RICHMOND, VA. - The folks who run the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are in a quandary.
The on-track product has never been more competitive and unlike the National Football League with its embarrassing pay-for-pain controversy in New Orleans or the National Hockey League’s plague of playoff head hunting, NASCAR stars this season have been behaving, well, like stars.
There has been no repeats of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick playing a deadly version of demolition derby or of Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch renewing their vicious hostilities on the track.
Nor has Carl Edwards tried to push Brad Keselowski through any fences and Jeff Gordon hasn’t threatened to beat up Jeff Burton in more than a year.
So all should be good, right?
Well not quite if you listen to the fans of the world’s best stock car racing series.
NASCAR bosses and track owners have been inundated with complaints that Sprint Cup races — especially at the predominant 1.5-mile tracks that make up more than one-third of the schedule — have become boring.
Boring, as in no beating and banging and no wrecks. Although NASCAR is loathe to admit it, that kind of close quarter racing is a huge part of the sport’s allure.
Last weekend at Kansas and the week before that in Texas — both 1.5-mile ovals — there were fewer yellow caution flags than in the previous six races combined.
What that means is that there were long stretches of racing uninterrupted by crashes, which some might say is a good thing, but it created a downward blip in people watching, both on television and at the track.
In any event it is a cause for alarm among NASCAR’s tall foreheads.
On Friday at Richmond International Raceway, scene of Saturday night’s Capital City/Virginia is for Lovers 400, Cup drivers weighed in on the issue.
Edwards, who was part of last season’s dramatic fight to the finish with Tony Stewart, blames it on the aerodynamics built into the current Cup cars.
He claims it makes it near impossible to get close to a competitor, let alone make passes on the big race tracks.
“I firmly believe, and NASCAR hates it when I say this, that we should not be racing with downforce, sideforce and all these aerodynamic devices,” he said. “I don’t know if that will make more exciting races but it sure as hell will make a guy be able to go up through the field if he has a fast race car and I think that is exciting.”
Edwards, however, said that he is no proponent of the theory that “wrecking is racing” in the modern era of NASCAR. He said he thinks that watching door-to-door racing is more exciting than a bunch of guys crashing into one another.
“I do not think it is right to say that we need wrecks,” he said. “That is just a messed up thing to say. I think we need good racing and I think that if you’ve got guys that are able to race close together and guys that are able to come through the field because their car is better then you are going to get excitement.”
Edwards views were backed up by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he enjoys the long green flag runs where strategy, rather than brute force, comes into play.
“Races that do not have a lot of cautions to me are interesting in watching how the cars change and handle differently on long runs,” the sport’s most popular driver said.
Earnhardt said that he is of the opinion that the current dilemma can be blamed on drivers who are points racing — trying to avoid a race-ending wreck.
“Everybody is trying to just get as many points as they can get,” he said. “They are trying to put themselves in position to make the Chase.
“If you go out there running over each other, damaging your car and costing yourself 10 points here and 10 points there you can lose the opportunity to make the Chase pretty quickly.”
Jimmie Johnson, the only driver in NASCAR history to win five consecutive Cup championships, said he thinks that the sport has so many good drivers and good teams right now, that it breeds the kind of racing fans may not appreciate.
“Right now, the sport is as competitive as it’s ever been,” he said. “The reason we can’t pass more often is we’re all virtually running the same speed.”
He disagrees with Edwards, however, about the aero packages. Johnson said it is the tracks that need to change.
“From a competition side, NASCAR has created a very level playing field, which we were all after,” he said. “And now we need to look at the venues and try to put on a better show based on the tracks.”
Certainly the debate could come to a crashing halt Saturday at Richmond, where short-track racing often breeds those temper tantrums and wrecks fans say they have missed so far this season.
TRACY GAVE ALLMENDINGER A KICK-START
Take a bow Paul Tracy.
NASCAR Sprint Cup star A.J. Allmendinger said Friday that he can trace all of his success to the help he got from Scarborough’s Tracy when he was a teenager trying to win karting races in his native California.
“I think for everybody that doesn’t know my background to the full extent, when I was 16, 17 years old trying to figure out what I was going to do, Paul Tracy had this karting team and really stepped up and at that point it was amazing to me to have such a superstar wanting me to be a part of his race team.”
Allmendinger said that Tracy’s generosity in funding his karting team made him think he could do the same thing and thus was born the Allmendinger Karting Scholarship that will allow one young diver a year to pursue his or her racing dreams.
“What Paul did was something that I took to heart and knew that it was something that, once I got to the right time in my life, I wanted to kind of do the same thing,” he said. “To me (karting) is the most pure form of racing there is, whether you’re six, seven years old or on up through the ranks or somebody like me that’s still trying to relive my old glory and still race go karts.
“That’s something that was always important to me. That’s why I wanted to start the karting scholarship. I wanted to do this the last couple of years and I felt like this was the right time.”
SPRINT CUP QUALIFYING
(Top 10 qualifying speeds (in m.p.h.) for Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Capital City/Virginia is for Lovers 400:)
1. Mark Martin 128.327
2. Carl Edwards 128.290
3. Kevin Harvick 128.041
4. A.J. Allmendinger 127.962
5. Kyle Busch 127.956
6. Jeff Gordon 127.750
7. Denny Hamlin 127.732.
8. Martin Truex Jr. 127.678
9. Kasey Kahne 127.593
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 127.545