Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Wacky Finishes Are Showcasing a Stark Reality

This past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott led the field to the checkered flag in the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 during overtime.

That finish was the third overtime ending in a row for the Cup Series, a mark that hasn’t been touched since the 2007 season. To put that in perspective, the last time that three straight races ended in overtime, Nextel was the series sponsor and Jimmie Johnson was that year’s champion. If you watched the race this past weekend, you know what Johnson is up to these days, and it’s barely akin to racing.

What makes this even more interesting, though, is that it comes after having the longest streak without overtime in a decade. Why is that important? And why are both of these anomalies happening in the same season? Is it just happenstance or something deeper?

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The answer to those questions is simple: It’s much deeper than sheer coincidence. NASCAR made this bed and now it has to lie in it, along with its fans.

The 2024 season is now a quarter of the way over, and so far, it’s been nothing short of chaotic. From the three-wide finish at Atlanta to the snooze-fests at some short tracks that drastically contrast with the Bristol crapshoot earlier this year, inconsistency has been the name of the game.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. It makes the product much more enjoyable more times than not. Wherever fans may land on the cautions vs. unpredictability debate Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi had this week, 2024 has undeniably been entertaining up to this point when viewing all of the races as part of the greater whole.

However, when viewing each race under a microscope, there are some glaring issues that can point toward the inconsistencies that have made this season such a mixed bag of results.

One of these is that the short track package is light years behind the mile-and-a-half and even the superspeedway package. The short track racing is not only snooze-worthy, it might be the worst the sport has seen in quite some time. With short tracks being one of the hallmarks of the sport, a bad package for those tracks simply isn’t sustainable for NASCAR.

Every short track race aside from Bristol has been the most boring brand of racing outside of Formula One when Max Verstappen’s car holds together, and from the looks of it, NASCAR isn’t in a hurry to fix the horsepower issue that many drivers claim as the root cause. Therein lies the bottom end of the unpredictability spectrum.

At the top end, though, are the 1.5-mile tracks. Just this past weekend, a record was set at TMS with 16 caution periods over the course of a three and a half hour-long race. Most people don’t want to do anything for that long, much less sit still in front of a television.

It seems, then, that superspeedways are somehow in the middle. If fans would have been told that at the start of the season, they would have laughed someone out of the watercooler room.

Yes, superspeedway racing is the middle ground right now, and the duty of finding that middle ground everywhere else falls on NASCAR’s shoulders. Short tracks have too much parity and 1.5-mile tracks seem to be too unforgiving, which means NASCAR has to find a way to go in opposite directions at very opposite track types. Can both be done simultaneously? Will one have to happen before the other? That much is unclear, but something needs to be done.

Texas was a good race because nobody knew who was going to win, and that’s how it should be. Were 16 cautions and three and a half hours necessary to get to that point? Probably not. At the same time, races like Martinsville are going to do more harm than good. A bit more consistency toward one direction or the other has to happen without fully committing to either, and that’s a rock and a hard place nobody wishes to be between, especially not this tired writer.

About the author

Tanner Marlar is a staff writer for On3 Sports' Maroon and White Daily covering Mississippi State Athletics, an AP Wire reporter, an award-winning sports columnist and talk show host and master's student at Mississippi State University. Soon, Tanner will be pursuing a PhD. in Communicative Research.

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