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Hallman: Great race at 1.5-mile track was pleasant surprise

July 5, 2018

The best race of the NASCAR season to date took place at a 1½-mile track.

I did not see that coming.

Of the 36 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, 11 are run on the tour’s eight 1½-mile tracks. Four of the 10 playoff events are on 1½-mile tracks.

“That’s too many!” is the constant refrain — heard in this column and elsewhere. The racing is least likely to be exciting at those tracks, say those of us in the chorus.

The week-in, week-out evidence backed us up. Races at those tracks — ovals with bent frontstretches — often saw NASCAR stock cars settle into hours-long parades.

One driver whose car had the setup just right would motor off into the distance, enjoying the clean air that made the car’s aerodynamics work to perfection. Behind that driver, the roiled air would make it extremely difficult for the next car to pass, and the next car after that, and so on.

To improve the racing, NASCAR has been experimenting with its aero-package rules — tinkering with spoilers, splitters, flanges and the like. For its all-star race, held on a 1½-mile track, the sanctioning body fitted the engines with restrictor plates, which slow the cars so they can run in packs.

That seemed to work, and some fans and commentators called for restrictor plates at all the 1½-mile speedways right away. When NASCAR announced it wasn’t going to do something that drastic without further testing, there seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment.

Looking for ways to liven up the schedule, NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway decided not to run that track’s Sept. 30 playoff race on the track’s 1½-mile tri-oval.

Instead, Charlotte has prepared its part-oval-part-infield road course — dubbed the “Roval” — for the event. The 17-turn, 2.28-mile Roval gives the Cup series three road-course events, the others at Sonoma Raceway in California and Watkins Glen International in New York.

The willingness of NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway to fundamentally change an event that has been on the schedule since 1960 indicates racing’s powers-that-be understand there is a problem with 1½-mile tracks.

But just when we think there’s no hope for great races at those tracks, we get last Sunday’s event at Chicagoland Speedway.

The leaders battled in close quarters throughout most of the race. The final laps were intense. Kyle Larson, who at 25 is distinguishing himself as the best of NASCAR’s wave of young drivers, chased down future hall-of-famer Kyle Busch from several seconds behind.

On the last lap, Larson took his now-or-never shot at winning, diving low in a turn and hoping his subsequent inevitable slide up the banking would put his Chevrolet ahead of Busch’s Toyota, or at least side by side.

Instead, the slide carried Larson into Busch’s rear fender, shoving Busch into a scrape against the outside wall as Larson scampered into the lead. Unfazed, Busch gathered his car without losing his momentum and came charging back.

In the next turn, Busch thumped Larson’s rear bumper, and this time it was Larson sawing his steering wheel to avoid the spinout as Busch went back in front. Busch finished first, Larson second.

“I’m not upset,” Larson said after the race. “I love racing Kyle.… If the roles were reversed, I would’ve done the same thing.”

Busch, whose prodigious talent is sometimes matched by his churlishness, tends to draw disapproval from some fans. After the race, boos seemed to outweigh cheers from the crowd as Busch climbed from his car and waved. To mock his detractors, Busch turned to the camera and pantomimed wiping tears from his eyes.

However that gesture may sit with fans, Busch was correct in his assessment of the race as a whole and his duel with Larson at the end. “If you don’t like that kind of racing,” he said, “don’t even watch it.”

I’d say NASCAR needs more of that at its 1½-mile tracks — more excellent racing throughout an event, more dramatic finishes between drivers with different personalities, and, if car makes matter to you, more battles that feature an All-American Chevy or Ford battling Toyota, a brand from abroad.

Saturday evening, the tour will have its midsummer date at Daytona International Speedway, a 2½-mile superspeedway where the cars race in packs and nearly any driver can win, even if that driver isn’t competitive anywhere else.

Look at the three drivers who were in the middle of the last-lap drama in February’s Daytona 500. In that race, Austin Dillon bumped leader Aric Almirola aside about a mile from the finish. Dillon won with Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. right behind. Question: How many top-five finishes have Dillon, Wallace and Almirola amassed In the 16 races since then? Answer: Zero.

Daytona always offers great television. I won’t be able to turn away Saturday.

Chicagoland Speedway, on the other hand, offered great racing. I hope I get to see another one like that sometime soon. As winner Busch pointed out, if that battle didn’t appeal, there’s no point in watching the sport.

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