- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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This is one of those times when I ask you, the people who pay NASCAR's bills, for your input.
The racing today isn't as good as it was when (fill in the blank).
Fill in the blank with when, and why, in a few words, or more if you need. Focus on the racing and the drama of it rather than the personalities or cars.
Full disclosure here: I'm not trying to incite an electronic fan rebellion so much as I'm trying to get you to think and this time, to reconsider
When was the racing better in NASCAR?
Help me out here, please.
Daytona in July made it 36 years I've been covering NASCAR. I can't remember any specific stretch of time when the racing was consistently better than it is now.
That Fourth of July in 1974, David Pearson faked a blown engine at the white flag, forcing the trailing Richard Petty to take the lead or wreck them both, then floored the throttle, caught Petty and beat him to the checkered with a slingshot pass.
It's still one of my personal top 10 moments in NASCAR history. Notice I said moments.
I recall writing about the overall ho-hum racing of that season, wishing someone other than Petty and Pearson, Pearson and Petty, could win. (In that job, I didn't cover short tracks, where Cale Yarborough was dominating.)
Good racing is a matter of memories. But memory is selective, culling out the bad and the boring, leaving mainly the good, the wondrous.
Memorable races, to me, are dramatic races. Drama needn't include rubbin' and/or wreckin' and/or winning by a bumper.
Sunday's race at Pocono was a case in point. Granted it was dragged out by rain, but the NASCAR tower can't control the weather any more than a crew of umpires can.
And the weather added to this drama, creating stretches where drivers ran wild in anticipation of rain at any second. There was plenty more to talk about, to debate, to remember -- the sort of stuff that carries any sport from event to event.
Greg Biffle checked out at the end. But it was a storybook tale, this first win for Ford this season -- thoroughly unanticipated, entirely out of nowhere, televised into the Mayo Clinic where team owner Jack Roush, seriously injured in his second plane crash in eight years, was watching. I could feel the tears of joy stinging those lacerations on his face.
Elliott Sadler's crash into Pocono's deadly primitive earthen barrier will be talked about for months to come.
Last season I asked you, the people, whether NASCAR is dangerous enough for you anymore.
Was that one dangerous enough for you?
Here we saw the HANS -- the restraint system that protects a driver's head and neck in a crash -- at its best, saving Sadler's life in a quintessentially horrific hit, followed by the universal relief of seeing Sadler stagger out of that disintegrated car, conscious.
Don't know about you, but NASCAR can still take my breath away without taking a life.
So there was Pocono, notoriously one of the dullest tracks on the tour, yielding a race brimming with drama from every direction.
Yet during the last rain delay, on ESPN's live race chat, someone commented that if NASCAR were to call the race, it would be "another nail in the coffin."
That is not uncommon talk from you, the people, now.
As if NASCAR were dying. As if I hadn't, down through the decades, seen far fewer people in grandstands all around the tour than we're seeing now. As if I hadn't seen NASCAR on television so rarely and spottily that all you could really go on was the general ratings for ABC's "Wide World of Sports," which occasionally included NASCAR in a segment of maybe 20 minutes.
Help me out here. Jog my memory. When was the racing better?
Before Dale Earnhardt died?
A lot of you say that.
I saw him run his first Cup race, and I saw him run his last. Please help me here. I seem to recall many a race, especially late in his career, when he was an also-ran and a nonfactor.
I seem to recall Earnhardt riding NASCAR's rise in popularity at least as much as he drove it. He was an enormous talent with uncanny car control and the guts to speak out gruffly -- but he also was in the right place at the right time.
What about the era of Yarborough's slam-bang dominance as the first three-peat champion? He won by 195 points in 1976, 386 in '77 and 474 in '78. Some drama, huh?
You fume about the Chase, so help me out here. I seem to recall many an autumn, under the old system, when you were lucky if the championship was still a contest between two drivers, let alone three or four, or 12.
The Chase? Unjust? What about the last Winston Cup title, in 2003, won by Matt Kenseth with one win all year, while Ryan Newman had eight wins, the most in Cup, and finished a hopeless sixth in the standings? Or the previous year, when Kenseth had the most wins (five), but finished eighth in points?
Yes, Jimmie Johnson is trying to five-peat, but his runs to the title have been more in doubt, longer, than any of Yarborough's three. He and Chad Knaus have had their stumbles and, since the reinstitution of the spoiler, are able to lead a lot, but not able to close the deal nearly as often.
Sunday before last, we gasped at the estimates of only 140,000 for the Brickyard 400. For the first half of my career, attendance of 140,000 -- and I don't mean those bogus estimates at some places -- at any track would have set off an earthquake of celebration.
The human memory being selective, the past always seems better than the present.
That doesn't mean NASCAR's following of today should make it our mantra, and we should start scoffing at the show before the green flag even drops.
That doesn't mean empty seats are an indication of ill health so much as transition.
Maybe it's not all about the economy. Maybe it's about a changing audience. Attending a NASCAR race isn't just expensive, it's a damn tough task, what with the traffic, the parking, the hiking to the grandstands, the broiling in the sun, the soaking in the rain.
Maybe this is a generation of staying at home, seeking instant gratification, relying on Internet highlights, actively participating in chats rather than watching passively
Double-file restarts have made drivers as aggressive as they've ever been. Even Jeff Gordon has tried on a black hat on several Sundays. Up to three green-white-checkered finishes make for madness unimagined back in the day.
Yet none of the above seems enough for the insatiable generation.
I would propose the following experiment by NASCAR Nation: Let's start with a clean sheet of paper. Let's watch each race anew, afresh, for what it's worth, with no clouding of the issues by our selective memories.
Let's give 'em hell or give 'em their due, race by race, in the here and now.
Meanwhile, help me out here. Thirty-six years, and I can't name you 36 races -- an average of one per season -- where the racing was better than it is now.
I can cite some great moments. But those moments have a way of popping up, standing out, living on while the seasons surrounding them drone out of our memories the monotonous leading, the long green periods, the cautions for debris, the domination by one guy, all suppressed by our selective minds
But you know me, always open to argument. So have at it, people.
The racing today isn't as good as it was ____________________.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.