Caution-free races aren't thrilling the fans
By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The last 901.5 miles at NASCAR's top level have been quick and clean, the kind of races where a team can tinker on the car the entire day and not worry about artificial on-track action ruining a strong run.
It's a racer's dream, but it's apparently a fan's nightmare.
Three of the last four Sprint Cup races have been accident-free, which has reignited the age-old debate: Do fans prefer racing or wrecking?
Based on feedback five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has heard of late, he knows the answer and seems to disagree with the popular opinion.
"It seems like crashing to most is more important than racing," Johnson tweeted Monday morning, adding his disapproval for the sentiment.
NASCAR finds itself in a conundrum following this unusually clean stretch of racing.
The on-track product is pure, and there's been no room for gimmicks or manufactured action during the races. It's what racing is supposed to be, and it gives teams the opportunity to let the race come to them. More times than not, in those kind of races, it's the best car celebrating in Victory Lane.
But it's action and drama that draws attention, and if you don't believe that, rewind to Juan Pablo Montoya crashing into a jet dryer in the season-opening Daytona 500. The accident, ensuing explosion and raging fuel fire drew worldwide headlines and gave NASCAR the literal spark it needed to start the season.
Some of the most memorable moments of last season stemmed from crashes or conflict: An ongoing feud between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick led to a pit-road confrontation at Darlington, Brian Vickers was involved in five of seven accidents at Martinsville, the road-course race at Sonoma resembled a demolition derby and featured intentional wrecking between Vickers and Tony Stewart.
There were plenty of shouting matches from Boris Said calling Greg Biffle "a scaredy-cat" while promising to deliver "a whooping" at Watkins Glen, and Johnson and Kurt Busch had to be separated during a jawing match on pit road at Pocono.
But here we are, eight races into a new season, and nobody is fighting on or off the track. It's so quiet, the only driver to even elicit an emotional response from fans was poor David Reutimann, who drew the ire of NASCAR Nation when he failed to get his disabled car off the track at Martinsville to cause a caution that altered the outcome of the race.
Aside from a lack of compelling drama, NASCAR is also short on accidents of late.
There have been only five crashes in the last four races, and all of them came in the April 1 race at Martinsville.
Before that, the race at California ran caution-free for 124 laps. Rain brought out the yellow on lap 125, and the race was called four laps later. Texas two weeks ago had just two cautions - both for debris - totaling 10 laps and a 234-lap green-flag run to the finish.
Even Bristol, a track infamous for its bumping and banging, was sterile. Although all five cautions were for accidents, only one involved multiple cars and the race featured an unheard of 219-lap green-flag run.
Drivers were asked this weekend at Kansas what's happened to all the action, and opinions were split.
"I'm surprised there's not more wrecks," Johnson admitted last week.
Then came Sunday's race at Kansas, and it was yet another polite affair. There were three cautions for 18 laps, and two of the yellow flags were for debris. The other was for Clint Bowyer's early spin, and the race ended with a 75-lap green-flag run.
Now, there was some excitement as Martin Truex Jr., who dominated the race, tried in vain to chase down eventual winner Denny Hamlin over the closing laps. But it's not clear if that's enough to hold the interest of an audience faced with an enormous selection of entertainment options.
Fans were livid after the ho-hum March 18 race at Bristol, where the crowd was a fraction of what it used to be and the customers were vocal that the racin' just ain't what it used to be in Thunder Valley. Track owner Bruton Smith felt sick on race day when he saw the half-empty crowd, and it didn't get any better when the feedback solicited by Speedway Motorsports Inc. was almost unanimously negative.
Smith has promised to tear up the track if fans believe it will improve the racing, and he'll announce his plans for the Tennessee track on Wednesday.
Drivers seem divided on what's causing this clean racing. Kevin Harvick thinks the stakes are so high right now, with drivers vying for one of the 12 spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, that no one can take any chances.
"I'm sure everyone is trying to get off on the right foot and trying to get themselves positioned as teams and organizations to get into the Chase," he said. "Everyone is trying to win races, so you need as few enemies as possible at this point."
But Brad Keselowski, winner at Bristol, believes the current racing is a product of aerodynamics.
"We can't get close enough to each other to wreck each other," Keselowski said. "That's the reality of it. When you can't get close to someone because of aerodynamic effects of the cars, the potential to wreck is a lot less no matter what the situation. It doesn't matter if you're angry or not angry, you can't get (there) to do anything."
Next up for NASCAR is a Saturday night showdown at Richmond, where the action is typically intense. Of the combined 23 cautions in the two races last year at Richmond, 16 were for accidents and five others were for a spinning car.
Like it or not, that's what fans expect to see at a NASCAR race. That doesn't make it right, and it's certainly not fair to the drivers and teams who prefer pure racing without any gimmicks. Unfortunately, that doesn't appeal to a broad enough audience, at least not for an extended period of time.
There's a nice stretch of racing coming up over the next month for the Sprint Cup Series, which goes from Richmond to Talladega to Darlington to the $1 million All-Star race. Maybe - hopefully - as the calendar turns toward the summer months, the on-track product will heat up accordingly.
Updated April 23, 2012