Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: NASCAR’s Closest Cup Finishes Are a Modern Affair

Every once in a while, racing reminds us that history isn’t just in the distant past, but it’s happening right here, right now.

Such was the case on Sunday (Feb. 25) at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when Daniel Suarez edged out Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch to win the Ambetter Health 400 by just 0.003 seconds, the third-closest margin of victory in NASCAR Cup Series history.

The third-closest finish ever (maybe — we’ll get to that), and it was wild. The rest of the race was a bit of a disaster — a crash-fest that saw 35 of 37 cars involved in at least one incident. That 95% of the field involved in something was also a record, by the way. Then that finish was one for the record books.

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Opening that record book is an interesting exercise, because there’s a lot to unpack in what’s a simple enough list: the closest finishes in Cup Series history. 

First off, it has to be said that prior to the late 1960s, margin of victory was often recorded in distance (car-lengths, yards or laps) because the sport simply didn’t have sophisticated timing equipment. And, to be fair, a lot of races were won by a lap or more, making that a more relevant point of reference.

Even taking that into account, though, the vast majority of the sport’s closest recorded finishes have occurred in the most recent third of its existence. Of the 50 closest MOV in the Cup Series, 43 have come after NASCAR’s 1998 50th anniversary.

So let’s take a closer look here.

Of the top 50, 33 took place at either Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway plus Sunday’s at the reconfigured Atlanta, a pseudo-superspeedway (the list includes Daytona 500 qualifying races). That should not come as any surprise. Why?

Restrictor plates. The plates, and later the tapered spacer, rob a car’s engine of oxygen, and that means less horsepower, effectively equalizing the field on power. And with equal power, the field doesn’t spread out much, especially as the cars have gotten more and more aerodynamic.

Restrictor plates were meant to be a temporary measure to slow the cars down as speeds rose well above 200 miles per hour and the danger of the speeds became a real concern. The plan was to find a permanent solution, but as time went on, those finishes ramped up in intensity and got closer and closer. That arguably raised the danger level, but it also sold tickets and raised TV ratings as the sport’s popularity began to soar. So the plates stayed, basically to this day, though they aren’t a flat plate anymore.

So, to a degree, those close finishes are manufactured. 

No, NASCAR doesn’t choose a winner. That would be incredibly hard to do and even harder to keep a secret. So, no, we won’t go there. But the rules to keep the cars packed tightly together for hundreds of miles, increasing the chances for a thrilling finish? Yeah, that’s by design.

Six of the seven races in the top 50 that took place prior to 1998 were at Daytona or Talladega, and all of them took place in 1993 or later. Only one of those seven made the top 10.

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One takeaway from that is that the fourth-generation and later Cup cars have raced closer than previous ones, at least at the end of races. Interestingly enough, these are the cars that have taken the brunt of the “aero-dependent” backlash in the last 25 years. Much of that’s deserved, but … well, they also produce some barn-burners.

That leaves 16 races that took place on other tracks (including Atlanta’s previous layout). That was a surprising number simply because of the superspeedway package, but it includes one of the two races tied for the closest-ever finish: the 2003 spring race at Darlington Raceway.

If you haven’t seen it, Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch to the checkers by 0.002 seconds:

To each their own, of course, but I’ll argue that that was a better finish than Sunday. Why? Because the drivers could use their cars and lean on each other. Had any of the top three bounced off each other as hard as those two did, it would have caused a multi-car wreck. Take away the engine restrictions, and the drivers could go all out.

The only other non-superspeedway victory in the top 10 took place on the previous Atlanta layout, the spring race in 2001 when Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon to the line by 0.006 seconds.

At Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta, drivers rely on other drivers pushing them to make a run at or pass on the leader. That’s the ultimate in aero-dependence. The drivers still have to time their moves (and time them exactly right or disaster), but they can’t use every inch of track the way Kurt Busch and Craven did because, again, disaster. So while many of those closest victories are close and exciting, they often came as much from who was behind the winner as what the winner himself did.

The race tied for the closest is a perfect example.

Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer and Gordon to the line in a finish similar to Sunday’s — but take a look at the cars behind them: Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer with teammate Harvick and Gordon with another HMS teammate Mark Martin, because those drivers were as instrumental to the finish as the three top finishers. 

At least some great finishes are, in a sense, manufactured, because the aerodynamic and engine packages dictate a bunched-up pack, and that puts a lot of drivers in position to make a run at the finish.

That may even carry over into the close ones at horsepower-driven intermediate tracks. Simply put, it’s hard to pass — fans lament that very thing often. But when a driver can catch the leader in the closing laps, it can create a great finish because it’s hard to pass, even in a faster car. The difference is the relative stability of the cars on the smaller tracks and that ability of drivers to lean on each other and even bounce off each other without the huge crashes produced by pack racing.

The restrictor-plate era and beyond has produced some of the closest finishes NASCAR has ever seen. That’s not a knock on the good old days either, because a great finish doesn’t always mean it was a great race, and a great race can have a margin of victory that’s not a thriller.

But it all illustrates the importance of perspective when looking at the numbers. There’s a lot to pull from looking at when and where the really close finishes have taken place. From there, you can draw your own conclusions.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill B

Also adding to the prevalence of close finishes are the GWC finishes. With only two laps to the finish cars don’t even get a chance to separate. So naturally the finish will be closer than had the last green flag run been 10+ laps.

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