Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rating the Finger Lakes 355: 4 Stars ****

It took a race track covered in motor oil to produce an exciting finish, but the Sprint Cup Series drivers sure went nuts as they slid through the final two laps Sunday at Watkins Glen. The first 88 laps weren’t much different than the rest of the relatively boring season, but the wild and crazy finish gives this race a 4 Star Rating.
Kyle Busch had the race won until he ran up on oil laid down by Bobby Labonte’s #47 car and had to slow his pace to stay on the race track. Brad Keselowski caught him in Turn 1 on the final lap and promptly spun him out. Then the battle was on between Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose.
The remainder of the final lap looked like the track’s surface was dirt rather than asphalt. Keselowski and Ambrose swapped the lead several times as they both tried thrashed to get to the finish line first. Ambrose eventually won the battle and took the checkered flag for his second consecutive win at Watkins Glen.
Now, many folks will say an exciting final few laps does not make a good race. There is certainly truth in that statement, but it’s also true that races aren’t designed to be exciting the entire time. Some of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history have come at the end of an otherwise forgettable race. This week’s race gets 4 stars because it had the best finish of the season. Period.
The first 95 percent of the race was about as typical of a Watkins Glen race as possible. Several drivers fell out of the race early because of mechanical problems and teams made varying strategy calls throughout the race. Otherwise, not much happened.
Busch, Keselowski and Ambrose had the three best cars all day, so it was fitting they were the three to battle for the win. And boy, they battled.
Busch should’ve won the race. He beat Keselowski and Ambrose on the final restart and would not have been caught if the track had been dry. His spin on the final lap relegated him to seventh on the scoreboard and moved him to 14th in the points standings, six points away from the second wild-card spot, which is currently held by Ryan Newman.
Maybe the biggest lesson from Sunday’s race is how the slick conditions made for such exciting racing, and how much the drivers enjoyed the battle.
Certainly Busch and Jeff Gordon, who also spun out on the final lap, would disagree, but Keselowski and Ambrose had a ton of fun sliding around for the win.
That type of racing has disappeared in NASCAR in the last five years or so. In the greatest finish of all time, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch slid around Darlington Raceway in 2003 for the final 15 laps banging into each other and having a great time. Craven won the race by .002 seconds.
Unfortunately, that type of racing isn’t possible any more, even at tracks such as Darlington. Nearly every track on the NASCAR schedule has been repaved since Craven’s win in 2003. Atlanta Motor Speedway is just about the only track left that hasn’t been recently repaved and has an abrasive surface that is difficult to drive.
The fresh asphalt gives cars better grip and allows the cars to go faster, but it doesn’t make for better racing. Hopefully, the track surfaces start to give up grip in the near future and become more difficult to drive. That will make for better racing.
Next week the Sprint Cup Series heads to one of the tracks with the newest pavement: Michigan International Speedway. Speeds surpassed 200 mph in June, but that likely won’t happen this weekend with hotter temperatures.
Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win again. We’ll likely hear plenty about his win in June next week. Regardless, expect the big teams to dominate the front of the field. The quality of the car matters a lot at Michigan.
Have a great week, everybody

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