By Jerry Bonkowski
BROOKLYN, Mich. – Sure, Sunday's Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway was decided on fuel mileage.
But you have to admit, it was a pretty exciting finish as the two leaders heading into the final two laps – first Jimmie Johnson and then Greg Biffle – ran out of gas and ageless wonder Mark Martin merrily rolled on past and across the start-finish line.
Martin also out of gas … but had just enough to be able to coast and take the checkered flag for the third time this season.
In an era where the entire sport is certainly having a hard time of it – most recently learning this past Friday that General Motors will be scaling back some of its financial support of NASCAR – Sunday's race was an interesting anomaly.
And, next to an across-the-board cut in ticket prices, it could be something that could help the sport regain some of its lost at-track attendance and TV ratings.
If you thought Sunday's race pace seemed a bit fast, you're not mistaken. The 400-mile/200-lap event was completed in just 2 hours, 34 minutes.
Granted, the dearth of cautions played a big part of that. The caution flag fell just three times the entire race, two due to debris and only due to a crash.
There's no question cautions cause delays. The more wrecks or debris on the track you have, the longer an event becomes.
Still, while Sunday's race covered the entire distance it was supposed to, it did so in near-record time.
Fans came to MIS, saw a great finish, enjoyed great weather – and many of them were probably home in time for a not-too-late dinner, at the very least.
This plays to something I've been saying for many years: you don't need long races to have exciting finishes.
Even though Sunday's race was full-length, there are other venues on the circuit that can very easily have their events shortened by 100 miles or more and still give fans what they paid for: an exciting finish where fans leave the racetrack still trying to catch their breath at how the drama played out.
I mean, do we REALLY need 500-mile races at places like Pocono or Fontana? (Hell, do we REALLY need even 400-mile races at either place?)
In an era where we're all hurting financially, coupled with an increasing movement to "green" everything, would it really hurt to have the Auto Club 300 or 350 instead of the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?
Would Kobalt Tools go out of business if its spring race in Atlanta was the Kobalt 400 instead of 500?
Would the Pocono 500 or Pennsylvania 500 be so devastating to Pocono Raceway if they became the Pocono 400 or Pennsylvania 400 – or less?
That would be fiscal – and environmental – responsibility to the umpteenth degree, in my mind.
"I always love shorter races," said Jeff Gordon, who finished runner-up Sunday. "Don't get me started on time frames of races. Eighty percent of them are way too long."
Places like Dover International Speedway have decreased the length of some of their races from 500 to 400 miles. Why can't other tracks?
Some fans may say they're being cheated out of their money if they only see a 400-mile race instead of a 500-mile race. They also might say that if races are cut, so should ticket prices.
I counter that by saying, "Would you rather have a boring 500-mile race or an exciting 400-mile race?"
More often than not, and with enough time to persuade them, I can usually get at least some of them to see that longer is not always better.
Sure, there are places that lend themselves to longer races – among them Daytona, Bristol, Talladega – but I think NASCAR could get along quite nicely if longer races are scaled back at other venues.
Most of us are aware at how NASCAR chairman Brian France likes to pattern his racing league after the NFL.
Sunday, France one-upped the NFL: when was the last time you went to a NASCAR race that took substantially less time than an NFL game?
What's not to like about that?