Back in January, NASCAR President and CEO Brian France gave what, at the time, was a somewhat-comical response to a reporter’s question as to what was the biggest challenge the sport faced in 2016.
“Rain, rain, rain, rain,” said France. “It really is. I’d like to give you some detailed concern I have, but the truth is that the racing is good … So there is no pressing thing that I would like to see get resolved.”
While it is true that the weather wreaked havoc on the 2015 season, the columnists derided France’s comments citing all manner of problems and inequities facing NASCAR in 2016: the waiver rule that let Kyle Busch win a Sprint Cup whilst missing 11 races, the Chase and all its iterations over the last decade, driver discipline and lack of discipline for on-track transgressions, green-white-checkered flubs and what constitutes a restart. There were also sagging TV ratings and dwindling attendance.
Those are all salient points, each with their merits. But there is one thing that isn’t a problem for NASCAR: the racing.
So, as ESPN’s Ryan McGee wrote nearly four years ago, “NASCAR’s got 99 problems, but racing ain’t one.”
We are four races into 2016 (and I know four races does not a season make), but lo and behold, NASCAR has been blessed with good weather (save for the freak sand storm at Vegas two weeks ago) and some good racing. The Daytona 500 was decided by 1/100th of a second. So was last week’s race at Phoenix. At Phoenix there was tire wear, there were tire failures. There were green-flag passes and green-flag passes for the lead. The low-downforce package is doing what fans asked for and Goodyear is pairing it with a good tire that is giving the drivers what they asked for.
I can honestly say that I have watched most of all four races this year without once going to sleep. That was not something that I could have said last year. Or the year before.
Sunday’s finish was one of the best I’ve seen in my 30-plus years around the sport. It was no Craven-Busch at Darlington in 2003, but it was close. Two guys with some history of animosity banging doors for a reason – you know, for a win.
“I don’t think there’s any real love lost between the two of us,” race winner Kevin Harvick said of second place Carl Edwards. “You know, I knew that I was going to get hit, and I’m going to hit him in the same type of manner, just for the fact that I don’t want to spin him out, but you definitely want to rough him up because that’s not the guy that I want to lose to, and I know he doesn’t want to lose to me.
“I would have done the same thing, and really after the race that’s exactly what we said to each other,” he said. “That’s really what NASCAR racing is all about. You’re coming to the checkered flag and he wants to win for his team and I want to win for my team, and there’s a lot on the line. It’s definitely the way that things should have been done.”
“If we would have had one more lap, I could have passed him clean, but it just wasn’t going to work without bumping him,” Edwards said. “So I decided to hit him as hard as I did. I really didn’t want to wreck him, but I thought I moved him enough to get by, but that’s just racing.”
Now this is what you want to see and hear from your drivers, but NASCAR has to put them in a position to provide this kind of excitement for fans. In 2016, they have done this.
Weather permitting, let’s hope they keep it up.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column during the NASCAR season. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.