Aug 12, 2012; Watkins Glen, NY, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Marcos Ambrose (9) celebrates a win in victory circle following the Finger Lakes 335 at The Glen at Watkins Glen International. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE
Sunday's race finally gave us something to talk about on the track this season. Now, NASCAR needs to build on races like Watkins Glen to remind fans why they fell in love with the sport in the first place.
Sunday's race at Watkins Glen was an afternoon filled with daring passes, bold moves and a finish you had to see to believe. And in the end, standing tall beside winning driver Marcos Ambrose, was Richard Petty.
It was a race fit for a king.
Too often this year, NASCAR's races haven't been worthy of royalty. In that sense, the sport needed a day like Sunday to remind people why they came to love stock car racing in the first place.
Even more than that, the Watkins Glen race did something else: It put the spotlight back on the track.
With a lack of on-track drama this season, the attention has mostly focused on events that didn't revolve around the competition. Whether it was the Daytona jet dryer explosion, AJ Allmendinger's positive drug test or Dodge's announcement that it's leaving the sport at the end of the year, the spotlight tended to shine on what was happening away from the track rather than on it.
For NASCAR to be successful, what it needs more than anything else is to have an on-track product that excites the masses. It needs races where the combatants go at it tooth-and-nail where the winner is in doubt until the very moment the checkered flag is waved.
"I just think this is what racing should be," Brad Keselowski said Sunday, moments after his thrilling battle with Ambrose. "I think this is what the fans come to expect out of NASCAR racing and why it grew to the popularity that it did.
"We need to produce shows of this nature to continue to sustain the level that we have."
NASCAR has built its foundation on memorable races and fantastic finishes, and races like the one on Sunday are the kind of events fans will enthusiastically rehash to their friends throughout the week.
While clunkers will always be unavoidable – not every race can match Sunday's drama – NASCAR needs this style of racing to occur more than just once or twice a year. Watkins Glen shouldn't stand out as a rarity in what for the most part has been a rather mundane season.
Whether you want to admit it or not, sports is a form of entertainment. And if we're being honest here – while there have been notable exceptions – NASCAR hasn't consistently been at its most entertaining the last few years. It may not necessarily be reality, but the perception is the same guys are winning every week and there are few drivers willing to let their personalities shine for fear of offending their sponsors.
NASCAR can never forget everything resonates from the on-track product. If the racing is to the level where it should be, fans will react enthusiastically and everything else – attendance, television ratings and sponsorships – will respond accordingly.
This is why NASCAR reached unprecedented heights not long ago with fans falling over themselves to embrace the sport. And it's also why when the action waned, so did the interest of fans – casual and diehard alike.
Sunday's race was great, as it stirred the soul of the race fan like few races have done recently. Now it's up to NASCAR to ensure this becomes the standard and not the exception.