INDIANAPOLIS - The way some would have you believe, NASCAR racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an ungainly and abhorrent display. It's a miserable product leaving ticket-buying fans depressed to the point of no return - literally.
The second part was evident Sunday as total number of folks on-hand for the 20th running of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the 104-year-old facility continued to dwarf the capacity crowds seen for the first decade and a half of the stock cars at IMS.
But the first part? The one about the racing nearing gouge-your-eyes-out status?
I missed that part during Sunday's Brickyard 400, though there was something abhorrent about the proceedings: Someone somewhere decided the "official" name of the race should be a mishmash of words totaling 89 characters without the spaces. Even online, I'm not sure I have enough room to type it.
On track, though, Sunday's race looked and felt much like many recent races at the Brickyard. Depending on your view, that could be good or bad.
Lead cars often separated quickly, with the trailing pack following in a single-file procession with occasional passing bids at the end of the long straightaways. But more than a few times, lapped cars and lead cars came together to produce three-wide situations as the drivers raced for the corner. Often the television broadcast missed it - that happens on a 2.5-mile track with just one screen available - but I'm sure those fans seated in the track's famous Turn 1 saw many moments where there was realistic concern if a crash was imminent. That's the very drama in racing that captivates the most people.
Of course, the drivers all made it through. In fact, Sunday's race was the first in NASCAR's history at IMS to run without a single car crashing or spinning. But it wasn't far from the previous track low: Jeff Burton's accident in the 1995 race brought out that race's only caution. I don't remember attendance at the 1996 event suffering incredibly as a result.
The parts about Sunday's race that most interested me came in a part of the sport that's admittedly intricate and hard to always explain. But it goes like this: Thanks to the large track size and long lap times at Indianapolis, teams have a chance to play a differing pit stop strategy because the possibility of getting lapped is reduced and the chances of going multiple laps down during an off-cycle pit stop are virtually zero. It's a lot like road course racing.
Sunday, a few teams with names you've probably heard of - Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch were a few - resorted to the altered approach when they realized that pure on-track passing and advancement were too difficult. When those teams jumped to the alternate strategy with over 100 laps to go, it became instantly engaging if you understood that the altered strategy may permit the chance-takers an opportunity to either battle for the win or jump in the running order with a quick late pit stop.
It was a risky move because an ill-timed caution flag could wipe out the strategy and cause a net loss of position that was impossible to recover from. Or the late pit stop - many gamblers weren't planning to take four fresh tires - could leave the car handling too poorly to maintain the gained time. All told, it was a gamble that could pay off big or lose even worse. When that's happening, it's hard to look away.
By the end of the race, Earnhardt, Gordon and Logano had played the strategy the best. Earnhardt (sixth) especially came out big from his roll of the dice, ultimately playing the strategy well enough to recover from being 43rd before Lap 15 and a lap down.
But that story, the one of separate strategies trying to maximize who got to the finish line first not just by on-track position changes, is one not often told well or at all. It's not the easiest to keep track of in NASCAR without a pen, paper and idea of how many laps teams can run on fuel.
Of course, you shouldn't read my defense of Sunday's race as one saying all of racing should mirror that product or that NASCAR shouldn't seek some improvements to the overall on-track experience. The sport should undoubtedly keep searching for creative methods with extremely low levels of gimmickry to improve the product. I disagree with Tony Stewart's post-race sentiment on Sunday that said passing isn't a part of racing.
He's right in the purist sense, but completely wrong if he thinks simply putting machines on a track to find the fastest is a good enough display to keep tens of millions in sponsorship money coming in.
In the meantime, NASCAR needs a way to re-focus on telling the stories of the race within a race. What about Earnhardt's strategy was risky? Why did Kurt Busch's strategy not work as planned?
The buck should also stop with IMS, where the public address system and use of video and statistical technology leaves a lot to be desired in terms of informing the crowd of the stories happening within a race. Only a small percentage are tuned in with radio scanners and expensive rental handheld video systems that can help them stay engaged.
NASCAR at Indianapolis will never be the most jaw-dropping show that the sport could put together. That's a fact everyone knew when they came to America's most legendary track. In fact, there have been plenty of Indianapolis 500s on the same track that left plenty to be desired, though IndyCar has found a better package.
But there are elements of the whole scene that remain plenty cool and plenty interesting to follow. Perhaps I'm naive, but I think fans anywhere can understand and appreciate fascinating strategy beyond side-by-side racing. Plus, cars diving into a 90-degree corner at 200 miles per hour isn't something people see everyday.
Figuring out how to make that story told simply and easily at Indianapolis might make a big difference.
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