What makes for an entertaining stock-car race — a race that delivers the biggest bang for the buck, a race that makes fans decide to come back for more? The answer seems to be pretty much the same as those âstick-and-ballâ sports: tight competition with lots of thrilling lead changes.
When NASCAR President Steve Phelps talked about âthe racing productâ during a news conference earlier this month, he referred to more passing under green-flag conditions for the lead, which is probably the most important competition-related metric. Who wants runaways?
Following Kurt Buschâs victory Saturday in a 400-mile race at Kentucky, here are the updated green-flag passing statistics through 19 races, courtesy of NASCAR:
There have been 683 green-flag passes for the lead, compared with 466 at this point last year, which represents an increase of 46.6%.
Consequently, the average number of lead changes is 19.0 per race this year compared with 16.26 in 2018.
Five of 19 races this season have had record-setting green-flag passes for the lead â including four often criticized 1Â˝- mile tracks: Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago and Kentucky.
Overall, there have been 35.5% more green-flag passes (not just for the lead) in 2019 compared with 2018.
These are good numbers for NASCAR to spin, along with the fact that TV ratings for Cup races have remained about the same as they were in 2018, a year in which viewership numbers plunged again. An eyeball check of the stands shows attendance appears to be off, but not horribly at most tracks. Kentucky Speedway appeared to be more than half-filled.
From strictly a competition standpoint, NASCAR canât do much more than try to make the races safe, close and exciting. A bigger variety of winners would help — just nine drivers have won 19 races — but new winners have captured the last three races, always a positive.
(And all three drove Chevrolets, which have somewhat been off the pace for 2Â˝ years.)
NASCAR receives, and often deserves, a lot of criticism, especially from fans who claim it was so much better back in the old days, when margins of victory were sometimes measured in laps and when the roster of drivers was depleted by wrecks of unsafe equipment.
Even the passing statistics have been poked at this year by some fans because they feel as if NASCAR is either fudging the numbers or is not comparing apples to apples with years past. What exactly is a green-flag pass for the lead, anyway?
It is a sensitive subject because NASCAR tweaked its aero package this year to promote closer racing, and even though the statistics are encouraging this year, the aero package has been criticized by drivers like Kyle Busch and fans for failing to produce exciting racing. Wait. What?
According to Mike Forde, a spokesman for NASCAR, it is what is has been for 70 years: âWe donât differentiate between passes or lead changes that happen on the track versus in the pits,â he wrote me in an email.
Some NASCAR fans have a problem with that. Ideally, the statistic should be for green-flag passes for the lead with the cars racing each other on the track, and they should not count the lead changes that occur on pit road during a big round of green-flag pit stops, where it is easier to pass.
According to Fordeâs unofficial statistics, there were 33 green-flag passes for the lead in the race at Kentucky. Of those 33 passes, he said, eight were the result of green-flag pit stops, which means that there were 25 passes for the lead, some in mid-lap, while the cars raced.
Lead changes are not the same as passes for the lead, because NASCAR, sticking with a definition that has existed since 1948, says a lead change can happen only at the start/finish line. NASCAR has data-gathering sensors at several spots around all of its tracks.
âAs I like to joke, this might be the debut of the rules package, but not the debut of green-flag pit stops,â Forde wrote.
Sometimes, there are things that happen in this world that canât be explained by statistics, and to some drivers and fans, this would appear to be one of those things. By most accounts, Saturdayâs race was not all that exciting until Kurt Busch won a late duel with Kyle.
There are many other factors that make for an entertaining experience at the race track. The late Joseph Mattioli, the colorful owner of Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, once told me, âYou can never have enough toilets.â Same with parking spots.
But it depends on the actual racing, too.