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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Updated: August 16, 7:52 PM ET
Fantastic finishes not that common

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brad Keselowski climbed out of his Sprint Cup car on Sunday at Watkins Glen International following a second-place finish in one of the wildest last laps you'll ever see and said with a great big smile, "This is the way racing should be.''

He's right. Unfortunately, it's not the way racing can be.

Not all the time.

And it never has been.

You may think every race back in the day was like the 1976 Daytona 500 when David Pearson and Richard Petty had a spectacular wreck just short of the finish line, with Pearson limping to the checkered flag first in a car that looked like it had been through a demolition derby.

David Pearson, Richard Petty
Richard Petty, left, and David Pearson both crashed on the frontstretch of the final lap at the 1976 Daytona 500.

Or like the 1979 Daytona 500 when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wrecked on the backstretch battling for the win, setting up NASCAR's most famous fight and allowing Petty to steal the sixth of his seven 500 victories.

Or like ...

There wasn't that kind of high drama every week then any more than there is now. If there was, as Buddy Baker so bluntly put it, "there wouldn't be anybody left to race.''

It seems many people have selective memory when it comes to how bang-bang-exciting racing used to be. But did you know the week after the '76 Daytona race Petty beat Darrell Waltrip at Rockingham by two laps, and a week later at Richmond only Dave Marcis and Petty finished on the lead lap?

Or that the week after the '79 Daytona 500 Bobby Allison finished a lap ahead of Joe Millikan and five laps ahead of the next-closest competitor?

Maybe there was more beating and banging back in the field then because on many days drivers had nothing to lose, but there were no more great finishes then than now.

"It wasn't every week,'' Pearson said.

Not even close.

"Maybe two or three times a year,'' Allison said.

The racing, great finishes like Sunday's aside, is every bit as good today as it was back then.

"Probably better,'' Allison said with a laugh.

As much as we'd all like races to end like Sunday's did, it's simply not possible unless you have a mandatory green-white-checkered restart each week and make points racing obsolete.

Or, as Baker suggested, put "sprinklers in the corners that throw oil with one lap to go.''

To which Allison said jokingly, "Don't give [NASCAR] any ideas. They might do it.''

It's a funny thing about drama. When you try to create it, things typically don't work out.

It has to happen naturally, as it did on Sunday when officials -- and apparently drivers -- couldn't see oil on the track until it was too late. That allowed Keselowski and eventual winner Marcos Ambrose to overcome a one-second deficit to leader Kyle Busch, who lost traction in the slick stuff.

That led to Keselowski spinning out Busch for the lead, which led to some pretty intense racing by Keselowski and Ambrose for the win and a pretty intense postrace walk from the hauler by Busch.

"I was up off the couch and going for whoever was in the lead,'' Baker said. "That made me a believer out of road courses. At one time, I thought we strictly were an oval sport and had no business running road courses.

"Now I've changed my mind totally. It was very dramatic. I don't think you could script that.''

But to think that kind of racing could take place every week -- or even every other week -- is as unrealistic as thinking every football game will come down to the last play or every basketball game down to the final shot.

Points are the biggest reason. The series is in a rare five-week stretch where the top 10 drivers are all but locked into the Chase and everyone else needs a win or two for a wild-card spot. Ambrose had nothing to lose because he needed a win to even be considered for wild-card contention. Keselowski had nothing to lose because he had three wins and was safely in the top 10.

You could see similar scenarios play out over the next four races at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. With the exception of maybe Kasey Kahne with two victories, winning is all that matters to the drivers between 11th and 20th.

At one time, I thought we strictly were an oval sport and had no business running road courses. Now I've changed my mind totally. It was very dramatic. I don't think you could script that.

-- Buddy Baker

And if a couple of the drivers already with one win get another, even Kahne will feel pressured to win again.

But for most of the season, Chase contenders are forced to accumulate as many points as possible to have a shot at the title. Do you really think Ambrose would have raced through the grass trying to get around Keselowski had a second- or third-place finish been all he needed to make the 10-race playoff?

As long as points are more important than wins, it will remain that way.

But points aren't the only thing that keeps every race from being like Sunday's. There are too many 1.5-mile tracks where the cars get strung out. Because the cars are so equal and aerodynamically sensitive you seldom see three bunched up like they were at Watkins Glen to have a shot at drama.

If NASCAR wants more races like Sunday's, the league should add a few more road courses, with at least one to the Chase. The double-file restarts have thrust road courses ahead of most short tracks in terms of action that fans like and want.

And do you really think we'll see a slam-bang finish like that this week at Michigan with cars going 200 mph? The drama there likely will come from fuel mileage or another Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory.

Sponsors and NASCAR also would have to loosen up. Drivers can't be overly aggressive if they are worried about the backlash from a sponsor or a fine from the governing body.

To NASCAR's credit, it has backed off the past few years. Sunday was a great example in that nothing was made of Keselowski spinning Busch on the last lap -- outside of Busch being a tad upset.

Drivers would have to play a role in this, too. They'd have to develop thicker skins and not go off the deep end as neither Busch, Ambrose nor Keselowski did on Sunday.

If there was a fight every week NASCAR would have to throw down the hammer and we'd be back into passive mode.

"We leaned on each other, we bumped each other,'' Keselowski said as he described the final-lap battle with Ambrose. "We were both cool about it and didn't dump each other.

"This is what racing in NASCAR is supposed to be, hard-nosed going for the win, bumping and rubbing without any of that intentional wrecking nonsense. Marcos gets that. I enjoy racing with him.''

Keselowski is spot-on, but it's still unrealistic to think it can be that way all the time.

It never has been that way and probably never will be.