Stock car racing can be a spectacular sport. If you’ve paid attention to it very long, you know that.
But it’s not predictable. There’s no guarantee that it will be instantly spectacular, no reliable schedule that tells you when the spectacular part will burst forth.
If you’re going to appreciate the sport for the long haul, you need to have a little patience.
That was true of last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And in a way, the race was a metaphor for the season, even for the long history of NASCAR’s top series.
The Vegas track is a 1½-mile oval. There are eight such tracks on the NASCAR Cup tour and 11 of the season’s 36 Cup events are run on those tracks. In recent years, races on the 1½-mile tracks have been among the least competitive.
So for those tracks NASCAR has phased in a new rules package — changes in engine power and aerodynamics — designed to make for better racing.
We’ve had two races on 1.5-mile tracks — at Atlanta Motor Speedway where half the new rules package was in place, and at Vegas with the full package implemented — and the racing has been pretty good.
At least I think the racing has been pretty good.
The cars didn’t race in a crash-prone pack as some drivers had warned, but there were enough lead changes to keep me watching. And some of those lead changes were not at all easy — demanding several laps of maneuvering. Good stuff.
The Vegas race saw 19 lead changes, up from 11 for the Vegas event last March.
Last year, Vegas winner Kevin Harvick cruised to victory, leading 214 of the 267 laps and crossing the finish line a comfortable three seconds ahead of the second-place car.
This year, winner Joey Logano led seven times for 86 laps. He had to fend off an attempted pass in the final turn and was barely more than two-tenths of a second ahead at the finish line.
No, the race was not spectacular from first lap to last. In fact, the race’s first 80-lap stage was decidedly bland. During that stretch, Harvick dominated the way he had in 2018, building a three- or four-second lead and surrendering it for only a few laps when he pitted sooner than some of the other drivers.
The new rules package was starting to look like a dud. Social media lit up with complaints. Reading Twitter, you might assume the package was DOA.
Social media, you may have noticed, lack patience.
But sometimes, NASCAR is about patience. Sometimes in racing, patience is all.
During the mandated caution period at the end of Stage 1, drivers pitted, teams made adjustments, strategies changed. When the green flag waved again, drivers continued to get comfortable with the way the cars behaved. They found racing lines that worked best for them.
The rest of the race was more fun to watch. There were no crashes — zero spinning, zero crunching — but there was some spectacular racing. Nobody could run off and hide from the field. There were contested lead changes, sometimes in side-by-side battles that lasted more than a lap.
In short, what was a tame race to begin with turned out to be a rollicking good show.
Much of the postrace reaction on social media was about the tame beginning. At times, I got the impression I was the only person on Earth who didn’t have an immediate and vehement prescription to cure all that ails NASCAR.
But maybe the cure for racing on 1½-mile tracks is in place and beginning to work.
Atlanta and Vegas were good races. The teams figured out how to handle the new rules on the Vegas track. They’ll figure out how to make things work on other tracks as the season progresses.
Competition, already pretty good, will continue to get better. If fans can just take a deep breath, maybe they’ll see it happening.
NASCAR might also do well to take a deep breath. The sanctioning body may have to tinker with the new rules package, but best to keep the tinkering to a minimum and let the teams adjust.
Stock car racing has long been that way — not just a race at a time or a season at a time, but over the course of decades.
I’ve been watching stock cars compete since I was a kid in the 1950s when my grandma, Ella Ruth, took me to races at short tracks in Southwest Virginia. I’ve been reporting about it since I was a beat writer in the 1970s and ’80s.
Change is part of the sport. Car manufacturers change their models. NASCAR changes its rules.
Sometimes the racing suffers for a while, but the sanctioning body and the teams sort things out.
And when they do, the racing can be spectacular.
Just have a little patience.