July 15, 2011
By Rebecca Gladden
It always surprises me, and makes a little sad, when the NASCAR season hits the halfway mark.
It seems like just yesterday we were collectively weathering the long offseason and eagerly awaiting the start of Speedweeks and the season-opening Daytona 500.
The mid-February race in Daytona (which will be a week later starting next year) was race No. 1 on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. Last Saturday's race at Kentucky Speedway was race No. 18, marking the official halfway point of the 2011 season.
Before we know it, it will be Thanksgiving and another NASCAR year will have come and gone.
In the meantime, here are a few thoughts on the way this season is shaping up so far, simply termed The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:
The Good: Most fans and pundits agree that the best and most surprising trait of the 2011 season to date has been the variety of race winners and the number of first-time winners. The 18 races run so far have produced 12 different winners -- compare that figure to last year, when just seven drivers combined to win all the races to this point.
Perhaps more importantly, 2010 did not see a single first-time Cup winner in the first half of the year, nor the entire season for that matter. By contrast, 2011 has already produced three first-time winners: Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, and David Ragan.
Each first-time win engenders great excitement and emotion, especially Bayne's victory in his first-ever Daytona 500 at the tender age of 20. One of the most attractive features of racing is the element of surprise -- the fact that you have to keep watching until the very last lap to see who the winner will be.
The larger the pool of potential winners, the greater the suspense for each week’s outcome, as well as the title hunt.
The Bad: The traffic fiasco at Kentucky Speedway last weekend will take a while for everyone -- fans, promoters, track officials, and the sport itself -- to recover from. When as many as 20,000 paid ticket holders are turned away from an inaugural event, and thousands more are stuck in a 20-plus mile-long gridlock, it’s the kind of calamity not easily forgiven or forgotten.
“Carmageddon,” as the nightmare was quickly dubbed, was a major news story over the weekend, even on non-sports broadcasts. And the issues in Kentucky were not all traffic-related; Cup fans who did make it to the track reported a shortage of food and restroom facilities, among other creature comforts.
Overall, it was a disastrous debut for a track that had long lobbied for a Cup date, and one that will likely take years to recover from in the hearts and minds of the fans.
The Ugly: The 2011 season started off with great gusto and, as noted above, has produced a bigger variety of race winners and more first-time winners than we’ve seen in recent Cup seasons.
The stats guys at NASCAR issued a media release Wednesday touting “numbers previously unseen in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history” through the first half of the season -- including an average of 14 different leaders and 31 lead changes per race, both deemed “the most through 18 races in history.”
The problem is that what seems to be proven on paper is not necessarily manifesting on the racetrack, at least according to fans I’ve spoken with. This is particularly true since the All-Star break in mid-May, which slowed the momentum of the first part of the season and was followed by several long, uneventful races.
Each week on Twitter (@nscrwriter), I poll NASCAR fans as soon as a Cup race ends and ask for their best one-word description of the race.
For the last several weeks, by and large, the Number One answer in my unscientific poll has been the dreaded “B” word:
And that is something that racing should never be.
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