BRISTOL, Tenn. – Carl Edwards waxed eloquent when he spoke in victory lane Saturday night about it felt to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I’ve watched this a lot,” he said. “I think every short-track racer out there dreams about this. ...This is awesome.”
Here, however, is the problem.
The race Edwards and all of those other short-track drivers have watched here over the years looked nothing like the one Edwards won Saturday night.
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It’s possible, I reckon, to have an argument over whether the kind of racing that happened at this newly surfaced .533-mile track was better on some kind of artistic level, than what fans had become accustomed to here.
But there’s no arguing that what the crowd here watched this time wasn’t anything like the kind of racing that has helped this track sell out 51 straight times. And unless the good folks that run the joint can find 160,000 or so race car drivers who like the idea of having enough room to stay out of each other’s way, that streak could one day be in jeopardy.
Maybe this race, one in which Edwards and Kasey Kahne combined to lead 487 of 500 laps, was an aberration.
Maybe, as some suggested, that happened because of hard tires that Goodyear supplied for this first race on the new concrete surface, and that part of the equation will change if NASCAR’s tire supplier ever remembers how to build a softer tire.
But the same tires were used Friday night in a Busch Series race that was about as good as stock-car racing can be, anywhere.
What was so different 24 hours later?
Perhaps, Edwards opined, the 500-lap Cup race just played out differently from the shorter Busch race.
“Everybody just got to kind of where they belonged by lap 250 or 300,” Edwards said. “They stacked up relative to how fast they were.”
Boy, doesn’t that sound like a marketing campaign that NASCAR should lock onto?
Come see the cars sort themselves out, and once that happens watch them go around and around and around until it’s time to quit!
“I like the fact that the (new) track allows a lot cleaner race,” said Bob Osborne, Edwards’ crew chief.
“The drivers can go out there and compete with the equipment they have and not have to force their way around other cars. That takes this upper-level good race track to now a great to spectacular race track.”
Osborne knows more about a race car than I could learn in 100 years. But there is no possible way any sane person would think the average race fan liked what they saw Saturday night more than what they had come to be used to at Bristol.
The drivers loved it.
“I have never seen that much racing all over the race track like it was tonight,” Jeff Gordon said.
Well, Gordon finished 19th and there was plenty of racing back where he was. Back in the pack, cars were racing two- and sometimes three-wide. A driver could pass another driver without wrecking him, and that’s a good thing, especially if you’re a driver.
But Nextel Cup racing needs more than 43 fans. The people who came to this race paid real money for their tickets, parked half a county away in some cases and sat in sweltering heat all day and night. If a spirited battle for 14th is all you deliver for them, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
The Chase for the Nextel Cup is better, by a long shot, than the former championship system. But unless the racing is good in the 10 races that make up the Chase, then what you wind up having is a televised math class.
Edwards had every right to be thrilled with his second win of the year and the sixth victory of his career, and runner-up Kasey Kahne led 305 laps and finished second in by far his best run of the year.
But as the fans who came to see it were walking out late on a hot August night, they weren’t talking about all the great memories they’d just made. They weren’t talking about how incredible it was to see the kind of racing you don’t see anywhere else.
That’s what has always made Bristol magic. Let’s hope it comes back real soon.