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More exciting NASCAR could emerge from shutdown

Jeff Birchfield • May 13, 2020 at 4:00 PM

NASCAR is scheduled to get back on track Sunday with a 400-mile Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway, ending a two-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Carolina track will host a 500-kilometer (310-mile) race the following Wednesday. The series also will run back-to-back races at Charlotte Motor Speedway the following week.

Even without fans in the stands, there is plenty to be excited about. Seven national series races, which includes the Xfinity and truck series, will take place in 11 days instead of the computer-generated racing.

But iRacing provided some needed entertainment, and lessons can be learned from it.

For decades, NASCAR has tried to emulate the NFL, the nation’s most successful professional sports league. I’ve argued NASCAR should instead use the NBA as a model because of the length of its events. The coveted younger demographic is more into the NBA, where games last a little more than two hours; NFL or Major League Baseball games routinely run beyond three hours.

NASCAR has been able to attract some of those younger fans through iRacing, and the television broadcasts of two hours or less seem perfect to keep their attention spans.

Looking at Darlington, another factor from shorter events is the racing itself. The Southern 500 has history and prestige as a “Crown Jewel” race, but the most famous finish came when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch at the end of the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. The two traded sheet metal often on the final lap before Craven won by .002 seconds and provided one of the most replayed clips of the last 20 years.

Jeff Gordon edged Jeff Burton in another classic finish at the 1997 Southern 500, but the margin of victory for 400-mile races at Darlington is usually closer than the 500-mile races. In a 500-mile or 500-lap race at a short track, there is usually a stretch in which the action subsides. That’s not as much the case over 400 miles and should be even less in a 500-kilometer race.

That brings us to Charlotte, where NASCAR still plans to run the Coca-Cola 600 in its entirety. For decades, the race’s length held major appeal with the leader at the 500-mile mark often experiencing mechanical trouble over the final 100 miles.

Darrell Waltrip was the master of the 600 in the late 1970s and ’80s, winning it a record five times. Jimmie Johnson has four Coke 600 wins, and three-time winners include David Pearson and Bobby Allison. It was a thinking driver’s race back in the day when a premium was placed on taking care of equipment.

Hard-charger Buddy Baker was an exception to the rule, although that style became the norm as the cars became more durable. Dale Earnhardt won the 600 three times, as did Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

In recent years, the 600-miler has provided us some of the worst races on the entire circuit.

Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps to win the 2016 event. He led another 223 laps the following year, although there was excitement at the end and Austin Dillon won the race on fuel-mileage strategy. The race returned to the boring form in 2018 when Kyle Busch led 377 laps. Truex had the dominant car again in 2019, although a late caution created excitement.

Considering how so much more engineering is in today’s cars, the setup rarely going away like years past and the durability in the modern machines, the race often becomes a four-plus-hour marathon with little on-track passing for the lead. For that reason, I’m much more excited about the 500-kilometer race the following Wednesday than the Coca-Cola 600.

RETURN OF FAVORITES

One positive of iRacing was it gave fans another chance to see retired drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon behind the steering wheel again. The same goes for Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle.

NASCAR has taken a hit in recent years with so many fan favorites retiring. It was a little surprising that Tony Stewart, an iRacing veteran, didn’t race in the Pro Invitational Series.

There were negatives, most notably Kyle Larson’s use of a racial slur in a non-NASCAR sanctioned iRacing event, leading to his firing. A silver lining came with the return of former Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth in the No. 42 car.

The format even allowed Earnhardt to make an impressive debut in an IndyCar iRacing event, finishing third. And Saturday marked NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway, albeit just virtually.

Still, it’s not as good as having actual cars on the track. We long for the day when fans will be back in the stands, but this shutdown has given NASCAR opportunities to test new ideas with the hope of more exciting racing than before.

Email Jeff Birchfield at [email protected]

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