Single-file fun? NASCAR drivers find passing tough yet again at the Brickyard
INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe NASCAR should steal a page from IndyCar and install a push-to-pass button.
This past weekend saw the boring Brickyard at its worst.
Juan Pablo Montoya griped over his radio that trying to pass another car cost him position on the track. Jimmie Johnson suggested the track needed a second lane with more banking to help the cause. Denny Hamlin called passing "impossible."
"If impossible is hard, then it was impossible," Hamlin said. "It is just a product of the speed we run, the tire we've got and the surface. It all just makes for hard racing. It's hard to pass anyone. You've just got to deal with it."
Even super-snail "Tubo" would have been stuck in Sunday's single-file snoozer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Never really considered an exciting 400 miles anyway, Indianapolis may have topped itself in the 20th Cup race at the famed track. There were three cautions, for stalled cars or debris, and no accidents or spins.
And such little passing. The field fanned out into single-file racing for most of the event — a plodding style that perhaps is a big reason why the crowd has dwindled from 200,000-plus in the Brickyard's NASCAR heyday to maybe 80,000 fans on Sunday. There were scores of empty rows along the frontstretch, and fans at home probably wound up changing the channel at times. The clean race was responsible for the fastest Brickyard in history at 2 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds.
The race was basically a yawner until Ryan Newman used a flawless final pit stop to top Jimmie Johnson for the win.
All this came only two months after one of the more thrilling Indianapolis 500s in history. Tony Kanaan passed leader Ryan Hunter-Reay to grab the lead in the last of a record 68 lead changes.
The stock cars? They turned the 2½-mile Indy track into a leisurely Sunday drive. Just one pass for the lead under green that had nothing to do with pit stops.
"On a flat racetrack, it's just tough to pass," Johnson said. "These corners, they aren't really that long. You have four, 90-degree turns. That puts a lot against this racetrack for side-by-side racing. But we still love this place."
Drivers love the history steeped in the 108-year-old track. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Newman fell in love with the place as kids, and they all talk of the reverence they hold for a place where A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears made Indy and open wheel king.
Stewart said he was "baffled" at criticism of the racing and he gave a blistering defense.
"Look up 'racing' in the dictionary and tell me what it says in the dictionary, then look up 'passing,'" Stewart said. "If you want to see passing, we can go out on I-465 and pass all you want. If you can tell me that's more exciting than what you see at IMS, the great race car drivers that have competed here. This is about racing. This is about cars being fast. It doesn't have to be two- and three-wide racing all day long to be good racing. Racing is about figuring out how to take the package you're allowed and make it better than what everybody else has and do a better job with it."
As difficult as it was to pass, it's just as hard for this style of racing to hook the next generation of fans on NASCAR at Indy. The new Gen-6 was expected to help, but it was the same old, same old.
IndyCar has figured out how to make the 500 more exciting — now it's NASCAR's turn, even if there might not be much the series leaders can do about it.
"It's a one-groove track. It's not going to change," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't care what you do. It's not the race car. It's not the tire or nothing like that. It's just the track. It's one groove, four, 90-degree corners. I mean, there's not much you can do about it."
Single-file racing sure beats the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008. And it's better than not having the race at all on the circuit.
But the event clearly needs a boost — whether it's installing lights and turning it into a night race or moving it later on the schedule to launch the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Plenty of ideas were kicked around this weekend in the garage. There were just no easy answers.