JG Online


'Golden Era Of Competition'
Winter 2009

A few members of the NASCAR-accredited media recently discussed how "dull and boring" the racing competition has become. They bemoaned a lack of competition on the track and yearned for the "good old days." There's just one problem with reminiscing: The memories are often color-coded and watered down.

I was amazed at some of the criticism that Larry McReynolds, Jimmy Spencer, and Kyle Petty came up with during their roundtable discussion earlier this year with Dustin Long of the News & Record. The trio cited boring and relatively non-competitive races. I would love to know their standard of comparison. For example, Jimmy Spencer's winningest season in NASCAR racing was 1994 where he scored two victories, with both coming on restrictor plate tracks. Let's take a look at the final race of the 1994 season at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Mark Martin won by nearly 3.5 seconds over Dale Earnhardt. There were just six cars on the lead lap at the end of the race. Jeff Gordon finished 15th and was 5 laps down. Let's fast forward 15 years to the present day. The final race of 2009 was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track similar to the previous configuration of Atlanta. There were 29 cars on the lead lap when Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag. To be succinct: six lead lap cars in 1994, 29 lead lap cars in 2009. Maybe the "good old days" from the 1990's weren't so good after all.

Was the competition any better in the fabulous 1980's? Yeah right. The decade that saw Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip combine for 6 championships can not hold a candle to today's NASCAR world. For example, take the case of Buddy Arrington, a hard-working independent driver who raced the balance of his career devoid of major sponsors. From 1980-1985, Arrington posted 25 top-10 finishes, yet he never once finished on the lead lap. He was multiple laps down in every single race he started. Good luck trying to post a top-10 finish these days while running two laps off the pace.

Criticism abounded following the 2009 fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. For nearly 20 of the 188 laps (less than 10 percent of the race), the field ran in a long, single-file. However, when the victory was on the line, the field once again bunched up and produced action that fans have come to expect from restrictor plate racing. Would taking the plates off solve anything? Would it create better racing? We only need to look at the era before the plates. For example, take the 1985 Daytona 500 where Bill Elliott led 136 of the 200 laps. Elliott and Lake Speed were the only cars on the lead lap at the checkered flag. Think about this: A Daytona race with just two cars on the lead lap. Would you find that just a bit "boring?" But according to experts such as Jimmy Spencer, that was the golden age of racing! To show the competitive imbalance, Neil Bonnett blew an engine with 5 laps to go and pulled into the garage area. He was credited with a top-10 finish. Ken Ragan, the father of current driver David Ragan, finished in 21st place -- and was 28 laps down! Not a single car dropped out of the 1985 Daytona 500 due to a crash. Rather, the competitive imbalance was simply standard operating procedure in those days. Just for comparison, in the 2008 Daytona 500, there were 32 cars on the lead lap at the finish.

Dale Earnhardt won the 1986 Winston Cup title on the heels of 23 top-10 finishes in the season's 29 races. That sounds ultra-consistent, right? Or is it? Upon closer look at Earnhardt's numbers from 1986, that ultra-consistency might have been a competitive mirage. Earnhardt posted an 8th place finish at Rockingham and was two laps down at the finish. He was 10th at Bristol and was three laps off the pace. At Dover, he was a lap down and finished 3rd. He finished 5th at Michigan, 4th at Bristol, and 9th at Darlington -- one lap off the pace in those three events. In the home stretch, he posted a 9th place effort at North Wilkesboro, two laps down at the finish. He finished 6th at Rockingham, one lap off the pace. In 8 of Earnhardt's 23 top-10 races, he was at least one lap down when the race concluded. Overall, Earnhardt finished off the lead lap in 14 of the 29 races. So, Dale Earnhardt-- perhaps the greatest driver to ever sit in a stock car-- was essentially a lapped car for almost half of the 1986 season, yet he won the series championship. Think about that the next time you question the current era of NASCAR competition and how incredibly consistent Jimmie Johnson has been.

Another aspect of the increased competition can be found on pit road. When I started following NASCAR, the average pit stop was in the 25-30 second range. It was not uncommon for the second rung teams to have volunteer pit crews made up of local mechanics. In 2009, the 33rd place driver's crew routinely turns 14-second pit stops, and they often wind up losing spots to the elite teams who can change four tires in 12 seconds.

The level of competition in NASCAR increases on an annual basis. I've watched the sport for more than 25 years. I was a huge fan of Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond in the 1980's. But I also remember how competition was between the haves (such as Allison and Richmond) and the have-nots (such as Arrington and Ragan). Today's racing is an intense as it has ever been. I completely understand that a segment of fans will never be truly satisfied with the product on the race track. However, the numbers don't lie. The golden era of competition is here and now.

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