Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway seemed typical of recent NASCAR races: The last 30 laps were filled with excitement; the first 300 laps were not.
Up until the frantic end of the race, there seemed to be little passing and the event was dominated by single-file racing throughout the field. Multiple times throughout the race, the lead car – which was visibly faster than his competitors – struggled to pass cars running laps down to the leader.
Multiple drivers complained about the inability to pass, as well as the track conditions. Five-time Charlotte winner Jeff Gordon told his crew at one point that the conditions were the worst he had ever seen since racing at the speedway.
"It was a one-groove track all night," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said following his 19th-place finish. "And everybody was just fighting dirty air and you really couldn't pass anybody. There were a couple of times where I was the quicker car and you just couldn't pass the guy in front of you; there were a couple of times where I was not the faster car but I could hold people up just because of the dirty air. So it went both ways."
Some drivers pointed to the lack of tire wear, while others bemoaned the dreaded aero-push they felt closing up on another car. Either way, the combination of factors led to a lackluster event that was spiced up by a string of late-race cautions at the end.
So what is the issue? And is there a clear solution?
Judging by conversations with drivers and crew chiefs in the garage following Saturday night's event, it seems more front downforce and a tire that lays down more rubber are among the preferred solutions.
Overall, most of the people we spoke to commended NASCAR for their efforts to put on a better show. But at the same time, each offered his own suggestion for allowing cars to pass and run side-by-side.
"We obviously want to put on the best show that we can," said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski. "What's the answer to that aero-push or not being able to pass? I don't know. NASCAR does a good job and has done a great job to get us where we're at. I'm sure they're always thinking about it and will let us know if they want us to change something."
Wolfe admitted Saturday night's race was "probably not the best race we've seen in a while," but said the teams anticipated the conditions and planned their setups accordingly throughout the weekend.
Dave Rogers, crew chief for runner-up Kyle Busch, pointed out that racers have been "second-guessing (NASCAR) for over 50 years," but the sanctioning body has "done such a good job of leading this sport."
"A while ago, the big fish kept getting bigger and the small fish kept getting smaller and people were complaining the little guys didn't have a chance," he said. "So NASCAR comes in and they really tighten up the rules and make the cars equal.
"Now the cars are equal and it's really hard to pass people. So the big fish aren't getting bigger and the small fish aren't getting smaller, and now people want it to go back the other way."
Rogers praised NASCAR for what it was doing with the rules. But in the very next breath, he added, "Is it what I want as a racer? Absolutely not."
"I'd like to see the rules open up a little more and (NASCAR) let us go after some downforce, and let us lower the center gravity of these cars, and let the good teams separate themselves from the other teams," he said. "To be able to pass and put on a show for the fans."
While the races as of late have been dominated by fuel mileage races and a battle for track position, Rogers argued there was plenty of "good racing" earlier in the season. His own team, he added, was forced to start Saturday's race at the rear of the field, but rallied to lead 110 of the 334 laps and finish second.
Rogers said the new car NASCAR introduced in 2008 has put teams "in a tough box," not allowing the cars to travel and lower their center of gravity, thus creating more downforce.
Not an engineer? As Rogers explained it: "If you go back to the old days, the valances would be seven-to-eight inches off the ground at tech-height. Everyone would travel down and put their valance right on the ground. Well, that lowers your motor seven inches – which really lowers your center of gravity.
"Now our splitters are at four inches. We travel it down to the ground. Now my center of gravity is automatically three inches higher. So center of gravity goes up, that puts a lot of load on the right front tire and that puts Goodyear in a box."
Not only does it put Goodyear in a box, but it also limits the drivers' ability to make passes throughout the race and make the most of a strong car.
"All the cars run the same speed, so it's all about the first couple of laps," driver Joey Logano said. "If your car's not good enough to work in the first couple of laps, you're pretty much screwed.
"As a driver, you always complain that you want more grip, but when it comes down to it, it makes everyone follow the leader. ... No one can move around the race track because we're all stuck to one lane."
Carl Edwards echoed that sentiment, adding he would prefer if NASCAR "took the spoilers off and splitters off and we didn't have any downforce."
Obviously, NASCAR has no plans of accommodating Edwards' request anytime soon, but it also seems there is no quick solution to this problem. Rogers said he does not expect NASCAR to implement a series of rule changes anytime soon to "automatically fix everything."
The hope is when the new Sprint Cup body style is introduced in 2013, these issues will be addressed. But in the meantime, if the racing continues to suffer, NASCAR will continue to hear complaints.
Not that it's anything new.
"I've been in this sport for 13, 14 years at this level," Rogers said. "People are always second-guessing how we can make the racing better. Truth be known, the racing is pretty good. If you go back to the 'glory days,' there would be one or two cars on the lead lap. How fun is that?
"I think NASCAR has done a really good job. But as a competitor I would change things."