Lone Star Lightning

Buddy, can you spare a dime? Friday was Tax Day, the day millions of Americans dread more than a trip to the dentist. In NASCARland, it was simply the day of qualifying at Texas.

After two weeks of racing in close quarters—with predictable results—the boys of All Year Long head off to the roomy-by-comparison Texas Motor Speedway for this weekend's Samsung/Radio Shack 500. The track record at Texas is a shade less than 100 mph faster than the track record at Martinsville, with all the attendant distractions that represents.

Speeds at 1.5-mile ovals, especially Atlanta and Texas, are faster than those at Daytona. Of course, the restrictor plate has a lot to do with that, but the fact remains that NASCAR drivers are averaging 190-plus on tracks a mile shorter than Daytona and 1.16 miles shorter than Talladega.

Is this good for the racing? Having had a life-long love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy cars, speed is not necessarily the best thing for the quality of racing. A perfect example is 1994, when Roger Penske used USAC's own rulebook to club the sanctioning body about the head and shoulders with a pushrod V-8 that consistently clicked through the speed traps at the end of the straightaways at better than 250 mph.

The race that year was a farce, as Penske drivers routed the field and walked away with a big chunk of Tony George's money. The rulebook was quietly rewritten and the monster V-8 was banished to the scrap heap of history, having proved a very large point.

The Indy Racing League has done wonders in bringing a NASCAR-like closeness to its racing in recent years, packing cars wheel-to-wheel at more than 200 mph and routinely averaging finishes so close they would not be measurable without the aid of electronic scoring.

My question is, given how fast the cars are at places like Atlanta and Texas, is speed sexier than close racing, or is close racing the Rosetta stone of all racers? I guess it depends on your outlook. If everyone is going more or less the same speed, the racing is better, in my opinion. Of course, if everyone is traveling the same speed and there's just one groove to race in, it's no better than sitting in a lawn chair on a freeway overpass and watching the cars go by.

This weekend, several drives have commented on the fact that Texas should have a second groove to play in come Sunday, which is a good thing. A Martinsville-type shove-and-run doesn't work well at Texas, given the likely result of a torn-up race car and potential injury, not to mention the political fallout such a move would create.

So, does speed mean good racing? Nope. Does an IROC-like approach mean good racing? It should, but not always. Who invented liquid soap and why? Sorry, I digress.

As speeds continue to mount and the racing—in an overall sense, not a specific one—becomes more dependent on engineering than driver skill and courage, these questions will pale in comparison to those that will be asked of NASCAR in the future.

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