NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Gives Us Everything Right, Wrong with NASCAR Today

Say what you will about restrictor-plate racing. When NASCAR’s best strap the plates on their cars and proceed to race 500 miles in 20-plus car packs at nearly 200 mph, there is hardly a sporting spectacle in the world that can hold a candle to it. The annual races at Talladega always provide tons of lead changes, constant passing and a true opportunity for any of the 43 starters to score a Sprint Cup victory. There are few, if any, races on the Cup circuit more captivating for fans than those held at the famous Alabama oval.

Sunday’s race was vintage Talladega – and it was gripping. NASCAR’s new car design has done well to provide excellent restrictor-plate racing, as drivers have found it harder to simply ride around all day. Sure, some still make an effort to stay at the back of the pack as long as possible, but I for one have noticed, as did the drivers at Talladega in April, that it was more important with this new car to stay more aggressive on the throttle and more involved in the lead draft, even if it’s towards the back or through the middle of the pack.

The statistics speak for themselves as to how competitive this race was. A Sprint Cup record 28 of the 43 drivers in the event led at least one lap Sunday. 64 lead changes were recorded, and that measure included just the lead changes that registered at the start/finish line. On the final lap, no less than half a dozen drivers had a legitimate chance to score the win. Sunday’s race had fans at the track on their feet, and those watching on TV on the edge of their couches. It was everything in terms of excitement and intensity that has made the Sprint Cup series what it is today.

Unfortunately, despite all this, Sunday’s race is likely going to leave a very sour taste in the mouths of many race fans, hardcore and casual alike. Just as everything great about NASCAR was seen on-track in the Amp Energy 500, everything wrong with it – everything that has plagued the sport in recent years – was front and center. And, worst of all, it literally stole the show.

For the second time in as many years, the driver who crossed the finish line first failed to win a Sprint Cup race. Rookie Regan Smith, who ran nose to tail with Tony Stewart for the final laps of the race, put a brilliant crossover move on the No. 20 coming through the tri-oval on the final lap. Stewart threw a block across the nose of Smith’s No. 01 machine, forcing him below the yellow line. Smith, racing for the win, took the high road and made no contact with Stewart, instead racing cleanly below the No. 20 before crossing the finish line a nose ahead of Stewart’s Toyota. Not so fast, said big bad NASCAR, who ruled Smith’s move to be illegal, relegated him to an 18th-place run, and sent Stewart to Talladega’s victory lane for the first time in his Cup career.

It has long been understood that the rule when it comes to plate racing and the out-of-bounds yellow line is that a driver forced below the line can continue to race there, assuming they come back above the line as soon as possible. Smith’s case for being forced below the yellow line is textbook. Stewart’s block was so close to the nose of Smith’s Chevrolet that he had only two options: go below the line or spin Stewart and collect the tattered remains of the field in a third Big One. Smith chose to race clean; and for the record, as soon as he had room to get back on the racing groove under Stewart’s car, he did.

Yet, despite video evidence making it very clear that Smith was forced below the line, NASCAR ruled against him, stripping the rookie of his first career Cup win in favor of fan favorite Stewart. Smith, when interviewed after the race, said NASCAR told him that he could have backed off the throttle rather than gone below the yellow line. Really? The final tenth of a mile racing for the win, and NASCAR is telling its drivers to back off the gas?

Smith was flat robbed by NASCAR on Sunday. Despite showing the maturity of a veteran and resisting the temptation to stick his nose deservedly under Stewart’s block and cause another wreck to take the trophy, Smith raced clean, saved the field behind him, and was penalized for it. NASCAR’s ruling in this matter was inconsistent with previous rulings (see Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2003 win at the track and Kyle Busch in a late-race move in the spring race as examples.) For lack of a better word, this was nothing short of a travesty.

The victim of this, as fellow writer Matt McLaughlin termed it, “Grand Theft Auto Race,” Smith said it best. “It might not say it in the rule or in the history books but the [No.] 01 car won today.”

MCLAUGHLIN: THINKIN’ OUT LOUD AFTER TALLADEGA

While Smith was justifiably incensed for having his first career win snatched from him, there was at least one driver in the field who couldn’t care less whether he won or lost. Who, you ask? None other than the reigning Cup champion and current points leader, Jimmie Johnson.

After struggling with a rev-limiter early in the running and narrowly missing the second Big One, a wreck that collected numerous Chase contenders (including second-place driver Carl Edwards), Johnson all but explicitly told crew chief Chad Knaus over the radio that he wouldn’t be running for the win this Sunday. “I’ve used up all of my luck today,” said Johnson, who rebuffed numerous attempts by Knaus to calm his driver down and get him focused on scoring another victory. Johnson’s Hendrick Chevrolet was certainly capable, but he instead chose to ride in the back for the duration and settled for a ninth-place finish.

If this isn’t proof positive the Chase culture that has permeated the Cup Series has taken the focus off of the checkered flag, I don’t know what is. Johnson, a former winner at Talladega, had a car capable of scoring the win and was in the middle of a depleted field that had only 18 cars running on the lead lap at its conclusion. How can anybody that calls themselves a racer be in that situation and completely refuse to race for victory? Maybe it’s just me, but I was sick to my stomach (and for the first time in a while sympathetic to Chad Knaus) hearing Johnson’s radio communications in the waning laps of Sunday’s race.

Was this all that was wrong with NASCAR’s latest race? Hardly. Talladega became the latest center for an epidemic of Goodyear tire failures. ESPN analyst Andy Petree astutely noted that tires (not tire strategy) have been deciding far too many races, and Sunday was no exception. Even before the race started, Earnhardt found himself in a backup car after tire failure destroyed his primary in practice Friday. Brian Vickers saw a stellar run eliminated by a blown tire, as did over half a dozen fellow wheelmen that got caught in his misfortune. Worst of all, Denny Hamlin was helped off the track on a stretcher and sent to a local hospital following a savage crash in turn 2 after losing one of his Goodyears.

Goodyear’s defense of its latest shortcoming as the exclusive tire provider for the Cup series was that they used the exact same tire combination in the spring race, and since it worked then, they knew it would work in October.

Sound complacent? It certainly is. Never mind the fact that trying to compare track conditions separated by two seasons and six months of asphalt weathering simply doesn’t work – the CoT is still less than two years old! It is still evolving rapidly, and if the race teams still haven’t figured the thing out, then you damn well better believe that Goodyear hasn’t. Yet Goodyear, without competition or any seeming pressure from the sanctioning body to change its ways, sent another inferior product to a Cup race; and as a result, another race was marred by the tires it was run on.

On paper, the Amp Energy 500 will go down as another ultra-competitive, exciting race at Talladega. Yet, despite all the lead changes, all the passes, all the drama, Sunday was just another NASCAR race.

And like many of the events that have been run by the sanctioning body this season, that’s not a good thing.

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