There is a widespread belief among NASCAR fans that when Dale Jr. wins, everything will be fine in the sport. But after Dale’s victory over Pocono a few weeks ago, the race’s ratings plummeted. It made me and some others think. It was as if the New York Yankees won decisive games on the way to the World Series, but their ratings dropped.
“It’s because it was Pocono, and it’s not great racing,” commented one fan as I turned around and read comments on Twitter. (By the way, I’m afraid I do not have to agree with that.) At Pocono, we’ve had some great races.)
Still, it was a little weird for me. I think the fans are happy when their favorite driver wins. But there’s more to it, and that made me wonder.
What makes a race good?
The significance of that question came to my mind this week when NASCAR asked me to help test the next-generation car, which I will do at Michigan International Speedway on Monday. When it comes to choosing the types of cars we should drive, it seems crucial to have a concept of excellent racing.
So this week, I’m focusing my blog on what I consider great racing. I will start a live, planned discussion about this on Twitter next week with the hashtag #GreatRacing. However, I do not want the conversation to end there. I want everyone to participate – fans, journalists, teams, drivers, track owners, you name it.
For me, the most exciting part of a race is seeing a driver’s skills come to life. When you see a racer who is simply with his head and tail ahead of the competition, and you see him perform, and it’s obvious that his success depends on him, it always takes my breath away.
One of Team Penske’s latest drivers, Alex Tagliani, recently drove car No. 22 on Road America. When it started to rain, he started getting blisters on the field. Rain on a roadway works as an equalizer in some respects because negotiating a shower requires driving skills, and Alex blew past people. It impressed me. And I enjoyed it despite the lack of side-by-side action and a pass in the final lap for the lead. I could have sat up all day and watched it.
Kyle Larson impressed the audience in the Eldora truck race a few weeks ago. Kyle is a natural person in dirt racing, and NASCAR’s truck series hosts an event every year. He drove from the back of the field to the front at Eldora and pounded the car into the wall every lap until he took the lead. It’s hard enough to pass them once around the track, let alone every time. He led for about five laps before his truck broke down because he had run into the wall so many times to get there. Still, it was amazing. His bravery and abilities were demonstrated.
This past weekend, Marcos Ambrose showed his skills as a road driver at Watkins Glen. You can see by looking at him that his speed has everything to do with him and what he does behind the wheel.
But Dale Earnhardt, who was recognized for being heads and tails better than anyone on track plates, is perhaps the driver who stands out most in my mind for his abilities. He invented the driver style that everyone now uses on superspeedways, whether he realizes it or not. He drove through the field at a race with limit plates, and it was just a pure driver, and it was a sight to behold. He won a race in Talladega 2000 – October 2000 – by running from 17th to first in three or four laps, all because he knew how to draft better than everyone else. Almost everyone in the field now copies what he created 10 to 15 years ago in styles and tactics.