for competition reasons, be honest about it. Early in races, they have “competition cautions” many weeks. I often refer to them as “lack of competition cautions,” but at least they’re honest.
Forget about all that, though. What occurred to me, lying in bed, half asleep, pondering whether or not I ought to sleep a little longer, was that what is most wrong at the intermediate tracks is their predictability. I think Denny Hamlin’s post-race remarks at Texas may have spurred my thought processes.
Perhaps Hamlin was a bad influence, but here’s what he said:
“Stats don’t lie, and the stats say that those guys (Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson) … [are] going to be capable of winning right now. To be realistic, we need stuff to go our way. We need cautions and track position. We just can’t drive through the field like that — what those guys are capable of — and we’re a work in progress.
“From ideas to design to on the race track is six months, and sometimes it’s a year, and I’m confident, though, that by the time we get to the Chase, we’re going to have something that’s capable of running with those guys. We don’t right now.”
I’d add Kurt Busch to the “cut above” category. The Penske Fords, driven by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, are close. The remaining Hendrick Chevys – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Kasey Kahne – are within range. So is the sport’s most notable underdog of the moment, Martin Truex Jr., and the Gibbs Toyotas of Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and, at present, David Ragan. The Ganassi Chevys of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson have their moments.
Still, when a race starts on an intermediate track, right now, it appears as if either Harvick or Johnson is going to win. This has some basis in fact, particularly if one narrows the track definition to the 1.5-mile tracks, where either Harvick or Johnson has won the past six. Each has won three.
It will get better. It could scarcely get worse.
Here’s my theory. The biggest reason for the dreary expectation is that there aren’t enough drivers and cars, at present, that can win.
The tracks aren’t made from one “cookie cutter,” as is often claimed, but three: (1.) the Bruton Smith model (truncated tri-ovals with sharp angles), (2.) the D-shaped model (rounded trioval, less banking), and (3.) the Michigan model (similar to No. 2 but slightly longer). Homestead-Miami isn’t a tri-oval but belongs in the class as the only unique one.
At Atlanta, Charlotte, Vegas, Texas, Kansas, Chicagoland, Auto Club, Michigan, Kentucky, and Homestead, the favorites are Harvick and Johnson. Someone else might win. Strategy affects the outcome, but if the end of the race is near, and Harvick or Johnson is out front, the heavy odds are that Harvick or Johnson will win.
The field of contenders is much broader at the plate tracks, the flat tracks, the short tracks, the road courses, and Darlington, which, of course, is a marvel unto itself.
Someone like, oh, Clint Bowyer might win. Or Truex. Or Ryan Newman.
He might even do it by outrunning Harvick and Johnson.
At the tracks that most affect who will win the Sprint Cup championship, most teams are trying to pull rabbits out of hats.
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