NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR’s Dream Turned Nightmare Wrapped Into 1

One of the biggest struggles we have in life is to try and figure out whether our glass is half-empty or half-full.

While contemplating Talladega, I think it’s appropriate to look at both.

I’m an optimist at heart, so it’s impossible for me to not appreciate the positive of what transpired Sunday afternoon. Before we even get into the race itself, let’s throw out a list of stats that describe the significance of Brad Keselowski’s win on Sunday:

  • Keselowski has the third-fewest amount of starts of any driver in the modern era to get their first Cup victory (Jamie McMurray in 2002 (two starts) and Kevin Harvick in 2001 (three starts) are the only ones who beat him).
  • It’s the first time in the entire 60-year history of the Cup Series that a driver’s first ever lap led resulted in their first Cup win. (Keselowski paced the field just once – on the white flag lap)
  • This race featured 57 lead changes – equal to the last three Cup races combined.
  • The last time we had a first-time winner in the Cup Series was Juan Pablo Montoya in June of 2007 at Infineon – a drought of nearly two years.
  • It was the first time a single-car team (Phoenix Racing) visited victory lane in Cup since Ricky Craven and PPI Motorsports at Darlington on March 16th, 2003.
  • It was the first time a team and driver not planning to run the full-time schedule has won since Davey Allison at Dover in May of 1987 (one could argue that Tim Richmond also qualifies with his victories at Pocono and Michigan that June).

That last point is especially significant for so many of NASCAR’s single-car organizations struggling to survive in this difficult economy. For the first time in decades, teams like the Wood Brothers, Furniture Row Racing, even Morgan-McClure Motorsports – all of whom are planning on part-time schedules this year – can point to the victory from one team and driver to say, “If you support us, we can be successful just like them.” Hope – once promised in the form of the CoT but never officially delivered – is now threatened to make a long-awaited return.

And for James Finch, it’s a victory the likes of which the underdog has been seeking for some 16 years of competing on the Cup tour. Sure, he’s come close – scoring surprising top five runs in a handful of Daytona 500s with Geoffrey Bodine and Mike Wallace – but a trip to victory lane? Who would have thought?

“I said I’ve always dreamed about winning one of these races,” said the man himself Sunday night, clearly skeptical his fantasy would ever become reality. “It’s really, really expensive to do this. Winston Cup racing, or Sprint [Cup] racing, is the hardest racing in the world.”

“When I ran third at Daytona with my car and Bill Davis won [in 2002], I said Bill, I’ve won 400 or the short-track races [in other, smaller series] – I would trade all of those for [a Cup race]. That’s how hard they are to win.”

Now, Finch’s dream has come true; and for millions of small-time car owners everywhere, a dream to come back and race in this series has been suddenly been reawakened. At a time when new blood is disappearing like hotcakes, NASCAR’s suddenly got its perfect PR push for those interested to make the “impossible possible.”

That phrase could also aptly describe the emotions of Keselowski himself, whose victory celebration a friend called the equivalent to a 15-year-old winning his first race on a short track. Those precious moments in victory lane provided the raw emotion fans often seek but never see; real happiness, unbridled enthusiasm, and even the ability to speak without thanking your sponsor. Most important of all… Keselowski drove to win. With the odds stacked against him – a yellow stripe on your back bumper is equivalent to the drafting kiss of death – he took a chance towards the finish when everyone else seemed to be playing not to lose after two serious wrecks.

“If I didn’t push Carl [Edwards] up to the front I would have been 30th,” said Keselowski of the final two-lap push in which the two cars hooked up to push their way past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman to the lead. “I made my own breaks today with the help of my spotter and a great car.”

Isn’t that what this sport should be all about? No holds barred, aggressive racing to the finish with points out the window and nothing to think about but a trophy on the line?

But that’s where the glass turns half-empty. Because the very essence of racing at Talladega is restricted, with plates that cut off horsepower and increase “competition” in the name of sticking cars together like super glue. It’s a risky venture that NASCAR hopes to get away with four times a year, entertainment and competition trumping whether someone ends up dead. After all, when five of the last six last-lap passes for the win in this series have come with plates strapped onto these cars, why bother to make a change to the only type of racing that guarantees fantastic finishes?

The question is… at what price do we pay for the thrills? In the matter of 100 feet, contact heading to the finish line between Keselowski and Edwards reminded us of that inevitable risk. 200 mph was turned into two heartbreaking seconds of horror, with Edwards’s car flipping wildly towards the grandstands, a person inside unable to control his own fate or those of hundreds of fans around him. And as gravity lost its footing and the car lost its way, it was a horrific reminder of how easy it is for people to lose their lives.

“I don’t know if I could live with myself if I ended up in the grandstands,” he said after fans suffered just eight minor injuries due to the strength of Talladega’s catchfence. “I know it’s a spectacle for everybody and that’s great and all, but it’s not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this.”

“I was very happy not to be hurt.”

And for those around long enough to remember the horrors that plate racing can bring… so were we. Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Rodney Orr were not drivers that were killed in vain – but the safety innovations they helped produce haven’t yet eliminated the very conditions that made it unsafe in the first place. And for those lucky enough to know men within that field of 43 who strap inside the cars each Sunday, seeing their lives turned into a 500-mile life-or-death gamble is never a laughing matter.

That’s not to say you can ever make racing completely safe. I, for one, have admittedly been a big believer in NASCAR going overboard like an overprotective mother in trying too hard to eliminate risk – something with which Sunday’s winner inevitably agreed.

“There has to be some element of danger in [the sport],” Keselowski said in his post-race press conference. “No different than a football player. Who doesn’t love watching football players hit each other head on as fast as they can?”

“If we would have ran all race without a single lap of contact, everyone in the media center would have wrote about how boring of a race it was, and instead we ran one of the best races you could ever watch on TV with full contact the whole time. Thankfully no one did get seriously injured. And I do want to emphasize that, I’m thankful for that.”

“I don’t want to wreck anyone, but to say a no contact sport is fun, I don’t buy that. Fans want to see contact just as much as I want to give it and take it.”

But that’s where I start to disagree – at least when it comes to plate racing. For eight fans sitting in the stands this Sunday, I think faced with a choice of hospitalization or no contact heading to the checkered flag, they’d probably choose option two. And there’s a difference in throwing a silly caution for debris in the name of safety versus restricting what drivers can do and how fast cars can run in the name of “competition.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you need a rule like the “yellow line” because wrecks at that racetrack are inherently unsafe and you need to prevent them… why the heck are we racing there in the first place?

In the end, though, my opinion doesn’t matter, nor does Keselowski’s, Edwards’s or anyone else’s but yours. Yes, you. As long as the tickets get punched, the fans turn on the television, and the money pours into Talladega Superspeedway, there’s no turning back on a “temporary” restrictor-plate solution that’s lasted 20 years. Is the glass half-empty of half-full? It’s up to your wallets to decide.

Just know hearts don’t really have a choice.

“I’d really like to dedicate this race to Neil Bonnett’s family,” winning owner James Finch said before even addressing the media. “Neil died in my car in ’94 trying to do what we did today.”

It was joy mixed with sadness, a poignant tribute during the ultimate triumph. But that’s the irony of restrictor-plate racing: it’s NASCAR’s dream turned nightmare all rolled into one.

You can now follow Tom Bowles on Twitter by clicking HERE.

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