A good crowd looks on at the beginning of this year's Daytona 500. Maintaining that interest from now through November is the hard part. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Atlanta race but the prelude to a long, long - too long? - season

Shortly after Kurt Busch won the 2017 Daytona 500, one of the perks was visiting the Chicago Cubs’ spring training in Arizona, where he encountered wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein.

“Congrats on winning Daytona,” Epstein greeted him. “Do you do yoga?” 

“I thought, that’s an awkward first question,” Busch recalled. “But that’s the approach of every sport now – find areas to help athletes zone in on and be focused on and get them through their long season.”

No, as a matter of fact, part of Busch’s preparation for sports’ longest season does not include the downward-facing dog. Mostly, he said, it’s a matter of pacing one’s self, knowing that drivers and teams are going to be serving the Monster Energy Cup series basically nine months of every year. Go fast on weekends, throttle down when you can at mid-week. Then repeat. Welcome to the world’s fastest treadmill.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a great mentor in Mark Martin (who raced well into his 50s), helping me to understand about working out, the physical side and the mental side. And my wife is helping me with that, too.”

The second race of the season takes place Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. From here, it is impossible to see the final race of the season, in Homestead, Fla., Nov. 17. Atlanta is but one stop on a seemingly never-ending cross-country barnstorming tour of noise and speed.

How much racing is too much racing? That is a question racing has been asking itself as it has been faced with the diminishing returns of falling television ratings and a lessening profile on the sporting calendar.  

No other professional team sport demands attention from its followers over such a long schedule. Not even those sports lampooned for dragging out their postseasons to infinity and beyond. From opening day this season to the last possible day of the Stanley Cup finals, the NHL is looking at 254 days of hockey. The NBA from start of the season to Game 7 of the NBA Finals is 243 days. The NASCAR Cup series runs close to a month longer than either of those – 273 days. 

No not even MLS (253 days), which has enveloped Atlanta in a seeming year-long embrace, can compare.

The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 is one of 36 races on the schedule, and the only one of the season at Atlanta (the track used to host two a year). They didn’t used to run that many, in fact throughout the early 1980s and 1990s there were 30 or fewer races on the docket. But then an uptick in popularity led to a construction boom of tracks around the country. And those new venues needed something to put on display. That has meant, since 2001, 36 races, with three off weekends over nine months this season.

The toll on the drivers and the race teams that must keep cars, bodies and minds in competitive fettle is extreme. Certainly, the physical demands on a driver differ from those faced by those athletes in other games who provide their own propulsion – “You look at baseball, I’d hate to be a baseball player, playing so many games throughout the season,” said 2017 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon. But, still, the sheer breadth of the season turns the chase for a series championship into a grinding marathon of transporting teams across the country and intense weekend competition for the majority of a year.

“The biggest challenge is just the pace,” Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick once told the Charlotte Observer. “The number of races, getting to and from – it’s a long season.” 

“You always feel about September or October this is a very long season,” Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said.

“When you tune into the Olympics,” he added, “the most popular event is the 100-meter dash, it’s not the 26-mile marathon. There’s something to be said for that.”

The right attitude here is a necessity.

You ask 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski for the key to staying primed from beginning to end of the longest season and he’ll, unsparingly, answer, “You man up. You got to tough it out. Get tough or die (not literally, of course).”

Said last year’s series champion, Joey Logano, asked if his season is too long: “I don’t think so. I enjoy every bit of this. I still love my job. I freakin’ love this.

“If I complain about a season being too long, that would be pretty dumb.”

Keselowski again: “It’s a long season with highs and lows, that’s part of being a NASCAR driver. That’s what we all signed up for. I’m not looking to trade.”

The toll on the sport itself is another matter. For years now, it has been debated whether a shorter, less diluted, season might increase interest. The whole less-is-more argument plays to attentive ears in racing.

“Our season is way too long,” NASCAR Hall of Famer and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip told the Orlando Sentinel last year. “Look, 36 Super Bowls is what we’re trying to do here. And that’s way too much.

“We kid ourselves to think we can compete with the NFL. What we do now is try to find some wiggle room on a Saturday night or Sunday where you can race in between a football game.”

NASCAR found itself in the same position as golf, their seasons spilling over into football and losing fans in the process. The PGA Tour rejiggered its schedule this year to complete its Tour Championship at East Lake earlier, by late August.

NASCAR has come under new leadership – Steve Phelps became its president five months ago, shortly after another in the France family, Jim, took over as chairman and CEO.

This new leadership has a single imperative. “We have to change this perception that’s out there: Hey, NASCAR’s best days are behind it,” Phelps recently told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Winds of change are kicking up around the garage area. And, yes, that may lead to a tailoring of seasons and races – taking in a little bit here, shortening there.

“There has been talk about the schedule, race lengths, shortening things up, switch things up,” Kurt Busch said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of that coming in 2020. We know that changes are on the horizon.”

Until any of that materializes – and such changes won’t be easily wrought – NASCAR remains no place for fans of short-attention-span theater. And Atlanta is still but a first pour during a nine-month-long keg party.

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