The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday April 19, 2011
Sharing a passion is never easy: for starters, there is far too much room for ridicule. And with a sport like NASCAR, it’s arguably even more the case based on the loose (and frankly often inaccurate) stereotypes people will have if they’ve never watched the sport in any great detail. But, as is natural in life, your true friends become interested — or at the very least curious — in what makes you tick and what you derive pleasure from.
So, last November when I sat down to watch the Texas Chase race with a great friend of mine I fully briefed her on all the negative possibilities of strung out cookie-cutter races and the likelihood of processional type (frankly, boring) racing. In work terms, I suppose what I did was some good old fashioned CYA (cover your ass). Of course, I wanted her to love it; I wanted her to understand why it’s a huge priority of mine to watch 3-4 hours of racing every weekend for the best part of ten months. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much but as ever, I lived in hope that she might at least vaguely understand why it was I love NASCAR so much.
Now as you may or may not remember, that particular Chase race at the mile-and-a-half Texas Motor Speedway was very much an instant classic. From the pretty much unprecedented Johnson-Gordon pit crew swap mid-race; the handbags at ten paces fight between perhaps the two most unlikely pugilists, the original four-time Jeff Gordon and Senator Jeff Burton; plus, an absolutely thrilling finish it was a race with something for everyone.
And for my dear friend, a passion was born. “Is every race like this?” she asked breathlessly, as race winner Denny Hamlin spun donuts on his way to Victory Lane. At this point, I momentarily contemplated lying but I figured the honest approach was the best, so I told her that this race was truly one of the great ones and that she’d gotten lucky. She didn’t seem to mind, unsurprisingly.
Fast forward a few months to this Sunday evening when I sat down with the same friend to watch the Aaron’s 499 from big, bad Talladega Superspeedway. This time, she didn’t need so much of a pre-brief but I gave it anyway in the interests of her being fully prepared. I included stories about the track reputedly being built on an Indian burial ground; Richard Childress launching his racing empire on the back of his participation in the first ever race on the daunting high banks; the ill-fated, short-lived driver strike; the 1970 Cup Champion Bobby Isaac retiring from the 1973 Spring race after hearing a strange voice in the car that told him to pull it off the track. And, of course, I mentioned Carl Edwards flying into the catchfence on the final lap of to date Brad Keselowski’s maiden (and only) victory, as well as Edwards’ subsequent Ricky Bobby-esque run to the finish line.
I also covered the new two-car tandem form of racing that seems to have provoked much ire amongst my fellow scribes. Now for me, as someone who would much rather accentuate the positive about the sport, I’m very much inured to the slings and arrows fired off with monotonous regularity by various members of the NASCAR pack. And yesterday I suspect you read some of them – especially if you’ve found your way to my small part of the NASCAR world. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m no shill and I’m not blind to the faults in the sport, but it does get my goat just a little when writers bitch and moan – in some cases just for the sake of it.
Yes, the racing at Talladega has changed from the long lines and huge packs, but the format, in my humble opinion, is still utterly compelling and the simple fact remains that for four races a year — both Talladega and Daytona races — you can’t win without a little help from your friends, to paraphrase the famous old Beatles tune. And yes, restrictor plates enable drivers who aren’t in contention week-in, week-out to be a genuine threat to make it all the way to Victory Lane. That to me, though, is no bad thing: Trevor Bayne would agree and so would Dave Blaney, who almost pulled off an unlikely victory on Sunday afternoon.
And yes again, the middle part of the race can, wild Big Ones excepted, seem a little like prologue to the end of the race. But to be honest, you can make that particular case for any competition in any major form of racing, from Formula One to IndyCar to NASCAR. Every race is always going to be about who crosses the line first and what happens before that is just part of the narrative — not a reason to get all bent out of shape.
I always look to the epic race recaps of the estimable Matt McLaughlin especially when I think a race was good. Here’s his dramatic moment from Sunday: “If Hollywood tried scripting a stock car race where eight drivers all finished within two car lengths of each other, nobody would buy the script.” Or put a different way, it was such an incredible finish it was almost unbelievable. Now Matt truly calls it like he sees it and sometimes that can be searing and caustic; but this little quote tells me everything about what I witnessed with my own eyes – it was quite the race and it was quite the finish.
So for those that are complaining about the vagaries of plate racing at the new Talladega, I would say this much: I truly wish you could have seen the reaction of my friend to the final 20 laps. She was absolutely hooked. With five laps to go, she sneaked a look at me and said, “Damn, this is way intense.” And as Jimmie Johnson was trying to get the checkered flag in his post-race celebrations she turned to me again and said, “I’ve got goose bumps watching that.”
For a sport that undoubtedly needs to attract a newer, younger fan base, her comments are eloquent testimony to one way of achieving just that.
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