My Brain on NASCAR: You can’t keep a five-time champ down

I have long been known as the type who would roll my eyes when some random naysayer compared NASCAR to hockey, the classic “I went to see a fight and a game broke out” sport.

But recently, I have come to understand that point of view a little better.

Please forgive me for a little self back-patting here, but before the start of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) season, I confess I picked Jimmie Johnson to win it all. That’s not exactly going out on a limb, but the only thing worse in a fellow competitor’s eyes than Jimmie Johnson is a ticked-off Jimmie Johnson.

After five seasons as the series champion, spending the past several months watching Tony Stewart get all the love cannot be all that easy to take.

Well, Johnson is back … not that he ever left. His July 29 win in the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver at the Brickyard – seriously, I’ve had marriages shorter than that race name – was his third of the season, and his fourth career victory at the Brickyard.

Johnson didn’t just win the race; he basically annihilated the rest of the field, leading 90 of the 160 laps and beating second-place finisher Kyle Busch to the checkered flag by over four seconds. That’s like a half-mile in NASCAR years.

The win was exciting … for Jimmie. For those of us who sat and watched, it was a whole lot of one car riding around by itself while 40 or so others chased it in a pack, and not much else. There were five caution periods totaling 25 laps: one for debris and four for accidents, only one of which involved more than one car.

As NASCAR fans, we walk a fine line where excitement is concerned. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt, ever, but we like a little nudging and fender banging now and again, resulting in a few cars going sideways and maybe a little harmless fist-shaking afterward. After all, in a memorable quote from a forgettable movie, “Rubbin’ is racin’.”

The 2012 season has been characterized by long stretches of green flag racing and few cautions; at the Brickyard, for example, 100 laps passed before the first yellow flag flew. This is a skill demonstration and a fine example of how competitive the series is and all, but if we’re really shooting straight here, let’s just call it like we see it, or don’t see it.

It’s boring.

Bruton Smith probably the best-known track promoter in the sport has an idea about change that. Smith, you might recall, dug up and reconfigured his own track at Bristol Motor Speedway just weeks ago when fans complained the races weren’t exciting anymore. When it comes to people pleasing, this guy has no competition.

After the June 30 race at Kentucky Speedway, which he also owns, Smith publicly threw out the idea of mandatory cautions in NASCAR, similar to the “TV timeouts” we are accustomed to in other sports.

“You just can’t sit there and nothing is happening. It ruins the event. It’s damaging to our sport. Look at some of your other sports — they have a mandatory timeout, TV (commercial) time and all these things,” he said.

“If you have (cautions) every 20 laps, I don’t care. It adds to the show. Someone once said we were in show business; if we’re in show business, let’s deliver. Let’s deliver that show. Right now, we’re not delivering.”

The drivers are a bit divided on the idea, which would basically force the field to bunch up several times during the race.

“When we start using cautions to make the race ‘more exciting,’ I think that’s going down a slippery slope,” Carl Edwards said. “I don’t think that’s good for the sport … You can’t fabricate sport. Leave sports alone and let the best man win.”

Jeff Gordon took a more pragmatic view.

“I’d rather have (mandatory cautions) than some mysterious debris caution to be honest,” the four-time series champion said. “The integrity of racing, to me, what it’s all about is letting the race play out. I’m not totally against it.”

NASCAR basically dismissed the notion as unfeasible. “Fans want the event to unfold unartificially,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said. “The racing that goes on under green is as exciting as any in motorsports. Sports is a true reality show as it unfolds. … You have to be careful when you think about artificially creating the outcome of that.”

The late George Harrison once said the Beatles saved the world from boredom. It’s unclear at this point if a radical “Revolution” could dramatically improve the situation in the short term, or if NASCAR’s wait and see philosophy will eventually see the competition run its normal course and find a more popular balance on the track.

In the meantime, we all still have a “Ticket to Ride,” and that’s a good thing, so I suspect cooler heads will prevail and just “Let it Be.” For now, at least.

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