- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

At the Daytona 500, there are 40 cars within mere inches of one another, all traveling faster than 180 mph. The potential for a major crash is constant.

And yet to many race fans, it’s a terribly boring event.

“Take away the last 25 laps and it was a snoozer,” wrote one fan commenting at Sportingnews.com, following Sunday’s race.

“I’ve almost fallen asleep more than once,” wrote one fan on a message board at Chevelle.com, as the race was reaching its midpoint.

No one disputes that the race’s final few laps, featuring Ryan Newman getting a helpful push from teammate Kurt Busch, were thrilling. It’s just that for some, the other 495 miles or so produced no excitement.

At several points during the race, analysts Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds offered near apologies to the audience, explaining there was typically more action at shorter tracks, where cars race without restrictor plates.

Waltrip noted that drivers might be more likely to “mind their p’s and q’s” and drive more conservatively during the season’s debut race.

But to some degree, their comments belie the reality. The race had 42 lead changes featuring 14 drivers, the most changes at the front in seven years. There were 14 lead changes before the first caution flag.

So maybe NASCAR simply can’t win.

There is a segment of the population, of course, that will always see auto racing as boring.

After all, they will say, it’s just cars going around a track 200 times. And there are many fans who tune in to see the crashes, but NASCAR isn’t about to do anything to encourage those — especially since an accident usually leads to a caution flag, which leads to a commercial break, which leads to viewers getting bored.

Of course, shortening races would solve the attention deficit issue. Even passionate fans can agree that the 500-milers go on for too long. (Sunday’s race clocked in at three hours, 16 minutes, which is fine in February but a bit rough on sunny weekends in June.) But no one sees that happening.

NASCAR is unlikely to make changes to the race as long as ratings are good. Sunday’s race drew an average of 17.8 million viewers, a 1 percent increase over last year but shy of the record 18.7 million viewers in 2005.

“It was an unbelievable race with an unbelievable finish,” ESPN racing analyst Brad Daugherty said on the air after the race. “I’m flabbergasted.”

While there may be some debate about whether the Daytona 500 was exciting, the results appear to set up a potentially wide open race to the Sprint Cup. Neither 2007 runaway Cup champion Jimmie Johnson or runner-up and teammate Jeff Gordon staked a lead to start the season, finishing 27th and 39th, respectively.

Newman’s win shows that members of team Penske will be worth watching, and the overall success of Joe Gibbs drivers Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch suggests the Toyotas will be stronger this year.

Meanwhile, the eyes of some racing fans will be on the performances of Sam Hornish Jr., the former Indy Racing League champion who finished a surprising 15th in his first full NASCAR race.

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