Why is this year unlike any other year in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing?
Statistically, it's an astounding anomaly. With rare exceptions, Cup drivers have simply stopped wrecking.
In successive races at Texas, Kansas and Richmond, Cup drivers logged 1,001 consecutive laps without a caution for a racing accident. How is that possible?
After races at Talladega and Darlington, where accidents are all but inevitable -- but where both races also produced extended green-flag runs -- the trend continued in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There were no cautions for multi-car collisions.
Of the five cautions called during the race, four were for debris on the racetrack. Only one, for Travis Kvapil's contact with the Turn 4 wall on Lap 170, was labeled an accident. The race concluded in a record three hours, 51 minutes, 14 seconds at a race-record average speed of 155.687 mph.
Inevitably, the question came up again after the race, the same question that has been repeated throughout the season: How can we account for the vastly reduced frequency of racing accidents from one year to the next?
On the surface, the question purports to examine the difference between this year and previous seasons, when the series collectively has been much more accident-prone. But there's a subtext couched in the question, too, almost as if we're asking about the absence of something that's desirable.
There's another implication. If drivers aren't wrecking, they're not trying as hard. What's worse, the drivers themselves are perpetuating that myth by buying into a bigger myth, namely that terrible finishes are harder to overcome under the current points system than they were under the system that preceded it.
"Bottom line, I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays, you know if you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you're going to take 10 races to get that back," said Denny Hamlin, Sunday night's runner-up.
The problem is, that statement is demonstrably false, both empirically and mathematically -- as the 12-race microcosm of Kahne's 2012 season strongly suggests.
Kahne's first six races with Hendrick Motorsports included THREE finishes of 34th or worse and an average result of 28.5. His next six finishes, however, were all top 10s, with an average result of 5.5. After Sunday's victory, Kahne is 15th in points -- up 16 positions from his standing after six races -- and back in theÂ mix for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
There's no doubt that drivers are racing smarter, as they gain experience with the race car that was introduced part-time in 2007 and full-time into the Cup series in 2008. To that point, Hamlin is right on the money.
"I think everyone is so used to these cars now," he said. "I think, at the beginning, these cars were a tremendous handful to drive. Obviously, we saw some wrecks because of it, especially on restarts.
"I think everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts, as crazy as that sounds. It's just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago. Everyone is minding their Ps and Qs, trying to get the best finish out of their day, knowing the one thing you can't overcome in a race is a crash."
Hamlin's right. In a race, you can't overcome a crash. But in a season, you can, as Kahne has done this year.
Crew chiefs are smarter, too. When the new car was introduced, it may have been a handful to drive, but from the beginning, it was also a much more stable platform than the car that preceded it. The Car of Tomorrow, as it was called when it debuted, was much less likely to spin while running underneath another car.
"Typically, these cars have to be a little bit tighter," said Kyle Busch, third-place finisher in the 600. "It's not as easy to go into the corner and back one in like it used to be with the old car -- aerodynamics, stuff like that."
It took a quarter-century to maximize the potential of the previous-generation racecar, in what was largely a trail-and-error process. With computer modeling and sophisticated engineering, the current car has maxed out in a much shorter time.
In 2013, all four Cup manufacturers will introduce new racecars. Chances are, there will be an acclimation period with these cars, too. Will there also be a corresponding spike in the number of racing accidents? That remains to be seen.
Before the Charlotte Speedweeks, NASCAR introduced rule changes that had the net effect of removing downforce -- and some degree of stability -- from the cars. Though crew chiefs countered the shortening of side skirts with adjustments to the suspensions of the cars, I noticed a subtle difference in the two races at Charlotte.
With absolutely no scientific evidence to support it -- other than observation from the press box -- here's what I saw. Cars running in the top 10 were able to overtake each other more easily than they have been in prior races on intermediate tracks this season.
The dreaded aero-push, the wall of air that prevents one car from catching another, seemed to be much less of a factor. Jimmie Johnson, for example, was able to catch and pass pole-sitter Kyle Busch 15 laps into the first segment of the May 19 Sprint All-Star Race -- and Johnson started the race from the sixth position.
Some of the best racing in the Cup series this year took place after the three-quarter mark of the Coke 600. After Kahne pitted on Lap 307 to complete a cycle of green-flag stops, Kahne, Hamlin and Biffle swapped the lead between them six times before a debris caution slowed the action on Lap 319.
Here's the encouraging thing: neither Kahne nor Biffle, who traded the lead four times in four laps from 316 through 319, was able to pull away in clean air after passing for the top spot. Being out front didn't make one car suddenly superior to the other -- a phenomenon we've seen all too often in the past few years.
I fully expect NASCAR to continue with aerodynamic adjustments to the current car to see what might prove beneficial in the final versions of next year's package.
That doesn't guarantee that we'll see more wrecking next year, but if the racing continues to improve, who cares.