My Brain on NASCAR: First half of season lacks excitement

While I will continue to maintain that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) competition is the most exciting sport on the planet, I have been forced to lend at least part of an ear recently to complaints that the current season has been a little, well … uninspiring.

Actually, unsurprising might be a better word.

With 18 races completed – it’s difficult to believe we’re already at the halfway point of the season – 12 drivers have visited Victory Lane so far. That seems like a pretty fair distribution of wealth, until you consider who those drivers are. Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski have three wins each, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin with two. Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer have each won once.

Nine of these 12 drivers are in the top 10 following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 7. The lone exception is Martin Truex Jr., who despite his remarkable consistency this season has yet to win a race.

The problem here is that the names on this list are exactly the ones you would expect to see.

What a difference a year makes. The 2011 NSCS season was fraught with uncertainty and full of surprises. Statistically, it was the most competitive season in Cup Series history, with a record number of lead changes and leaders per race. In 23 of the 36 races, the margin of victory was less than a single second.

We had to go to a tiebreaker to determine our champion, as Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended up dead even in points after the final race. Five wins in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup gave the trophy to Stewart, who had gone winless during the regular season.

One of the major stories of the year was uncertainty. The 2011 season gave us five first-time winners: Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose. From week to week, you literally had no idea who was going to win each race.

We can’t say that this year. I would expect Carl Edwards and maybe Jeff Gordon to grab one, and something fluky could happen on the one remaining road course race, but otherwise, I think we have our list.

The absence of a real “element of surprise” is compounded by the fact that many feel the on-track competition in 2012 has been more action-lacking than action-packing. No one seems able to pin down exactly when frequent melees with the potential for serious injury were deemed preferable to long stretches of close green flag racing, but that is just what seems to have happened.

In an interview earlier this season, Earnhardt offered his opinion regarding what has been described as a paucity of aggressive driving.

“Everybody is just trying to get as many points as they can get, trying to make the Chase,” he said. “If you go out there running over each other and damaging your car, you could cost yourself 10 points here and 10 points there, and you could lose the opportunity to make the Chase pretty quickly, so you have to be pretty smart when you’re driving your car.”

That’s not what we want to hear, by the way. Points racing seems to drive lots of people nuts.

Even the first of the two annual NSCS races at Bristol Motor Speedway, long touted as one of the top tracks on the circuit in terms of the excitement factor, ran only 49 of its 500 laps under yellow caution flags. Thank goodness all of them were thrown for accidents rather than debris, since apparently fans have decided they definitely prefer wreckin’ over racin’.

What is this, ancient Rome? Do we really want to create an environment where we toss all the competitors into the arena and hope for the best? I still have enough faith in my fellow man to believe that true fans would rather see a good, competitive beatdown than a bunch of beat-up race cars.

But then again, I’m pretty sure Ben-Hur never raced for points.

The next race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The defending champion is Ryan Newman.

Driver standings after Daytona:

1. Matt Kenseth
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3. Greg Biffle
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Tony Stewart
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Denny Hamliin
8. Martin Truex Jr.
9. Brad Keselowski
10. Clint Bowyer

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