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Are shorter races the answer?

The decision to shorten Pocono's races to 400 miles has been a success, but would it work at other tracks where 500 laps or miles has been the standard? Chris Graythen/NASCAR/Getty Images

LONG POND, Pa. -- Brandon Igdalsky considers himself as a traditionalist. He likes his 500-mile events.

But the Pocono Raceway president relented when NASCAR wanted to cut Pocono's main events from 500 miles to 400 miles for the 2012 season. The track was being repaved, and NASCAR had just instituted fuel injection, already creating challenges for engine builders, so if there was a time to make another significant change to the Pocono races, this was it.

Igdalsky knew the fans were split 50-50 on the proposal, and he decided to take the chance.

The result has been races that have had a little more urgency, thanks to the cut of 40 laps. Some die-hards still grumble about losing 100 miles, and concession sales took a minor hit. But Igdalsky thinks it wasn't as bad as anticipated.

"We knew we needed to do it," Igdalsky said. "Our races, timewise, were taking a little long, and that three-hour slot seems to be the prime spot for any sport, not just racing. ... We made the change, and we've seen unbelievable races since then."

The five races at Pocono that have completed the full 400 miles (one was rain-shortened) have averaged 2 hours, 59 minutes, not including red flags -- right in that three-hour time slot. The six 500-mile races before the change averaged 3:41.

"I didn't think it changed the race, I think it just worked better for the viewing audience and the attention span of today's world," said six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "It just put it into a smaller window of time, and that just seems to be how the world works."

The challenge in shortening races is finding a formula that works for fans, teams, tracks and the networks while maximizing on-track action. NASCAR is working on its 2016 schedule and is open to the talk about shortening races.

"Generally speaking, we want to see shorter events," NASCAR Chairman Brian France told the Associated Press Sports Editors in April.

But it appears that many tracks don't want to cut lengths. Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said there's a good reason tracks don't want the length of races cut.

"I can tell you that the fans do not want shorter races," Gossage said. "Period. End of story.

"The only people that want shorter races are the people that run the races -- the teams. I guess I'd like to get work less and still get paid the same."

The time difference between Pocono's 400-mile and 500-mile races is a little more dramatic than the standard difference between "500" events (500 miles or 500 laps) and "400" events.

The six 500-mile or 500-lap races this year have averaged 3:31 (thanks to both restrictor-plate 500-mile events being 3:08); the five 400-mile/400-lap races have averaged 3:05. There are only six more 500-mile or 500-lap events left this season.

Last year, the average time of the shorter races fit in that three-hour window Igdalsky cited. The 16 races that went 400 miles or 400 laps averaged 2:57, and the nine 500-mile or 500-lap races not run at restrictor-plate tracks averaged 3:35. And in 2014, although 14 Sprint Cup races lasted less than three hours, 21 took three hours or more to complete. Seven of those ran 3½ hours or longer.

Pocono is the only track that has agreed to significantly shorten its races in the past four years. Auto Club Speedway cut one of its two races from 500 miles to 400 miles starting in 2010; when it lost a race to Kansas, it kept its remaining race at 400 miles. Phoenix experimented with a 600-kilometer race (372.8 miles) in 2010 but returned that race to 500 kilometers (310.7 miles) in 2011.

Two tracks have two 500-mile races -- Talladega and Texas -- and the Martinsville and Bristol races are 500 laps. Charlotte has its annual Memorial Day 600-mile event and a 500-mile event. Darlington and Atlanta have 500-mile events. And of course there's the Daytona 500.

Most of the 500-mile events date back decades. When NASCAR has added races, it often has made them 400 miles -- at Kansas and Chicagoland in 2001, and at Kentucky and Kansas' second race, both in 2011.

When Texas added its second date in 2005, it opted for another 500-mile event. Gossage said he typically doesn't survey fans because he talks to them so often and feels he already has a pulse of what they're thinking. But he has surveyed fans on race lengths, and the survey showed support for a 500-mile race and even for a 601-mile race that would give the track the longest on the circuit.

"They don't want it shorter, for sure," he said. "They want it longer. You have to listen to the fans. Without the fans, none of us would have jobs, including those teams in the garage.

"The circuit is a grind. It wears you down. And these teams would like to have fewer dates and shorter races because it is easier."

Igdalsky acknowledges that the loudest calls for a shorter race at Pocono came from those who travel the circuit.

"When our races were 500 miles, you heard it from fans, you heard it from media, you heard it from drivers," Igdalsky said. "You definitely heard it more so from the media than anybody else. Now with the way the schedule is and the hours guys are working, I understand why guys are tired."

Although cutting the length of its races worked well for Pocono, Igdalsky said he didn't know where else the change would fit. He noted that Cup races have to be longer than Xfinity and Truck series races to make them the elite events on the circuit. If Cup races are shorter, he asked, how much shorter would those other races need to be?

"For race fans and families, it's a full-day event and they are expecting a certain level of entertainment," Igdalsky said. "We're giving them what they want."

The other entity that would be involved in a decision to shorten races would be the television networks. Fox and NBC have the current contracts, and shorter races would mean less commercial time available for advertising sales.

"I haven't heard anything from NASCAR about shortening the distance," Gossage said. "I have certainly heard nothing from fans about it. ... We have had discussions about format and things like halftimes and quarters and things of that nature. I don't know how serious anybody is about that."

Johnson said the race format discussion is one he wouldn't mind pursuing. "It's an area that we haven't really touched yet, and I'm open to it," he said.

As for Pocono, he'll get prepared for 400 miles just as he did 500 miles.

"It's still a long race, a very grueling race on equipment. ... It still has the same feel and flow," Johnson said. "It's just a shorter race."