Dover, fall 2011: Jimmie Johnson leading Kurt Busch...until those final restarts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
When Brian France, the NASCAR boss, was asked last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway about boring racing on the stock car tour this spring and drivers complaining that the playoff points system had forced them to become less aggressive, France curtly dismissed the issue: "Drivers complaining? Like we've never had that before."
However Sunday's arch-rival event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a brilliantly played out Indy 500 – has put the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour's dilemma in exceedingly sharp focus.
NASCAR racing is suddenly boring?
Kasey Kahne, the 600 winner, in yet another less than thrilling stock car race this spring, says the real issue is clear: "You have to be consistent in this sport. It's how the points are. You have to finish races. If you're crashing, you're not finishing – you're losing points.
"The 'chase' is what it's all about.
"If I was to keep crashing, and keep having issues, there's no way you're going to finish – or make the chase."
Blame it on Tony Stewart.
In last fall's NASCAR playoffs Stewart showed that the regular season's 26 races – from February through mid-September – are virtually meaningless. As long as a driver and team can limp into the playoffs, they've got a chance to win the championship. Which Stewart did so spectacularly.
Even five-time champion Jimmie Johnson worries drivers may be "gaming the system," in not racing hard, hoping more not to make mistakes that might take them out of the playoffs.
If it's Dover, keep an eye on Martin Truex Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Las Vegas, Kansas, California, Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Darlington, Talladega, now Charlotte: all less than thrilling events, to be honest.
NASCAR keeps track of many stats but not one of the most important – passes for the lead on the track under green.
Those passes have been few.
Much may be made of the 'official' lead changes, but they include all those green flag pit stops.
And much more should be made of the few cautions seen this season for anything other than debris on the track.
Consider the Coke 600, nearly four hours of it, and only one minor scrape?
Denny Hamlin's take: "Everyone is so concerned with points. You know if you wreck and finish in the 30s, it's going to take 10 races to get that back.
"So everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts…as crazy as that sounds.
"It's just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago. Everyone is minding their p's and q's, trying to get the best finish…knowing the one thing you can't overcome in a race is a crash."
And now Dover, one of the tour's meanest tracks, where Friday morning practice runs are typically thrilling, at least for the drivers barreling off downhill into the turn one concrete.
Think North Wilkesboro Speedway, just twice the size, and much faster uphill into turn three.
This is usually a great track for Jack Roush men, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Sprint Cup leader Greg Biffle, who continues to show one of the strongest cars on the tour.
But Dover is more than just high-speed concrete; it's also a very tight pit road.
"Darlington and Dover are probably two of the toughest we go to," Biffle says. "They are really super-hard to get on, because it's so flat and the track is going away from you because the corner is tightening up.
"It's sandy, and it's just hard to get down there and get slowed down to get on pit road, because you've got to have the right speed before you get on the apron because on the apron you can’t slow down and you can’t turn -- so if you're not going the right speed, you're going to miss it, period."
Indy 500 drama king Takuma Sato. Wonder if he can drive a stock car? (Photo: IRL)