What Makes Great Racing?

There is a widespread belief among NASCAR fans that when Dale Jr. wins, everything will be fine in the sport. However, after Dale’s victory at Pocono a few weeks ago, the race’s ratings plummeted. That made me and a few others think. It was as if the New York Yankees were winning crucial games on their road to the World Series, but their ratings were dropping.

“It’s because it was Pocono, and it’s not terrific racing,” a fan commented as I was batting that around and reading comments on Twitter. (By the way, I’m afraid I have to disagree with it.) At Pocono, we’ve had some fantastic races.)

Still, it was a little strange for me. I think that when their favorite driver wins, the fans are happy. But there’s more to it, and that set me to thinking.

What makes a race great?

The significance of that question was brought home to me this week when NASCAR requested me to assist in the testing of its next-generation car, which I’ll be doing at Michigan International Speedway on Monday. When it comes to selecting what kinds of cars we should be driving, having a concept of excellent racing seems crucial.

So this week, I’m focusing my blog on what I consider fantastic racing. However, I do not want the conversation to end there. I will start a live, scheduled discussion about this on Twitter next week with the hashtag #GreatRacing. I want everyone to participate – fans, journalists, teams, drivers, track owners, you name it.

AN EXCELLENT DRIVER DRIVING EXCELLENT

For me, the most exciting part of a race is seeing a driver’s skill set come to life. When you see a racer who is simply a head and a tail ahead of the competition, and you’re seeing him perform, and it’s obvious that his success is due to him, it always takes my breath away.

One of Team Penske’s newest drivers, Alex Tagliani, recently drove the No. 22 car at Road America. When it started to rain, he began blistering the field. Rain on a road course acts as a leveler in some respects because negotiating a shower requires driving skills, and Alex was blowing past people. That made an impression on me. And I enjoyed it despite the lack of side-by-side action and a last-lap pass for the lead. I could have stayed up all day watching it.

Kyle Larson wowed the crowd in the Eldora truck race a few weeks ago. Kyle is a natural at dirt racing, and NASCAR’s truck series hosts one event each year. He drove from the rear of the field to the front at Eldora, banging the car against the wall every lap until he took the lead. It’s difficult enough to pass them once around the track, let alone every time. He led for around five laps before his truck broke down because he’d hit the wall so many times to get to the front. Nonetheless, it was fantastic. His bravery and abilities were on display.

This past weekend, Marcos Ambrose demonstrated his prowess as a road course racer at Watkins Glen. You can tell by looking at him that his speed has everything to do with him and what he does behind the wheel.

But Dale Earnhardt, who was recognized for being heads and tails better than everyone on restrictor-plate courses, is maybe the driver who stands out the most in my mind for his abilities. He essentially invented the driver style that everyone utilizes now on superspeedways, whether he realizes it or not. He’d drive through the field at a restrictor-plate race, and it was just pure driver. It was quite a sight to behold. He won a race at Talladega in 2000 — October 2000 — by driving from 17th to first in three or four laps, all because he knew how to draught better than everyone else. In terms of styles and tactics, almost everyone in the field is now copying what he created 10 to 15 years ago.