NASCAR Richmond 2014 recap: Richmond further proof NASCAR needs more short tracks

Streeter Lecka

As Richmond demonstrated Saturday, of all the changes NASCAR could enact to improve competition the simplest would be adding more short tracks to the Sprint Cup schedule.

Within the past 18 months NASCAR has introduced an abundance of changes intended to inject life into a product that often failed to meet expectations.

First came the Generation-6 car; rolled out last season and conceived to look like what fans would see in their local showrooms so that they too could drive the same vehicle as Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Carl Edwards.

More than just aesthetics, it was designed to remove the monotony commonly seen on intermediate-sized tracks where single-file racing was the norm and not the exception. The Gen-6 would be less reliant on aerodynamics, further putting the control in the hands of the driver and most importantly, increase side-by-side racing.

"In my heart I think we need more short tracks on the schedule."-Jimmie Johnson

The much-hyped car delivered on many levels. It was certainty eye-catching and the overall quality of racing did improve, though it wasn't the cure-all that accompanied its ballyhooed arrival.

Even more tweaks to the Gen-6 came this past offseason, all aimed at making racing better than it had been in recent years. But the biggest change was still to come.

In a rapid departure from the formula used since NASCAR's inception, the sanctioning body deemphasized week-to-week consistency in favor of a championship model where winning has essentially become the end-all, be-all.

And through nine races the new system has certainly proved to be effective. Drivers are no longer consumed with accumulating points, and in the name of winning crew chiefs have become empowered to employ various forms of strategies, all of which has resulted in better racing.

Yet through each series of revolutionary transformations that shook the sport to its core, there is one option NASCAR ignored. And unlike a new car, a revised championship format, or any other myriad changes since the turn of the century (Chase for the Sprint Cup, green-white-checkered finishes, etc.) this decision would receive almost universal acclaim from all involved.

Sometimes to go forward you must first look to the past, and the foundation which NASCAR was founded upon was close competition, high-drama and a ferocity that other forms of motor sports simply lacked. Elements which come to the forefront whenever the Sprint Cup Series competes on a short track -- just as it did Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

Want drama? Richmond presented that in spades with a rousing four-way battle for the win in the final laps featuring three former champions along with a 23-year-old budding superstar. If you want intensity there was that, too. Be it the brouhaha between Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski or the fracas involving Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears.

It's not that these incidents are mutually exclusive to short tracks and don't occur on larger speedways. They do. Or that post-race must turn into a MMA fight every week. It doesn't.

But there is no denying that unlike other larger tracks where the field spreads out and the action can lag, bullrings more often than not accentuate NASCAR's positive characteristics.

"I think it's a fantastic race track," Jimmie Johnson said of Richmond. "It puts on a great show, it's great for the fans, and in my heart I think we need more short tracks on the schedule."

There was a time when short tracks were the backbone of NASCAR. In 1984 when the sport began its ascension into the American landscape one-third of the schedule consisted of tracks less than a mile in length.

Yet as NASCAR boomed and expanded nationally it was at the expense of smaller venues. Multiple dates at iconic ovals like Nashville and North Wilkesboro were eliminated completely. Inserted in their place were races at Kansas, Chicagoland, Texas, Homestead and the like; tracks often indistinguishable from one another that rarely matched the same level of excitement with the same frequency.

Now, despite a bulging schedule with 36 races only six are held on short tracks. And as regularly happens after a race at Richmond, Bristol or Martinsville, the question is often asked why NASCAR doesn't hold more races on the kind of tracks fans and drivers clamor for.

"We have too many races at too many tracks," Keselowski said in a 2013 interview with USA Today. "We're at too many tracks repeatedly. ... We need to cut out several tracks that have two races, and we need to go to a couple other tracks."

He further stressed his point in a blog post on his website last week where he created his dream schedule for NASCAR's No.1 division. Keselowski pined for a date at Iowa Speedway, a short track that routinely sells out its pair of Nationwide Series events.

"You'll notice that I added a Cup race in Iowa," Keselowski wrote. "I think it deserves one. I love that place, and we've got great fans there."

Saturday night was by no means a classic, but it was compelling. Joey Logano snookered three drivers with a combined six championships to take the win, and thanks to a combination of Richmond's tight confines and a tire that showed significant wear after 50 laps of racing there were few lulls.

The only problem: the next short track race isn't for another four months. And in the meantime NASCAR, in effort to capture what Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville already present, will announce further rule changes that will include a reduction in engine horsepower.

A jarring reality that stings just like the haymaker Ambrose landed on Mears' Saturday.

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