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Ben Smith

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Excitement MIA as fans stay away

– This one was over, until those 17 seconds from Goodwrench Hell.

Jimmie Johnson had No. 5 locked up tighter than Alcatraz. Autumn was in the air. The fan (OK, so there was more than one, but not by much) was demonstrably not on his feet.

The 20th Brickyard 400 was about to go down as yet another Are We There Yet 400, a foregone conclusion from the moment JJ took the lead on lap 31 and drove away from everyone but Ryan Newman, the only guy out there who could hang with him. In the media center, the floor was open for ways to handicap Jimmie, just to make it fair.

“Put two 10-year-olds in the backseat,” someone suggested. “Let’s see Jimmie win when he has to sit through 400 miles of ‘Daaaad, he’s touching me.’ ”

Just about then, of course, the leaders hit the pits for the last time. And something amazing happened.

The No. 48 team got human.

Instead of a 12-second four-tire stop, Johnson’s crew fiddled around for 17 seconds, and when he came out he was 6.8 seconds adrift of Newman with 27 laps to run. And the only drama on a dramaless day ensued, as Johnson cut the lead down to 3.1 seconds before running out of laps.

So Newman kissed the bricks, the South Bend guy giving Tony Stewart his first Brickyard win as a car owner two weeks after Stewart decided to fire him after this season. A great story, surely, that obscured the larger story told by all those empty seats – and, not coincidentally, by a race that across the last decade has gotten a well-deserved reputation as the biggest snoozer on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Not that everyone agrees, of course.

“We’re racing here,” groused Tony Stewart. “That’s all I’m going to say. If you want to see passing, we can go out on (Interstate) 465 and pass all you want. If you can tell me that’s more exciting than what you see at IMS. … It’s racing, not passing. It doesn’t have to be two- and three-wide racing all day long to be good racing.”

Yeah, but it sure helps. And when you watched an Indianapolis 500 in May with 68 lead changes, and then watched the parade that again was the Brickyard – one pass for the lead, Joey Logano going around Brad Keselowski at the end of a pit cycle – there’s little doubt which suffers by comparison.

“It’s just tough to pass,” Johnson said Sunday. “These corners, they really aren’t that long. You have four 90-degree turns. That puts a lot against this racetrack for side-by-side racing.”

So what do you do about that?

Johnson suggested another lane with more banking. Kasey Kahne, who finished third Sunday, figures if you can reconfigure the tires or the track surface so cars can move around more, they won’t get stuck behind the leaders as much. And Carl Edwards essentially concurred.

“If you are not racing aerodynamic devices and the tire and track can interact so that the car can slide around a little more, I think you will see more side-by-side racing. I’ve been preaching that a long time,” he said. “When you rely on downforce and your car is going 200 mph and everything has to be perfect, and there is a car up there in front of you that disrupts that air, it just becomes difficult.

“I would be curious to see what no front splitter and a really tiny rear spoiler would do.”

And if that doesn’t work … well, there’s always denial. Although that doesn’t seem like much of an answer, no matter how passionate Stewart is about it.

“For some reason the last 10 years, everybody is on this kick that you have to be passing all the time,” he said Sunday. “I don’t understand where this big kick has come from.”

Here’s an idea: Why not ask the fans about it?

Well. If you can still find one, that is.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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