Race Weekend Central

The Perfect Race

I’m fast approaching my 20th year working in and covering NASCAR – which is another story in itself – but, hand on my heart, I can honestly say last Sunday’s (May 5) race at Kansas Speedway was the best race I’ve ever seen. From the drop of the green to the flutter of the checkers, I was absolutely riveted. And, added to that, it was the closest finish in NASCAR’s long Cup Series history.

And it got me thinking, is there such a thing as a perfect race? Come to that, is there such a thing as a perfect anything (and like my NASCAR history, that’s a whole ‘nother story). But back to my point, can you have a perfect race, even allowing for all the biases — inherent, open and otherwise — we have as race fans on any given Sunday afternoon?

One good indicator on where Sunday’s race sits in the annals of NASCAR history, albeit a somewhat unscientific indicator, is the Jeff Gluck Good Race Poll. And the results show that in eight years and 312 races the veteran NASCAR writer has polled fans, it was the number one race with a whopping 95.8% positive reaction. It edged out the Bristol Motor Speedway Night Race of 2021, coincidentally also won by Kyle Larson.

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This of course begs a secondary question in my inquiring mind: what exactly about that race did 4.2% of respondents think was not good?

Some theories might include: die-hard Chris Buescher and RFK Racing fans; folks who despise green-white-checkered finishes; fans who don’t like Larson or Hendrick Motorsports, as an entity; Chase Elliott fans who don’t like races he doesn’t win; or maybe fans who are just overall irritated with NASCAR, but other than that I can’t think of anything else significant. If by some small chance you’re one of those 4.2% of respondents who voted that it wasn’t a good race, please elaborate below in the comments. I’d be fascinated to know what you didn’t like. Genuinely.

In this week’s installment of Actions Detrimental, Denny Hamlin went as far as to call it the perfect race. This, don’t forget, is from a driver who would likely have won had the late caution not occurred and who led the field to green for the overtime finish. If anyone could legitimately have a gripe about how it all went down, it would be the 20-year, 662-race Joe Gibbs Racing veteran from Chesterfield, Va. But even he called it perfect.

And as I think about a perfect race, there is one immediate distinction I want to make right off the bat. There’s a significant differential between a phenomenal finish and a perfect race. The recent Atlanta race, where Daniel Suarez beat Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney to the line in a finish reminiscent of the three-way tie in the first race of the first Cars movie, was an all-time conclusion to a race that was compelling but not, I would say, great. We naturally over-weigh how good a race that was by the stunning finish, but objectively it was not a barnburner throughout.

So what are the ingredients that make up the recipe for the ideal race?

Truth is, the answer is likely slightly, or perhaps very, different for every serious NASCAR aficionado. There is, of course, the aforementioned great finish. But that’s just a small part in the bigger picture. So here’s a laundry list of some other possible elements:

  • Consistent battles for the lead across the race;
  • Comers and goers;
  • Tire fall-off and lap time differential;
  • Compelling pit crew strategy;
  • Overcoming penalties;
  • Gripping stage finishes;
  • Side-by-side racing;
  • A first-time winner;
  • A totally unexpected winner (but not when weather has played a part);
  • and let’s be fair here, your favorite driver winning.

Those are certainly some of the factors, but far from an exhaustive list.

And as I started to write this column, I truly felt that it would end up with me giving you a list, a template if you will, for what makes a perfect race. If a race has all these particular qualities – those I’ve listed above and a few more besides – then that’s what makes it perfect.

The famed Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali once said, “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” And there’s a lot in that quote that applies. Did we see a perfect race on Sunday? No, we did not. 4.2% (a not insignificant statistical amount) of respondents said no after all. Was it close to being perfect? No question. Was it one of the greatest races in NASCAR history? I’d say yeah, it was.

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So I guess my point overall is that there’s no such thing as a perfect race. In this black-and-white, knee-jerk reaction, hyper-on world of ours, we are quick to ascribe definitive labels. And I was one of those on Sunday evening, texting my NASCAR buddies saying it was perfect, the best race ever and more.

Ultimately, though, I think for me it comes down to: how does a race make you feel? Does it get you out of your seat or off the couch? Does it quicken your heart, your pulse? Are you left with the “have you ever, no I’ve never” type of a response to what you just witnessed? And in 20 years of watching NASCAR, from lap 1 to lap 267 I was utterly enthralled, I literally couldn’t take my eyes off the screen (not even for my second screen).

Perfect? Nah, but pretty damn close, that’s for sure.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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Bill B

I am not a fan of GWC finishes and I find it perplexing how people are surprised when the finish is close. Of course it’s going to be close, they only ran two laps. It’s like setting up dominoes.
With that said, it was a great race but I would not say it was a perfect race.

Shayne

No such thing as a perfect race. My idea of good racing doesn’t involve gimmicks. No free passes, no stages, no playoffs, or GWC finishes.

My idea of good racing hasn’t happened in a very long time.

DoninAjax

There hasn’t been a real “race” since 2004! Wave the green to start and let the “race” play out without the gimmicks. If the Indy 500 can finish under caution then Brian’s “entertainment” product should to. How good a race is depends on who the winner is.

wildcatsfan2016

Nope, this wasn’t a perfect race. There are very few of those and they are usually in the eye of the beholder – for example, if one of my favorites won! Otherwise it’s not likely that I’ll consider it a perfect race. The finish in Atlanta between Gordon & Harvick comes close because of the emotions for the fan base after Earnhardt’s death.

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