Murto: What makes a good race?

By Craig Murto

There are probably as many answers to the question of what makes a good race as there are fans in the stands.

Is a boring three-hour race that ends with a side-by-side battle for the win at the end a good race? Is a race that has fans on the edge of their seats for 80 percent of it, only to settle down at the end, a bad race?

Judging from the whining of a lot of fans on social media following Sunday’s 500-mile Sprint Cup race at Talladega, many fans would rather sleep for most of the race and be awakened for a good finish. I wonder if those fans wouldn’t be happier following drag racing, as drag races are quick and usually always side-by-side battles for the win.

Sunday’s Talladega race was actually one of the best superspeedway restrictor-plate races in years. There was two- and three-wide racing for most of the first 170 laps. When Jamie McMurray grabbed the lead that resulted in his win, he did so with an outside pass in a three-wide battle for the top spot.

There were 52 lead changes among 20 drivers. By any standards, that’s a very competitive automobile race. But something strange happened — or rather, didn’t happen — at the end of the race.

The pack got single file. And after Jimmie Johnson — one of the strongest cars all day — tried to make a move and got hung out to dry with no drafting partners, nobody else made a move. Oh, there were a few cars in the back that tried to pull out; some even had a little help. But they couldn’t get the numbers to make the inside line work against the lead draft of cars, all running nose to tail in the high line.

There was a last-lap crash. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. upset the air behind Austin Dillon’s ride, sending Dillon around. Casey Mears slammed into Dillon’s car and sent it airborne, thus freezing the field and ending the race under yellow.

But it wasn’t “the big one.” In fact, it was only the third yellow all day. The first was early on for a blown engine, and the second was on lap 78 for a two-car crash involving Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Here was no 20-car calamity, though the racing was fierce enough all day to produce one.

The finish was rather tame. Compare it to the Camping World Truck race run the day before, which had four separate multi-vehicle wrecks in the final 25 laps, including a 12-truck wreck on the last lap that sent one on its roof. Is that what the fans want, wrecks? Are the sport’s detractors correct about race fans? Is that what makes a great race? It was a great race for winner Johnny Sauter, but for the many teams taking their trucks home in a box … not so great.

Fans were on the edge of their seats Sunday for nearly 170 laps. Did the final 18 laps make the race a bad race?

If a Formula One race had just five cars nose to tail at the finish it would be called the best F1 race of all time. If an IndyCar race had 30 lead changes among 10 drivers it would be heralded as the best anyone has ever seen. But when a Cup race at Talladega ends without the big one, or without a last-lap pass, fans seem to forget the previous two-and-a-half hours they spent standing or on the edge of their seats.

Maybe I’m missing something, but 52 lead changes among 20 drivers in 180 laps is a pretty competitive event. And it was a pretty good day for Jamie McMurray, who ended a 108-race winless streak to grab his first win in three years and seventh of his career.

It was a pretty good race for McMurray’s car owner Chip Ganassi, who was celebrating the fact that his driver Scott Dixon won his third IndyCar championship the night before in a 500-mile race in Fontana, Calif., won by Will Power. That race — The MAVTV 500 — had a lot of wrecks, a lot of cautions, and more than half the field didn’t finish. Was that a good race?

I realize the battle at Talladega fizzled out at the end. But every race is different, and every race ends differently. There were 52 lead changes among 20 drivers. Think about that. Then ask yourself, “What makes a good race?”

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.