By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Caution clocks, wave-arounds, lucky dog free passes, competition yellows and of course the dreaded debris cautions. These unnatural elements have been concocted over the last several years in order to ‘spice’ up the sport of NASCAR. Fans had begun to clamor that NASCAR was shifting more from a sports league into more of a sports entertainment company ala the WWE.
But I mean you can’t blame NASCAR for coming up with all of these convoluted rules, I mean a race can’t be exciting if there is a historically long 210 lap green flag run to start things off, right? What if there were only three cautions in an entire race? That just wouldn’t keep the viewer’s interest at all. Oh and let’s not forget if only 12 cars were to finish on the lead lap in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, that would be a complete travesty.
Wait, those three things all happened naturally during this past Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and what we ended up seeing was perhaps the best race at a 1.5-mile intermediate track in years.
We saw a throwback true test of man versus machine for 500 miles, as NASCAR’s new lower downforce package paired with Goodyear’s new softer tire and Atlanta’s aging track surface, really threw curve balls at drivers all race long. Cars were slipping and sliding left and right, lap times were falling off drastically each lap, and drivers were having a blast see-sawing on their steering wheels. It was just as fun to watch on television.
“I loved it. We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast,” second place finisher, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. “I had some good races there on the track with the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun. And I post old pictures online all the time of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and that’s when racing was racing. That’s when it was good. That’s what they saw today.”
For the first time in a long time, drivers were leaving the track excited for what they were just a part of, but also they were leaving the track worn out.
“Yeah, that (long green flag run) was crazy man. That was by far the longest green-flag run I’ve ever been a part of. I’m definitely going to sleep good tonight for sure,” rookie Chase Elliott said. “I’m worn out. That is as tired as I have been in a long time racing these cars. That was a long day.”
We didn’t need any mysterious debris cautions on Sunday (I’m giving the debris caution at lap 210 the benefit of the doubt, as I hope the Styrofoam cup that Fox showed on television wasn’t truly the cause). In this same race last season, there were a total of four debris cautions called on the day, there was just one on Sunday.
Another exciting thing, is that rules were actually enforced to big-name teams. Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team was flagged for their fuel man laying an adjustment wrench on the deck lid while fueling the car. Lame reason to be penalized? Yes, but the NASCAR rule book clearly states that when a gas can is engaged, a fueler is not able to do anything besides fuel the car. I commend NASCAR for sticking to their rule in the rule book, even if this one was an actual head-scratcher. Now, unlike years past, fans can’t say NASCAR was using preferential treatment by not calling a penalty to one of the stars of the sport.
Pit strategy also played a big hand in helping paint a masterpiece finish for eventual winner Jimmie Johnson. It also totally threw a wrench into Kevin Harvick’s race. Johnson was called to pit road by crew chief Chad Knaus nine laps earlier than the majority of the field, this gave Johnson a huge advantage as he was able to click off laps on faster fresh tires, while the field limped around much slower on worn tires.
By doing so Johnskn was able to erase Harvick’s commanding lead, and was able to build a 13-second lead of his own.
“Yeah, definitely a gutsy call. It was just a great team effort. The No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) car was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him,” Johnson said. “When (Knaus) told me to whip it as hard as I could there, I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. But, it worked. And I got rolling around the top and got to where I got this Lowe’s Chevy in Victory Lane.”
Overall, we didn’t need any gimmicks, or weird rules to bring the field closer together for some of the sports biggest stars to battle for victory. In fact, the end box score of the 2016 Atlanta race wasn’t much different than the final box score from the 2015 event. Jimmie Johnson won each of those races, after Kevin Harvick dominated and led the most laps in both, and each 500-mile event at Atlanta featured 28 lead changes. But it’s how we got there this time around that just made for a better show for actual race fans.
It just didn’t feel like NASCAR was sitting up in the box controlling the outcome like Claire Hennessey, the Warden of Terminal Island Penetentiary in the 2008 movie, Death Race.
Instead, the drivers were left to race it out on the track amongst themselves. For the first time in a long time, the race was truly in their hands. As a result, what we saw was a perfect race from top to bottom. It’s what we all watch for.
After a strong Daytona 500, and another great race this past weekend at Atlanta, NASCAR is heading in the right direction. I for one, love what I’m seeing on the track, and if the sanctioning body continues to control the sport like they have for the past two weeks, we are in for a hell of a show all season long folks.
Image: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images