Matt Stallknecht and Tom Bowles · Wednesday October 16, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both to you, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: With its reputation as more of a crapshoot than a race and the potential to cost a deserving driver the title, should Talladega Superspeedway continue to have a race date in the Chase?
Talladega, Trickier Than It Seems, Should Stay In
Should Talladega have a spot in the Chase? Is that even a question? Of course it should have a spot in the Chase! That is an incredibly silly thing to ask, in my opinion. To me, that is tantamount to asking whether or not Martinsville should be in the ten-race playoff. God forbid somebody dare ask something like that!
Superspeedway racing (I choose not to use the term “plate racing” due to the fact that the basic style of racing at the two superspeedways would be largely the same with or without the plates, no matter what anyone will tell you) is a unique form of competition. As such, it requires a unique skill set just like road courses and short tracks. Well, guess what? The Chase is supposed to test every skill that a driver and team possess. Talladega tests a variety of skills that the other nine Chase tracks do not (I have listed some of those skills a few paragraphs down). By not including a superspeedway race, like Talladega in the playoffs then many critical components to driving would go untested. That’s pretty much your answer in a nutshell right there.
The real question in my eyes is why do fans and media members have this strange and, dare I say, ignorant belief that Talladega doesn’t belong in the Chase? For some unusual reason, some in the NASCAR world have this idiotic idea in their head that Talladega is “not real racing” or that it is in some way a “lottery.” Both of those statements are laughably inaccurate. Superspeedway racing, in contrast places an emphasis on skills that drivers don’t readily use in typical races.
What are they? Almost too many to list. Talladega puts a premium on passing, drafting, teamwork, thinking, defensive driving, raw wheel-to-wheel ability, quick reflexes, and a boatload of other skills that go largely untested in your typical intermediate track events, where the drivers largely hot lap over and over again. Superspeedways put a premium on the ability of the driver. It’s the reason why one of the most skilled superspeedway racers in modern day NASCAR, David Ragan, can win in an underfunded Front Row Motorsports machine at Talladega. That can’t happen on an intermediate track because the car itself is too important. At Talladega, it’s the driver, his bravery, his drafting skills, and his decisions that make the biggest difference — not the aero numbers or how sealed off his car is to the ground.
Some fans and media members do not seem to understand this point, though. The only aspect of superspeedway racing that makes it “crapshoot-y” is the propensity for the big wreck. In a theoretical superspeedway race that has no “Big One,” the “crapshoot-y” element would be removed, leaving the race to be decided by which drivers can work the draft the best and execute the correct defensive moves. Yes, the “Big One” is a factor, but avoiding that accident and knowing how to put yourself in a position to not get involved in it is just another factor that a driver is tested by at Talladega. Yes, you need some luck to miss the big wreck. You also need a hell of a lot of luck, especially in an underfunded machine to have success at other tracks.
In fact, I believe that is the misconception we are dealing with here. Just because big wrecks happen at Talladega does not make the actual “racing” at the facility a crapshoot. It makes it a “wild card,” for sure, but “the Big One” does not change the fact that a team needs a skilled superspeedway racer to find superspeedway success. It does not change the fact that a driver’s ability to perform at superspeedways should be a part of the skill set that the Chase is meant to test.
So as you watch the race at Talladega Sunday, I implore you to watch it in a different way. Instead of whining about the big wreck, pick out the drivers who are good superspeedway racers and learn to appreciate their craft. Take time to marvel at the beauty of a well-executed slingshot pass for the lead (something you won’t see at any other track, save for Daytona). Watch in awe as a veteran driver coordinates a group of others in a draft train headed towards the front. Learn how to appreciate a tactical block. Enjoy each unique superspeedway strategy that a driver employs. Appreciate the spectacle of 43 men and women somehow running effectively within inches of the cars and the walls.
I urge you all to look at this type of racing in a new way, enjoying it for what it is. Once you realize that a superspeedway is absolutely this unique and high-energy form of racing, separate from all other tracks that NASCAR visits, you will no longer view it as a crapshoot. Once and for all, you may even just realize why Talladega belongs in the Chase.
Wreck-A-Race To Decide A Series Champ? Thanks, But No Thanks
If there’s one thing this Chase has taught us, in 2013 it’s that there’s parity amongst the two top contenders. Halfway through, Matt Kenseth has two wins, paired with an average finish of 4.6 that’s kept him on top. Jimmie Johnson, in some ways is even better: his average is an eyebrow-raising 4.0. Both, if maintaining their success throughout the next five events, would set new records for NASCAR’s postseason era. While fans may hate the concept of a Chase itself, along with its consequences they can’t argue the way in which it’s being decided. Every week, both potential titlists (along with Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch) are running up front, leading laps and trading blows, punch-for-punch in a race that should come down to the wire.
Let me put the emphasis there on should. For on Sunday, at Talladega the battle for the championship really comes down to Russian Roulette. Will the big wreck start? Where? And in what helpless position will both Kenseth and Johnson be in when that 190 mile an hour gun goes off? The restrictor plates, combined with advancing technology have made cars at that track stick together, in a full 43-car pack like glue. Strategy plays a small part, along with drafting expertise but in this day and age, with so many competitors and no real way to let off the gas each driver finds themselves at the mercy of Lady Luck.
In the midst of such an even title race, it’s a shame that someone else’s silly mistake, setting off a 20-car wreck could end up deciding it. Right now, it’s clear both Johnson and Kenseth are primed to post top-10 finishes, if not top-5 it at every other track on the circuit; a 30-point loss would be near-impossible to make up without help. Sure, Chase disaster could also occur at Martinsville, the shortest track on the circuit where brakes and patience take center stage. But even there, where tempers flare, drivers have some sort of control over their fate. You can keep from hitting a rival’s rear bumper. You can conserve brakes and equipment over the course of green-flag restarts and long runs. Mentally, staying focused can still remove someone from most potentially dangerous situations there.
A driver has no such ability at Talladega. In fact, their ability is as meaningless as the brake pedal, each car running wide open like a trained monkey while simply waiting for the “roll the dice” moment where its drafting pack will either pull ahead, fall behind, or wreck itself. Hopefully, that dangerous hunk of metal they’re helpless to control doesn’t flip in the process.
Letting a playoff race hang in the balance like that is like playing a game of “rock, paper, scissors” after nine weeks of exceptional effort. It’s like flipping a coin, at the 50-yard line after watching a three-hour football game. Is that really what you want your fan base to remember? That this Chase was decided for one driver because everyone else got swept up in a wreck? It’s bad enough phantom debris cautions and “Spingate” have clouded integrity. This third possibility creates a carnival-like atmosphere.
It’s already too late to remove Talladega from the Chase slate come 2014. I still understand the importance of plate races; they’re unique, the fans love the fact underdogs can win and there’s an addiction no one can shake to seeing cars run death-defying speeds, four abreast. I just think you can run those two ‘Dega races in the regular season, in April and July so if anything, it gives one of those “David vs. Goliath” stories a chance to earn two wins and get in position to make the Chase. It’s a far better “steal,” in my opinion than pinning the championship trophy on some wild, last-lap 35-car dash where the ending is out of everyone’s hands. The best racers in America, at the top of their craft don’t deserve that.
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