Race Weekend Central

In the Middle: Sometimes NASCAR Isn’t About Extremes

Hot or cold. Wet or dry. High or low. Good or bad. There are plenty of extremes we apply to NASCAR racing—and to the rest of our lives–every week. Often, it is an “either / or” situation: the track is either wet or it’s dry. A team either qualifies or goes home. You either win or you don’t.

But not everything is one or the other…often, the truth lies somewhere between.

It seems like many people in the sport, from drivers to fans, forget that there is middle ground. To be fair, it’s not limited to NASCAR or even sports; one simply has to view a few political ads to realize that candidates like to make it a game of extremes when perhaps they ought to be appealing to a more moderate audience. Whatever the case, it appears that in this sport, we love extremes.

Is it good or is it bad? Could the answer lie somewhere in between?

But are extremes best for the sport? Are they even realistic? Well, not always. Let’s look at the racing to begin with. It seems like lately, if there isn’t a caution every five laps for something other than debris, someone is complaining. It seems like if the racing isn’t two or three-wide for the lead for every lap of every race with a wreck every few laps to spice things up, some people, including some at NASCAR and the racetracks, are ready to deem the racing a failure.

The problem is that that’s just not realistic. It’s not even a realistic expectation in a Saturday Night Special for late models at the local bullrings. Racing, whether a 25-lap feature at a local track or a 500-miler at Charlotte, isn’t a game of checkers or wreckers. It’s just not. The best local racers know that in order to win, you must first put yourself in position to win…and that doesn’t always mean bumping six guys out of the way while taking it three-wide on lap one. Now, if that driver plays the strategy right, the hope is that he will be there, racing hard for the lead in the closing laps.

That’s not saying that drivers should always play it safe. Not only does that make for subpar racing for the fans, but it can often backfire. Remember Talladega last fall when Carl Edwards tried to play it safe, running in the back, simply hoping to avoid being wrecked until the closing laps, when he figured to make a charge to the front? That didn’t work. Edwards didn’t get to the front, and if strategy cost him the title last year, then that race was probably the one you can pinpoint as the one that killed his title hopes.

But, ask a guy if gunning too hard too early won’t wreck your chances at a win or a title just as much. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tried that approach in an IROC race one time, trying to rocket to the lead at the drop of the green flag…and ended up wrecked. When his father, who had by then undergone the transformation from racing every lap like it was the last to playing strategy like it was a game in itself, asked Dale Junior why he had made such an aggressive move too early, Junior replied that he had just wanted to lead a lap.

Dale Earnhardt leveled a gaze at his son. “Wrong lap,” he said.

But it seems like these days, drivers who play strategy are not aggressive enough, and those who try for too much, too soon are the ones everyone wants to see. The problem lies in that the drivers who try to blast through the field, wrecks be damned, and lead every lap, while exciting to watch at the time, rarely become champions. Plus, expecting that kind of racing of every lap of every race is just unrealistic.

Even if there were 43 drivers in the field every week capable of driving at the maximum for 500 miles each week without making a single mistake, there aren’t 43 cars capable of withstanding it nor are there 172 tires on track at any given time that are totally impervious to failure if raced on or set up too aggressively.

So, why the perception that if there isn’t a pass for the lead every other lap and plenty of cars bouncing off each other and the walls that a race wasn’t a good one? Has everyone become so conditioned by the highlight reels that we really expect every lap to offer something to be played a thousand times on SportsCenter? Now, to be fair, part of the reason that television viewers don’t think there’s much action during many races is because the broadcasts focus on the leader or a popular driver, even if he’s running totally alone, and simply don’t show much of the action. But as spectators, perhaps we need to condition ourselves to reality rather than a fantasy race in which every lap is the last one.

Many people, and not only race fans, overlook things like tire, fuel or pit strategy as an exciting part of racing. Television broadcasts gloss over these things just as they do the great racing for say, 21st place. That needs to stop; if something is exciting, it’s exciting, whether it’s a strategy play that means a win an hour from now or hard racing within the field…racing is exciting in my book no matter what position it’s for on the final scoresheet.

The truth is, racing with lots of unnecessary crashes isn’t great racing any more than cars strung out around a two-mile track is. Great racing is watching drivers play strategies for 500 miles, make bold moves when they can, and leaving fans wondering who might win.

And a lot of people—and again, fans are far from the only ones– are the same with drivers. It seems that if a driver isn’t in your face on and off the track, he gets labeled as boring or vanilla. If one speaks his mind, he’s arrogant or a jerk. And while sometimes drivers fit both of those labels, most are so much more. Sometimes we forget that most drivers speak best by their actions on the racetrack and the truth is that Jimmie Johnson, the driver most often labeled the most boring, and Kyle Bush, who’s often thought of as a hotheaded attitude problem, are two of the finest racecar drivers of their era. Both are exciting to watch on track, though their styles are different even there. And off it? Sometimes Busch is a nice guy, and sometimes Johnson is irreverently hilarious.

It’s easy to look at the sound bites on television as the full measure of a driver’s character. It takes more on our parts to delve into who they really are. Want to know more about the real Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson or any of a number of drivers from across the spectrum? See how they interact with people away from the track, whether at a fan event or on social media. You can find out a lot. Bad boy Kyle Busch delivered food to a children’s home and then spent time visiting with them recently, without asking for publicity or using it as a PR coup. Sure, Brad Keselowski can run his mouth (heck, he all but accused Hendrick Motorsports of cheating during a press conference _while Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne was sitting right next to him_) but if you really consider what he says, it becomes clear that Keselowski is not being rude or arrogant, but rather he is thinking about his place within the sport and how to make himself, his team, and racing as a whole better for everyone involved. Listen to him speak, read his Twitter feed, and you realize that this guy _gets it._ And that can change how you view him.

On the flip side, Matt Kenseth, who is often called too boring or even robotic (remember the commercial that had all the robot Kenseths at the track?), but really, he can be hysterically funny. The “clip of him introducing himself at a NASCAR-mandated press conference at Charlotte this spring is pure gold.”:http://www.nascar.com/video/preview/sound-off/120524/cup-cha-media-biffle-joke/index.html NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp had stepped out of the media center for a moment and so Kenseth took matters into his own hands, introducing himself and asking the first question from the podium and then sitting at his assigned seat to answer it. His sarcastic sense of humor is spot on. Johnson is similar in that when he’s not in front of a TV camera, he morphs into a different person-a golfcart-surfing, stair-diving, no-excuses for goofy behavior regular person. Get him away from the spotlight’s glare and Johnson is far from the sponsor’s shill that he gets labeled as.

That’s not to say everyone has to like every driver. Some would rather see the aggressive ones, others prefer the smooth ones. The outspoken ones are popular with some people, the quietly personable with others. Fans and media do identify woth different people. But rarely is any driver all good or all bad.

While some things in racing are nothing but extreme, it’s easy to view the sport in those terms. But there is a degree of fault in that kind of thinking; because nothing is black and white. Not every race is a 500-mile highlight reel, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great race. A driver isn’t necessarily vanilla because he doesn’t have a meltdown that goes viral. The truth in racing, as in life, is in the middle, and the truth is, a lot of the time, we’ve got it pretty good with this sport.

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