The Frontstretch: Talladega: Where You Don't Have to Be Good, Just Lucky by Amy Henderson -- Monday April 26, 2010

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Talladega: Where You Don't Have to Be Good, Just Lucky

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Monday April 26, 2010


It’s better to be lucky than good. That adage is as old as racing itself, and couldn’t be more true. Luck has won drivers races and the occasional championship, and no matter how good you are, well, Lady Luck can remind you of what last place looks like in a hurry. So, yes, sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.

Until NASCAR took it one step too far.

An aphorism once meant to inflate the thrill of victory or take away a bit of the agony of defeat has taken on a whole new meaning in NASCAR. It reflected a moment in time, a lucky break … not every second of every lap.

Racing at places like Talladega and Daytona is less about driver skill and car setup than it is about being lucky enough to make it through the big wrecks and the draft.

Yet that’s all restrictor plate racing, especially at Talladega, has become – the survival of the luckiest, fittest be damned. Sure, it’s exciting to watch, I suppose; after all, there were a lot of lead changes on Sunday. But they weren’t lead changes based on skill of the driver or of the team in setting up a race car. They weren’t even born of a day-long strategy that a driver used to need on these tracks. Instead, they were based mostly on luck: being able to jump in front of a faster car in the draft. Several cars that ran up front at Talladega Sunday wouldn’t have been in the top 20 at most other tracks, but the parity of plates made them run with the Big Boys. I love to see the underdogs perform, don’t get me wrong; it’s just some of the leaders Sunday just got lucky.

I am probably in the minority among those in racing circles, but I would also love nothing more than to see every race be totally crash-free — a wish that doubles for plate races. If no car touched another for 500+ miles at Talladega, I’d be ecstatic. Unfortunately, with the rules in place and the current aerodynamic package, that’s not going to happen.

One of NASCAR’s worst decisions ever was made as a knee-jerk reaction to one type of crash that used to happen fairly commonly on plate tracks: a driver would dive onto the apron to gain position on the straightaway, then try to blend into traffic on the monster banking in the corners, often upsetting either that car or another as they jostled for real estate at nearly 200 miles an hour. So, NASCAR had what they thought was an easy and appropriate solution: they simply would not allow a car to gain position with any of its wheels below the racing surface.

It might have sounded great in theory, but it has never been enforced correctly, nor has it prevented any wrecks on track. In fact, on Sunday it caused at least one of them. On the second of the three green-white-checkered attempts, when Greg Biffle ran out of fuel and Jimmie Johnson wrecked off of his No. 16, Johnson had a huge run on Clint Bowyer, but was forced by NASCAR’s rules to try to get to Bowyer’s outside — a space already occupied by the rapidly fading Biffle. Luckily, only Johnson suffered damage in a wreck that could have been so much worse.

Not only that, but once again there were a driver and fans left to question how the rule really works, because when Kevin Harvick made his winning pass, his wheels were clearly on the line, dipping below after the pass was made. So, what constitutes out of bounds? Is on the line legal, then, as today’s finish suggested? In any other sport, on the line means out of bounds: are we to assume that’s not the case in NASCAR? Or was it, as a few fans have suggested, a “judgment call” used to keep Jamie McMurray from tying a record three consecutive restrictor plate wins: a record held by a guy named Earnhardt? I don’t think that’s the case, but considering that NASCAR has never made a correct call on yellow-line violations, it could still have been a miscall. The tape shown by FOX was inconclusive.

Last week, I wrote about how an ongoing rivalry could hurt the championship bids of both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, but it appears that is alive and well — although FOX made a convenient mistake to make it look worse than it was. After the race, Gordon said that he was “pissed” at Johnson for possibly causing the wreck that ended Gordon’s day. However, as much as the skirmish last week was Johnson’s fault, this time it was not. The footage that FOX replayed with Gordon’s interview was not the footage of the incident, which occurred on the frontstretch, but of half a lap sooner, on the back straight. Johnson was at the head of the lower line of traffic, and Gordon had a furious run. He would later blame Johnson for not letting him pass when he was clearly faster; but that’s not a racer’s job if the race is for position, as this battle clearly was. Second, during the incident where Gordon’s car did end up crunched into a new shape, it looked as though the No. 24 got loose as he tried to force his way into traffic, causing the No. 48 to slow as well in a bobble that ended with a three-car crash.

If that incident was the fault of anyone, once again it was the yellow line rule. Had Gordon not faced a penalty for doing so, he could have easily maintained his position below Johnson: but instead, Gordon had to force his way into traffic, causing the pileup. Truly just a racing deal, but one that could have been avoided before it started.

NASCAR does deserve a measure of praise for the decision to run the rained out Nationwide Series race on Sunday after the Cup show instead of on Monday. For the real Nationwide teams especially, one extra night is an expense they can ill afford, let alone two. It also ensures that more ticket holders will see the race, though many fans might be spending a few dollars extra at Starbucks on Monday to make it through the workday. The fans, sponsors, and teams all deserve to save money, and it’s the right thing to do at a track where Cup ticket sales lag to the extent where both Cup and Nationwide ticket buyers can fit in the stands. It’s best for everyone, and more Nationwide Series fans will get to see the race on television as well. It’s a win-win situation.

But when all is said and done, it’s time for NASCAR to come up with a solution for restrictor plate “racing.” A whole race should not be built around the notion that someone will get lucky and win. Don’t let 80-odd lead changes cloud what plate racing actually is: a “lottery,” as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. called it before Sunday’s race. Junior is right on that one. Talladega is a great party, from what I’ve heard. What it’s not anymore is a great race.

NASCAR has put an end to that.

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04/26/2010 01:32 AM

First, if Harvick dips his wheels below the line after he’s passed McMurray, that is completely within the rules. The rule is that a driver cannot go under the line to advance his position. If he goes below the line while in P1, he can’t be advancing his position.

Secondly, if a driver does so, and then gives the position back, there is no penalty. Johnson wasn’t forced above the yellow line into Biffle; he could have gone under the line to avoid traffic, let Bowyer back by, and suffered no foul. Instead, he turned himself around, and I can’t say I have an ounce of sympathy… what did he expect to happen? He knew the #16 was there!

Third, the line is not out of bounds in all other sports. A ball hit on the line in tennis is considered in the court. A fly batted baseball which hits the foul pole is a home run… the foul lines are, in fact, fair. Based on that, I’d guess the double yellow line is fair game as long as the tires don’t go below it, but in this case it’s irrelevant.

I hate the yellow line rule as much as anyone, but it’s a non-issue in this race.

04/26/2010 06:22 AM

I’ve got an answer for restrictor plate racing: throw the plate in the trash.

04/26/2010 07:29 AM

I don’t hate the yellow line rule. I think the apron should be out of bounds at every track.

I do hate NASCAR’s inability to call rule infractions consistently. But that isn’t about the yellow line, that is about every rule and has exiseted as long as there has been a NASCAR to complain about.

04/26/2010 09:15 AM

Once again Amy seems to have watched a totally different race than the rest of us . What network was carrying the race you describe Amy ?
As for the yellow line rule not working , i can remember it being commonplace for cars to pass below the yellow line . I also remember many instances of drivers paying the price for that move . Since it’s now illegal , we don’t see it being done , and we don’t see the resulting mayhem . If the drivers aren’t doing it anymore , and they aren’t , then it would stand to reason that the rule has helped .

04/26/2010 09:29 AM

So what happens when we go to fuel injection next year?

04/26/2010 10:27 AM

I agree 100%. This whole season has been about the lucky. Screw excitement, I long for the days when the best team won the race.

Carl D.
04/26/2010 01:22 PM

Lower the bankings. Yes, it’s costly, but not as costly as the life of a driver.

04/26/2010 01:37 PM

Michael: I agree that the rule has possibly corrected a safety issue to a small degree. But I can’t agree that it works when it has been applied incorrectly nearly every time it’s enforced (or not, as the case may be). Far too many drivers have been penalized when they were forced down there, and others have been allowed to pass under the line when they were clearly not forced. Sunday might (and I say might only because NASCAR is unclear on the rule) ba the first time I can remember that NASCAR made the right call, so I can’t agree that it has really helped. Two wrecks could have been avoided if the drivers weren’t so worried about being penalized for going down there.

Carl D.: I stopped shy of saying they should lower the banking and take the plates off for one reason an one reason only-it would turn Talladega into an oversized Fontana where 500 miles take twice as long to endure. And I’m still not sure if that’s better than a plate race or not. How about this, since we’re talking expensive no matter how you slice it: bulldoze it and build another Iowa or Rockingham instead? That, I’d be all for.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.