The Frontstretch: Darlington 2003 vs. Talladega 2011: Two Photo Finishes, One Clear Winner by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday April 18, 2011

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The Ricky Craven / Kurt Busch finish at Darlington back in 2003 holds personal significance to me beyond being the closest finish NASCAR has seen since electronic scoring came to be. It was ultimately the race and the episode that turned stock car racing from a curiosity into a consuming passion for me.

Over eight years later, I finally witnessed a finish that at least, in terms of margin will go down as the equal to that dramatic episode of the Lady in Black. And I can safely say that despite the razor-thin margin of victory, despite the fact that six cars crossed the finish line at Talladega within milliseconds of each other to decide a 500-mile race, despite seeing a furious last-lap charge take the fifth-place driver to first when the pay window opened, this one doesn’t even come close to stacking up.

Anyone that watched the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 back in 2003 should remember just how, well, different, that Sunday on the Track Too Tough to Tame felt…and not just because Saturday had seen no racing (the Nationwide Series was rained out and run that Monday). From the drop of the green flag, early cautions and contact on-track were prevalent; cars were dropping like flies, the commentators noting how bluntly obvious it was that the Cup field was getting after it in a big-time hurry on this race day. It was hardly a surprise to see this race come down to the result that it did, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven beating the living daylights out of each other for nearly half a lap coming to the checkers, crossing the stripe in a cloud of smoke with Dave Blaney charging hard, within a few car lengths of stealing the win himself. It was a mano-e-mano engagement, a single-car team getting it done against a five-car superteam, the quiet, methodical Craven getting the best of the still brash Busch.

The same couldn’t be said for this Sunday… because Saturday had already set the tone, and it was a drab, dreary reminder of what Sunday was going to bring at Talladega. That, of course, was the two-car tango that’s become the current restrictor plate fashion of choice. Racing in pairs, individual drivers were either reduced to two, uncomfortable decisions each lap: be steered by someone else, or rely on the driver in front to keep them out of harm’s way. Drivers dumped by their drafting partners, be it Mike Bliss on the bumper of Joey Logano (who also dumped Brian Scott earlier in the event) or Scott spinning Michael Annett late were only able to shrug it off… because they knew that without that partner, actually competing for the win was simply out of the question.

Talladega’s new asphalt, still silky smooth without a sign of weathering meant that tires and handling proved to be non-issues for drivers to handle… making it hard to justify running 312 miles. Conservation was reduced from tire management, improving setups and balancing the need to last with the need to keep one’s self up front to simply being sure to duck out from behind a dance partner once in awhile to get air into the radiator.

And last but not least, the plate races that are so often referred to as “opportunity races,” events that have produced surprise winners such as Mike Wallace’s 2004 triumph at Daytona, gave actual Nationwide fans a brutal teaser and nothing more; Mike Wallace came within a half a lap of having a shot at the win, only to end up on his roof while Kyle Busch and Joey Logano Buschwhacked their way to another victory. Sure, David challenged Goliath; but when Goliath still crushes that slingshot, does the fact David put up a fight really matter?

Turns out that harsh reality would happen twice. Go figure… Sunday played out just like Saturday down in Alabama.

Drafting partners proved to be their teammates’ undoing (Joey Logano again, this time wrecking Kyle Busch). Tires and handling proved to have no impact on the race at all, making the case for a 499-mile distance extremely hard to make. And the “opportunity race” for the second day in a row was violently ended, this time with Dave Blaney literally getting the boot from the lead draft by Kurt Busch with less than 10 laps to go.

That said, there’s plenty of arguments that fans of today’s Talladega could make. Some do enjoy the two-car drafts. Some have no problem with the big guns being up front during all days of a NASCAR race weekend. And some couldn’t care less about who’s finishing where, as long as the finish is as close as this Sunday’s was, one that saw Jimmie Johnson top Clint Bowyer by literally a matter of inches.

But the biggest difference here was seen after the race, and how the competitors on track handled their narrow victories and defeats.

After taking the checkers at Darlington and heading to Victory Lane, Ricky Craven did have Kurt Busch meet him there. But the discussion was what one would expect. Busch congratulated Craven, both reveled in a spectacular race… it’s just there was a clear winner. Craven had gotten the best of Busch, and no one would argue otherwise. Two incredible race car drivers did battle, doing themselves and teams justice, but there was a hierarchy when all was said and done.

That’s not the case this Sunday. Jimmie Johnson’s last-second charge to victory came not because of a well-played move that he made and that was something another driver should follow, but was facilitated because of a teammate deal with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that was reached well before that final scramble to the checkers. Dale Jr. didn’t make the move to go with Johnson because it was the right thing for him to do it — he did it to stick with his teammate and partner. The commentators and Johnson’s crew were both right in noting that Dale Jr. won Sunday’s race as much as Johnson did. And though he dismissed such talk once Johnson gave his teammate the checkered flag on his victory lap, there really is an argument to be made that Dale Jr. deserved some kind of trophy for his role in the finish.

So the score sheets may well say this Sunday what happened at Talladega equaled what was seen in 2003 at Darlington. But those finishes, by and large, are equal on the score sheets only. On this Sunday at Talladega, no matter what the pictures say, there wasn’t a driver that can safely say he was the better wheelman in Alabama. Driving a package that absolutely requires a dance partner, a manner of driving and a role for each driver depending on their position within the pair is frankly removed from racing — more like a form of synchronized driving at high speeds.

Take it to the stunt tracks, boys.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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Bad Wolf
04/18/2011 12:47 AM

Well said and right on the mark. I was a fan back in ’76 when Petty and Pearson beat the hell out of each other and crossed the line at Daytona with beat up rides, I was a fan still back in 2000 when Big E. came from back in the pack with 3 to go to win the fall Talledega Race. That was real racin and what we saw today is not, and I’m not much of a fan anymore these days.

04/18/2011 09:54 AM

“Dale Jr. didn’t make the move to go with Johnson because it was the right thing for him to do it — he did it to stick with his teammate and partner.” I think that it is the most disgusting race I have ever seen. The Indy race with the bad tires was more of a ‘race for the win’ than this was. What has JJ ever done for Jr….?

04/18/2011 10:17 AM

I don’t think JJ pushing Jr. to the win will ever happen.

04/18/2011 10:28 AM

I think you are all wrong. Hendrick took it to the next level, a thing he has done quite often in the past. I do not think it is good for the one car team but there were a lot of other teammates doing the same thing. I do think JJ will gladly return the favor if he gets the chance even during the chase. Expect more of the same. I don’t really like it but it is far better than having the big one.

04/18/2011 10:52 AM

Actually, the decision to push Johnson was Junior’s. Johnson was commited to push him, but Junior radioed him and asked to push instead, as he felt they would be faster that way. Junior’s plan was to get them both clear in front of the field and then settle it between the two of them. It didn’t work out as the No. 88 got dangerously overheated in the final laps and he had to get it some air-separating the two just long enought to delay their charge. Earnhardt made the decision based on what he thought would be his best chance to win the race-but when it became apparent that he could not, he pushed his teammate instead as a good teammate should in that situation. It was not team orders from anyone but Junior.

Michael in SoCal
04/18/2011 11:47 AM

I do believe that in Junior’s first race with Hendrick, it was the 48 pushing Junior to victory in the Bud Shootout. And yes, I know the Shootout isn’t a points race, but that doesn’t stop these guys from going all out.

Kevin from PA
04/18/2011 05:20 PM

Remember that Darlington race very well. My heart was ponding for the last two laps expecting Busch and Craven to take each other out and for Blaney to take the win.

I was so glad Craven won as his team owner was one of the small guys. Of course the small owners won that race but lost the ownership war.