Good racing is not always good drama. Sorry, old-school race fans, but it's true. Sometimes, a masterfully run race is about as exciting as a parade, minus the candy thrown from the floats.
And as NASCAR heads into its final weekend of 2012, with both viewer interest and sponsor dollars on flimsy foundations, it's about time to confront the issue NASCAR has danced around for decades: Is this a sport, or is it entertainment?
Let's begin by clarifying the terms. We're not saying NASCAR is scripted, pro wrestling style, despite what some critics (and some drivers) would have you believe. But there is indeed manipulation of events to create drama, on both the micro (those phantom-debris caution flags) and macro (The Chase for the Sprint Cup) levels. NASCAR doesn't necessarily care who wins a race, but it wants a good battle before we all get there.
At its heart, NASCAR is the most fundamental of all sports: Whoever gets to the finish line first wins. Even toddlers understand this concept. And Ernest Hemingway had such an affinity for auto racing that he termed it one of the only real sports, along with mountain climbing and bullfighting. "All the rest," he said, "are merely games." It's a meaty, rally-the-race-fans quote, wrapped around the DNA of the sport and even repurposed as a promotional tag line for ESPN this year.
Thing is, Hemingway classified those three as "sports" because in his day, all had the very real potential to kill their participants. Certainly, the possibility for serious injury or worse still exists in NASCAR, but no NASCAR driver has died on-track since Dale Earnhardt in 2001. It's an uncomfortable fact to confront, but the sport's increased (and, yes, necessary) emphasis on safety has reduced the element of risk that drew many fans to the sport.
At the same time, NASCAR has taken steps to sculpt storylines and set the stage for drama. The biggest story of last week — indeed, maybe the biggest story of the year — wasn't the impending championship race, it was a fight between two drivers and their crews. Jeff Gordon vs. Clint Bowyer fired up the fan base in a way 20 routine cookie-cutter-track races combined couldn't do.
Despite what some fans scream, there's no grand conspiracy to determine a winner — if that were the case, we wouldn't have five years of Jimmie Johnson winning and four years of Dale Earnhardt Jr. losing — but NASCAR most definitely wants to put the pieces in place for a thrilling ending. It's like a Michael Bay movie where robot after giant robot after planet-sized robot shows up, everything leading to a final battle that we're pretty sure won't end in handshakes and hugs.
Consider the Chase itself. NASCAR instituted the Chase in 2004 as a form of racing playoffs, and transplanting a "postseason" into what had been a season-long race was a tricky and not-entirely-successful surgery. Indeed, the Chase has had more workovers than an aging runway model, all in the pursuit of moments like last year, when the season came down to literally the last turn on the last lap of the last race, and Tony Stewart won the championship on a one-point tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
Sure, it's forced drama. But it's still drama. Without the Chase last year, Edwards would have locked up the season championship the week before Homestead. Love or hate the Super Bowl, you don't go into the week knowing who the NFL champion is before you play the game.
And that's the problem NASCAR faces: Sometimes, sports aren't particularly dramatic. Sometimes, one team (or one driver) absolutely throttles everyone else. Despite NASCAR's attempts to go for what it calls a "Game 7 moment," sometimes it doesn't work out that way. (This year's World Series, for instance, didn't even see a "Game 5 moment.")
So does the sport keep manipulating events to funnel everything down to a dramatic finish? Or does it allow events to play out with the chance that wins will be drama-free? Doing the former risks alienating fans who feel manipulated; doing the latter risks boring fans with follow-the-leader racing. Nice choice, huh?
This weekend, if all goes according to sporting design, Brad Keselowski will conclude his season-long run at a championship, holding off Jimmie Johnson with a triumphant run at Homestead. But don't be surprised if there's a lot more drama than we'd expect. That has a way of happening these days in NASCAR races.
-Jay Busbee will be in Homestead all weekend covering the NASCAR finale. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-