Say the word “Talladega,” and what comes to mind? Three-wide racing. Packed grandstands cloaked in Budweiser red. Adrenal gland-draining close calls. A 30-car pile up. Elliott Sadler upside down, hurtling through the atmosphere. Jeff Gordon getting pelted with beer cans.
With that in mind…what track were they racing at last weekend, anyway?
From my seat in the stands (for this particular race, a sage green upholstered one in front of a 57″ Hitachi), Talladega looked a lot like sitting alongside I-94 in Michigan in the middle of a construction zone. The only thing that reminded me that it was Talladega was seeing Old Glory proudly waving behind the semi-truck in the “fly by” during the pre-race ceremonies. Instead of the slicing and dicing, three-wide racing we usually see, the majority of the race was a single file, bumper-to-bumper train along the top of the racetrack. To say that it was like watching paint dry would be an insult to freshly applied coats of satin everywhere.
At one point, Dale Earnhardt Jr. radioed his team to inquire about the score of the Redskins game. They were playing my home state Lions, so when I heard him ask this, I knew the answer already and actually said it aloud to the television. That’s right; instead of watching what is usually one of the more interesting races of the year, this media member had it turned off for about two hours to watch a bad NFL game.
After tuning back in to catch when things would really get exciting, I noticed something peculiar towards the end of the race. As the lead pack was heading out of turn 4 towards the finish line on the last lap, there something was laying in the middle of the track. — either a tire casing or a five-foot long strip of bare-bond repair media. A couple of cars actually ran over it. I was expecting for the caution flag to come out, freezing the field and completing the race under yellow.
I mean, Gordon did just take the lead. That’s never happened before at Talladega, right?
My thoughts then turned to the empty, ½-mile section of grandstands along the fence on the frontstretch. No, those weren’t a bunch of fans clustered together in strategically placed groups of black and white; they were simply empty seats. Empty because the race provided as much excitement as say, a Presidential debate in October. Or maybe they were empty because the last time we were here, there was a shower of metallic 12 oz. bombs raining down on folks stationed in the lower level. Whatever the reason, it’s something track ownership cannot be happy about.
If you happen to have the race on tape (I think people still use VHS recorders), you will clearly see the very large object that could not have gone unnoticed by race officials; 43 large objects, in fact. The Car of Tomorrow is actually a pretty hearty beast; one could strike a deer with it at full speed, and all that would be needed to get it back into competition would be for the crew to take a garden hose to the front end.
In hindsight, the sport let the race continue – those three laps of competitive racing was about all there would be to stave off yet another nap – and treated the fans to a finish that would do the Talladega name justice. Had the race finished under yellow, just when it finally got interesting, those empty grandstand seats in the lower level may have found their way onto the track along with those beer cans.
No, this was not your typical Talladega event. Even Gordon admitted to, for the first time in his career, yawning during a race while riding around at the back of the pack. After exiting early with engine failure, Earnhardt Jr. was asked if the racing was as exciting as it looked like on TV. He chuckled and offered, “What race were you watching?” Even Jeff Burton, who never met a NASCAR decision he didn’t like, admitted it was, “a little boring”.
However, a few drivers and some in the media were touting this past weekend’s finish as proof positive that the CoT is an unqualified success, having now proven itself on every kind of track that NASCAR races on. I’m not quite there yet. It’s safe, that’s for sure — Had Kyle Petty been in the old car, we may not have heard from him so soon after his encounter with the turn 4 wall. Then again, with all of the safety innovations NASCAR has incorporated into the new machine, the ability for drivers to see out of it was not included in the design criteria. All of the drivers complained about not being able to see through the car in front of them, begging for at the very least, a rear wing made of Lexan.
I would vote for that… simply because then you wouldn’t be able to see it at all.
With this weekend’s 2008 Daytona 500 experiment behind us, we head to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte – my favorite track on the circuit – with the current car. Lowe’s routinely produces great racing (when it isn’t falling apart, being repaved, levigated, walls festooned in yellow paint, or some other atrocity), and for each of the previous three seasons in the Chase, has proved as big of a wildcard as any other track, playing an integral role in sorting out the haves and the have nots. Setting up the second half of the Chase, the original 1.5-mile superspeedway should produce something a bit more enthralling than last weekend’s race at Talladega.
Wow. When was the last time you heard that?