Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 18, 2011
If NASCAR tracks were ranked by controversy, Talladega would serve as your election powder keg of political sniping. Everyone, from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Matt Kenseth to Kevin Harvick’s dog has a pointed opinion about its unique type of restrictor-plate racing, manipulated side-by-side competition evolving in some shape or form since the late 1980s. With record-breaking lead changes and white-knuckle finishes, thrills there propel this sport into the national consciousness as much as ugly, life-threatening wrecks accentuate its tragic risks.
But when it comes to the sport’s bottom line, in the last few years filled with disappointing sales NASCAR can point to the plates as its shining light of “competitive brilliance.” Sunday’s photo finish – bear with me, we’ll get there – was tied for the closest in the Cup Series’ 60-year history since the advent of electronic scoring in the early 1990s. It’s the payoff to what’s sold as 500 miles of parity; since February of 2008 Talladega has now averaged nearly 71 lead changes, nearly double the number of its second-place Cup contestant and fellow plate partner (Daytona, 44). By the way, if you’re looking for third on back… don’t. They’re not even in the same stratosphere. During this three-year span, no other tracks besides the dual 2.5-mile superspeedways have posted more than 37 lead changes in any given race.
That’s why a visit to Talladega was so important for this sport, its stop crucial for national perception going into the Easter holiday. After a “NASCAR is back!” refrain started by none other than that big sister Daytona – 74 lead changes, upset winner (Trevor Bayne), increasing viewership – the early-season momentum trumpeted by all had plateaued since early March. Bristol, one of the sport’s signature tracks, had its worst attendance in nearly two decades. TV ratings have turned flat year-to-year, while sponsorship and financial issues keep cropping up like weeds in your early spring garden. Clint Bowyer was the latest superstar admitting he needed some primary sponsorship this month, while Greg Biffle just signed an extension for a pay cut when the NFL is arguing over how to split $9 billion in revenue.
On the surface, what we saw Sunday was supposed to fix those things, allowing NASCAR to trump, “It’s the economy, stupid!” while addressing the problems behind the scenes. Did it work? Well, the stats are impressive: 26 leaders, 88 lead changes (tying a NASCAR record) and a .002 second margin of victory that’s about the size of your car’s front bumper. There weren’t any major wrecks, either, the “Big One” taking a breather with only four cars failing to finish due to accidents.
But I’ll tell you who else was taking a breather: people you couldn’t see in the crowd. Attendance was down year-to-year, to 115,000 while giant, painted “Talladega Superspeedway” tarps covered large sections in turn 4 and turn 1. In comparison, the number eight years ago for this race was 190,000, marking a 40 percent decrease in the heart of NASCAR’s heartland. Considering Daytona was the best race of the season, young Trevor Bayne’s victory the crowning achievement on the momentum switch, why didn’t more of them show up? The day was picture perfect: sunny, 70s, while tickets could be had at affordable prices on a day where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – the local fan favorite – was a clear threat to reach Victory Lane.
Renewed excitement also surrounded the two-car tandems, the new “dating” drafting technique that turns a 43-car field into 21 two-car packs where you need a partner, not a handling package to survive. Withstanding a steady stream of criticism to produce a magical Daytona 500, the system made it to Talladega but here, we ran into a problem no one realized: the narrow track at Daytona made things look better than they really were. Two-car tandems three-abreast down in Florida? It was a hair-raising moment, every pass so risky – between track size and speed differential – you weren’t sure who was going to wreck. Talladega? Heck, in those 40-car packs they used to go five-wide through the tri-oval, all averaging different speeds and nobody blinked.
That meant every tandem pass Sunday, every lead change through most of the first 400 miles felt like two cars passing another two with plenty of space on your local highway. “Dancing With The Cars” felt like a choreographed road trip with the family, each teammate set politely switching who ran in front of each other every few laps. Those watching at home? They were the kids in the back, busy asking the drivers, “Are we there yet?”
That awesome final destination, of course, was the inevitable 11-lap dash to the finish where the fastest cars stopped playing a game of chicken. Like magic, the real contenders suddenly showed up, including the Hendrick foursome that had started the race 1-2-3-4 but chose to spend the majority of their day half-a-lap-down before mixing it up. Great ending, but that’s different from Daytona, a race that kept you entertained throughout; if fans were smart, they knew they could leave for three hours, get some errands done and tune in when the racing really started.
“It’s really about a 25-lap race,” said Jeff Gordon. “Some guys chose to mix it up during the day, but that plan hasn’t worked out in the past. We chose to just stay out of trouble.”
What a great advertisement for NASCAR, right? “Come to Talladega, fans, and take a nap until 4:00 when the racing really begins!” If it wasn’t for the legendary infield, you wonder how many would have traveled long distances had they gotten that message.
Some of the negative mojo could have been erased if the weekend produced a Bayne-like winner with a spark. For awhile, underdog Dave Blaney looked like a compromise candidate (after all, he’s nearly 50) but his single-car No. 36 was hit the wrong way late, nearly wrecked and wound up 27th. Bayne? He crashed out early, along with fellow “young gun” David Ragan and was never a factor down the stretch.
That left Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as the only hope, the man most “home turf” fans paid to see… and those fans cheered wildly as he headed into the last lap. But in these two-car tandems, Earnhardt spent most of the day as the “pushee” and by the time he could pull out in a last-gasp bid for the lead, the opportunity to capitalize had simply passed him by. Instead, the guy who trapped the No. 88 into that winless streak was the man everyone’s seen five times too many… Jimmie Johnson. That’s right: the same Johnson that’s quietly second in points, five out of the lead and despite all the Carl Edwards, Ford, and Kyle Busch stories written remains the presumptive series champion – again – until someone takes it away. Wait until a casual observer goes beyond the 30-second SportsCenter highlight and gets a sniff of that one. Meanwhile, for all those Junior fans, it was a reminder their man sits permanently behind the No. 48 (at least) within the Hendrick totem pole, a cruel ending at a time they should be excited about his recent resurgence.
Now here’s the insult to momentum injury: replays show Johnson may have gone below the yellow line in his winning pass over teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. It’s a tougher call than most we’ve seen (personally, I think NASCAR made the right one in this case) but controversial enough Twitter was abuzz with questions of foul officiating. Mix that in with double the racing criticism versus February, drivers unafraid to voice dissatisfaction with this package and it’s fair to say the “honeymoon period” with the two-car drafting band-aid has worn off.
“Ever since I’ve been coming to Talladega or watching Talladega, everytime you interview somebody that has crashed they’re like, ‘Oh, this racing is terrible. Somebody is gonna get hurt,’” said Matt Kenseth of this style he seems to dislike just as much as the old one. “I mean, it’s been the same thing [versus a 40-car pack], but it’s different. Before, at least you can kind of control your own destiny and you can draft a little bit. Here, if you don’t have a car locked on you and shoving you, or vice versa, you’re gonna get lapped in 15-20 laps and it’s really hard.”
Ouch. And now? Our sport heads into an off week, not returning until April 30th at Richmond while the heart of the NHL/NBA playoffs kick into gear. In this era where people are focused on “big events” more than ever (remember how U.S. – Canada Olympic hockey affected the ratings?) the sport needs to hope there’s not some sort of game 7 with LeBron, Kobe, or others on the schedule. It’s the last thing we need.
Here’s the funny thing: after Daytona the NASCAR momentum, not those of other sports was supposed to be inevitably catapulting forward, transforming into an unstoppable force where Talladega would give it an extra boost of speed. Instead, little sister took the doll away, the anti-Daytona where the thrilling finish couldn’t numb the pain of how we got there. Yes, the ending was great; how could you not be on the edge of your seat? But you don’t buy a book based on one chapter… right?
“It was fun while it lasted,” said Blaney after winding up 27th, watching his chance at an upset win slip away.
NASCAR’s hoping they’re not saying the same thing about their 2011 momentum after Easter break.
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