Friday, March 1, 2013

NASCAR’s Daytona 500: Danica, speed, chaos, and odd rules

CHARLOTTE, February 24, 2013 — Before the green flag ever dropped on the Daytona 500, NASCAR got a lot of publicity. Much was positive, but there was also a downside.

Danica Patrick made racing history by becoming the first woman to win the pole for the prestigious “Great American Race.” That was the good.

Then came a nightmarish 10-car crash on the final lap of a preliminary event leading up to the Sunday showcase. That was the bad and the ugly.

Stock car racing is a strange sport. For example, it is the only sport in the world where its premier event, the Daytona 500, begins the season rather than ends it. But there are other oddities about NASCAR as well. If you learn a few of them before you watch a race, they might help you understand the sport.

NASCAR crash at end of Sunday’s race AP
Speed is critical to fan enjoyment: Not so. Yes, it is called racing, but Indy 500 cars go faster than those in NASCAR. What makes NASCAR so popular is the competition. 

Side by side racing and multiple passes within a single lap are the factors that appeal most to its fans. From the grandstands and television a difference of ten, fifteen or twenty miles an hour on the track are invisible if all the cars have equal capabilities.

Only when one car dominates is speed visibly noticed, and when that happens the race is a snoozer.

Pole position is really important:
OK, Danica Patrick made history by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. Good for her, but put it in perspective. Starting from the pole does not guarantee victory. If it did there would be no need for forty other cars to line up behind the pole winner to race.

All it means is that Patrick has a fast car and she was fastest on the day they qualified. There is an advantage when the green drops that the pole winner has a clean track in front. If something bad happens in the back, the lead car will miss it. Beyond that, you still have to run 500 miles to win.

Races are frequently decided in the pits:
No doubt having a great pit crew is important, but racing people want you to believe that fractions of seconds in the pits can determine the outcome of a race. That rarely happens.

Think about it. If a pit stop happens under yellow, fractions of seconds mean very little when the cars line up for the re-start. There may be a difference in track position, but early in the race that is usually a non-factor.

Only if the pit stops are made under green at the very end of the race, does a quality pit stop affect the final outcome, and that does not happen often. More often than not what really happens is the pit crew miscalculates a tire change or how much fuel the car needs to complete the event under a green flag.

Race fans go just for the wrecks:
Simply not so. True race fans know more about drivers and their teams than advocates of just about any other sport. It is almost a soap opera of sport. Real race fans know everything about the families and backgrounds of their favorite drivers.

Race fans understand strategy and nuances on the track that novices never consider. When a wreck happens it is like having a family member in the car. There is more fan and brand loyalty in racing than any sport on earth. If you don’t believe it, just ask sponsors why they spend so much money to have their names plastered all over the cars.

You can win a race without driving the full distance:
Several years ago NASCAR introduced something called the “Lucky Dog,” which is the most ridiculous rule in major sports. It is a bit difficult to explain, but when a caution flag come out, it allows the first car that crosses the start/finish line that is one lap down to return to the lead lap. That driver must start at the back of the lead pack, but he still returns to the group of contenders.

Think of it as sort of a wild card rule in racing.

No driver who received the “Lucky Dog” position has ever won a race, technically he could, and, if he did, he would actually go to victory lane without driving the full distance.

One final note about wild crashes at the end:
NASCAR does everything it can to ensure the safety of its drivers. More than any other sport NASCAR rules change from season to season. But in an attempt to give racing fans the ultimate experience, NASCAR created something called the “Green/White/Checker.”

In the simplest terms, the rule keeps races from ending under a yellow flag and sending fans home disappointed. A Green/White/Checker guarantees a race to the finish, but in the end, it also sets up dangerous conditions where drivers take chances they otherwise would not consider at any other point in the event.

That is when the wildest wrecks can occur, and it is probably the most dangerous rule in all of sport

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