Two weeks of ho-hum racing has left NASCAR fans starving for some on-track excitement, so a Saturday night stop at Richmond International Speedway couldn't have come at a better time.
Short track racing traditionally produces some of NASCAR's best racing, and the .75-mile oval at Richmond is the perfect venue for the bumping and banging that spices up the show. And there's been a shortage of that of late.
The last two races, at Texas and Kansas, had a combined five cautions and four of them were for debris. It makes for long green-flag runs and spread-out fields, with a caution being the only hope for bunching the cars back together. Drivers seem to prefer that clean style of racing, but fans want more drama — some may even suggest they want wrecks — and they've been vocal the last month about their disappointment in the on-track product.
NASCAR's top drivers are aware of the dilemma, and go into Saturday night's race wondering if Richmond will satisfy the fans.
"I will not go down that path, I do not think it's right to say we need wrecks. That's just a messed-up thing to say," Carl Edwards said Friday. "I think we need good racing, and I think if you've got guys who are able to race together, and are able to come through the field because their car is better and they can actually pass people, then you are going to get some excitement.
"And the excitement might come in the form of wrecks. A place like Richmond ... this place always seems to be a place where a guy can make something happen. And that's good."
Fact is, NASCAR has a solid schedule ahead, with the racing moving from Richmond to Talladega to Darlington and then the $1 million All-Star race at Charlotte. So, regardless of how drivers, teams or the sanctioning body views the present state of the racing, the on-track product could heat up without any effort.
Still, it's made for interesting debate the past week, and drivers have varying opinions on why the racing has been so clean. It dates to the March 25 race at California, which went caution-free until rain brought out the yellow on Lap 125, and ultimately halted the race four laps later.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson believes the tracks are the problem, with NASCAR making too many stops at downforce tracks.
"I think the venues play a larger part in the excitement, the action, and even the cautions," he said. "I don't think we can look at the garage area for the next change. I think the change comes with the venues. The change comes with the resurfacing of tracks and reconfiguring tracks to make more side-by-side racing.
"And then there's also the argument of tracks that create more cautions that some people want to see. From a competition side, NASCAR has created a very level playing field, which we were all after. And now we need to look at the venues and try to put on a better show based on the tracks."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed that some of the tracks just don't suit the configurations of the current Sprint Cup car.
"You do see side-by-side racing, especially at the short tracks, but on the bigger 1.5-mile tracks you are kind of limited," he said. "You are limited by the aero and the dirty air by the car in front of you. That is always going to be a factor no matter what. There is nothing really that can be done to eliminate that entirely. You just run as hard as you can run."
Edwards, who prefers the recent slate of "pure" racing, said the competition will improve as the season progresses and he's enjoyed the way the last few events have played out. But, if NASCAR really wants to address fan complaints, he said reducing the aerodynamic issues of the race car could help.
"Not every race has to be an exciting, dramatic, crazy bumper-to-bumper finish. If you just let them play out naturally you will get those really great moments," he said. "But I firmly believe that we should not be racing with downforce, sideforce and all these aerodynamic devices. We do not need splitters on the race cars and giant spoilers.
"That is my opinion on how to make the cars and the drivers able to do more, and put it in the drivers and crew chiefs hands. I don't know if that will make more exciting races but it sure as hell will make a guy able to go up through the field if he has a fast race car and I think that is exciting."
Another theory about the racing is the importance of collecting points right now. With making the field for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the benchmark for every team, drivers can't risk being too aggressive right now and jeopardizing their spots in the standings.
"There ain't a lap that I've ran this year that wasn't ran as hard as it could have been ran," Earnhardt said. "I still feel like it's pretty early in the season. Everybody is just trying to get as many points as they can get, trying to make the Chase. If you go out there running over each other and damaging your car, you could cost yourself 10 points here and 10 points there, and you could lose the opportunity to make the Chase pretty quickly."
Edwards last year lost the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, and goes into Saturday night's race ranked ninth in points. He's not yet worried about making the Chase, but is aware how valuable points are all season.
"We cannot give up any points," he said. "If you were in my position, you would never be able to forgive yourself if you were ninth in points here in Richmond and they drop the green flag on the last restart here and you have a great race car and you go for some bonzai run and wreck the thing and don't make the Chase."