Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Debunking NASCAR’s Theory of Green-Flag Passes for the Lead

NASCAR is doing a full-court press right now trying to convince fans and even us cynical media types that the racing with the new car is as good, if not better than, ever. I’ll admit that some of the numbers I’ve seen thrown around about the number of passes for the lead in races that I found incredibly boring really surprised me.

So I decided that next time a race bored me to the point I was doodling hot rods in my notebook (note to the under-30 crowd – a notebook can be a tablet of paper in which one writes with a pen, not just a laptop computer), I was going to analyze those statistics. I figured I’d only have to wait until the next cookie-cutter 1.5-mile race, and in that regard at least, Sunday’s race at Texas didn’t disappoint me. If everything is bigger in Texas, Sunday’s race was the biggest farce masquerading as a race since the first time the Cup boys raced at Texas and half the field crashed out in the first corner.

NASCAR statistics claim that there were 16 passes for the lead at Texas on Sunday. 16? Was I daydreaming about black Pontiacs with birds on the hood and V-Twin motorcycles in springtime when all these alleged passes took place? Had in fact drifted off for a nap, as I felt I might during the entire second half of the race, as Carl Edwards put a hurting on the field? To check, I fired up the DVR, armed with NASCAR statistics as to when these 16 passes for the lead took place. I went back and reviewed the entire race – Here’s what I found:

Lap 14 – Kyle Busch powered around Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take the lead. Yeah, that was a legitimate pass for the lead. At that point it looked like a foretelling of a potential battle between two strong cars to the end.

Lap 30 – The field is under caution for Michael Waltrip‘s latest display of near criminal ineptitude at the wheel. Edwards gets credit for taking the lead in the pits because his pit stall is beyond the start-finish line. No, I don’t see that as a legitimate pass for the lead.

Lap 31 – Earnhardt exits the pits first to take the lead from Edwards. This is the second alleged pass for the lead in two laps. While a testament to good pit work by the No. 88 bunch, this isn’t the stuff of legends. Again, I don’t consider this a real pass for the lead.

Lap 48 – Jimmie Johnson makes a power move around the outside of Earnhardt to take the lead. This looks like a legitimate pass, not Earnhardt pulling over to allow his teammate to collect some bonus points. The pass might have had half the folks in the stands sit back on down in disappointment but this was a real pass for the lead, the second of the race.

Lap 83 – After a long green-flag stretch, leader Johnson ducks into the pits for a stop. Earnhardt reassumed the lead and there was much rejoicing in the stands. But Johnson surrendered the lead, Earnhardt didn’t take it. This is just the beginning of a routine set of pit stops, not the sort of stuff that SportsCenter replays over and over.

Lap 85 – Earnhardt heads to the pit and the Earnhardt Nation in the stands sit back on down and mourn. Martin Truex Jr. officially takes the lead. Herein is the problem in looking at the total number of lead changes in a race. Any time there is a long green-flag run, particularly early in the race, the lead is going to change hands each time the driver at the front of the field makes a stop. It is a lead change, but it’s not much fun to watch.

Lap 87 – Truex surrenders the lead to make his stop and Johnson reassumes the lead. No one is greatly surprised or enthused. Presumably, Johnson is pleased by this turn of events, but three passes for the lead in five laps hasn’t exactly sent fans’ pulse rates soaring. Yes, occasionally drivers must pit and get more gas and fresh tires. If that surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Lap 111 – The yellow flag flies again on lap 109. Well there’s something you don’t see everyday Vern, Jeff Gordon has backed his ill-handling racecar into the wall to bring out the caution. We’re a third of the way through this stupidity and something somewhat interesting has actually happened. Matt Kenseth wins the race off pit road to reassume the lead. Again, kudos to his pit crew, but race fans are somewhat underwhelmed by the “dramatic” pass for the lead. Half of them were in the bathroom when it happened anyway.

Lap 133 – The race has gotten so bad that NASCAR throws a caution for debris. Maybe one of the members of Chip Ganassi’s team was filling out a resume and it blew onto the track? Johnson is credited with taking the lead because his pit stall is beyond that of Kenseth’s. Yawn. That’s a Mulligan.

Lap 134 – Kenseth once again wins the race off pit road and reassumes the lead. It’s almost as if he never surrendered it. In fact, in the eyes of most fans he never did. Kenseth is going to lead this one for a while. I am adding flames to the hot rods I am drawing.

Lap 177 – JJ Yeley hits the wall hard. Fortunately, he’s OK. Unfortunately, the race still stinks. Johnson once again gets credit for taking the lead based on the position of his pit stall. Yawn.

Lap 178 – Well, here’s a surprise – Kenseth takes the lead again by winning the race off pit road. Haven’t I seen this Looney Tune before? The race is half over and we’ve had two real passes for the lead.

Lap 180 – Wake up, Heather! Something interesting has just happened. As the race restarted, the lapped car of Juan Pablo “The Menace” Montoya loses it trying to make up his lap. Kenseth is forced to lift out of the gas and is passed by a gaggle of cars. Kyle Busch assumes the lead. This one is a judgment call. It’s not like Kenseth got passed because someone in a stronger car blew by him, but it is one of those unexpected turn of events that makes racing interesting, so I will call this one legit.

During a race that feels like it’s been dragging on since the Reagan presidency, we now have our third legit pass for the lead. That’s about it for Kenseth and the No. 17 car as far as threatening to win the race, but he did get some lovely parting gifts. Montoya continues to be a hazard as the race drones mindlessly on into its third hour.

Lap 215 – Heather Locklear is still not here lounging beside me, but on the track something amazing has happened. Edwards has run down and passed Busch. We’ve seen a legitimate pass for the lead for the fourth and final time in a four-hour race. Call in the dogs and put out the fires. This one is done, though it will drag on another excruciating hour or so.

Lap 230 – Hey, guess what? Edwards needs gas and new tires, so he pits. Johnson retakes the lead. Boy Howdy, that was exciting, not.

Lap 233 – Who would have thunk? Johnson’s car requires fuel to run too! The No. 48 ducks into the pits and Edwards retakes the lead. There’s still 101 laps left to run before this farce draws to its merciful conclusion, but Edwards will lead every lap the rest of the way. Hooray for him! At times, Edwards will lead by almost eight seconds. After restarts, the lead will seem to be in peril and FOX’s analysts will holler and shout that “bidness is about to pick up.”

Because Gordon is about 100 laps down, they will most often predict it is Busch who will make things interesting. But as Busch begins to flounder, Darrell Waltrip breaks out his book of sonnets – “Hendrick Motorsports-How Do I Love Thee?” – and predicts that Johnson is running down the leader and at any moment there’s going to be a real race. Lord, if only that was the case.

Eventually, everyone agrees that Edwards is pretty much stinking up the show, and in sheer desperation they continuously find ways to show Jeff Hammond wearing his cowboy hat saying stupid things to prove there is indeed something more contemptible than this sorry-ass excuse of a race.

Lap 339 – The stupidity finally drags to its long overdue conclusion. Edwards does a backflip while the fans napping at home drool out the corner of their mouths. Edwards is quite pleased to have won. Johnson is satisfied to have finished second. Busch rambles on so inarticulately it’s impossible to fathom if he is happy that he finished third or if he even knows what state of the union he is currently located in.

Exhaust fumes seem to affect the Busch boys more than most drivers. Earnhardt is interviewed simply because he is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fade to black and start counting the minutes to a new episode of Cold Case. It’s just another Pleasant Valley Sunday. It’s been a bad day, please don’t take our pictures,

So the official tally will show that there were 16 passes for the lead on Sunday, while the Matt-O-Meter has recorded only four such passes with any legitimacy. Let’s compare that to the Richmond race in the spring of 1998. Between laps 98 and 121, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt swapped the lead eight times officially as they thundered around the track side-by-side lap after lap. You’re going to have to trust me on this one because my half-frozen ass wrapped in a torn pair of Wranglers rarely touched the chilly concrete that constituted my seat that afternoon.

I watched two legends of the sport run lap after lap side-by-side with fenders occasionally crunching and tire smoke billowing off the No. 2 and No. 3 cars. The end of the race might have been considered an anti-climax with Terry Labonte leading the final 78 laps, but Earnhardt and Wallace were right there keeping the Ice Man honest until the checkers flew. That was an era when you never knew who was going to win a race even if one fellow was leading handily with 10 laps left to go.

And I left that frigid racetrack that chilly Sunday grinning ear to ear feeling I had got my money’s worth for the ticket I’d worked so hard to score in an era where Cup tickets sold out months in advance of an event.

Please don’t tell me the “good old days” weren’t so good. I was there in the grandstands with a light wallet but a hoarse throat, not struggling to stay awake during a parade posing as a race. Some will say that we just need to give the new cars some time until the teams get them figured out and competitive racing returns.

My guess is by the time that happens, the grandstands will be ghost-towns and cockroaches will be ruling the earth. Back in 1998, the year of the Five and Five rules, NASCAR finally had to admit their new car was a dog that just wouldn’t hunt before they sent those mutts off to the gas chambers. Will they come to the same overdue realization concerning the Car of Tomorrow?

The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but I believe it was actually Benjamin Disreali who once said “There are three sorts of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.” His words were prophetic when it comes to NASCAR’s statistical and data division. They can doctor the numbers all they want to try to make it seem races lately have been exciting, but fans who actually sit there through monotonous parades know better. It was, in fact, Twain who once called golf, “A good walk spoiled.” Lately Cup racing has become a “good nap wasted.”

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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