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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Carl Edwards Wasn’t Quite Right

Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby announced this week that there won’t be any changes in the plate racing, espousing the excitement of Daytona and Talladega just days after two drivers had near-death experiences.

Too many writers agree. Quite a few have said that Talladega was a great race and NASCAR shouldn’t do a thing to change it. Some have said that all of the safety precautions worked. Not quite – seven fans were injured. If that isn’t a wake-up call, it damn well oughta be. If a car goes into the grandstand and kills 50 fans, NASCAR is over, my friends. There will not be another race. Believe it.

Doug Demmons at Insider Racing News strongly suggested that Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a restrictor-plate race, would kick someone’s ass for reconfiguring Talladega and getting rid of the plates. (Judging from the opinions of many Senior fans, if he were around today he’d be kicking so much ass that his foot would be too tired to step on the gas pedal.) I enjoy Doug’s work much of the time, but if he checked out the interviews on Youtube, he’d see what Earnhardt really thought about restrictor-plate racing. To say he was not a fan of it is an understatement.

Darby also said, presumably with a straight face, that people play up the danger of wrecks at plate tracks as opposed to wrecks at Atlanta or Charlotte. So Daytona and Talladega are two of the most exciting tracks on the circuit because of the danger, but they aren’t any more dangerous than Atlanta or Charlotte. I’ll figure that one out and get back to you.

When Carl Edwards said “I guess we’ll race like this until someone gets killed and then we’ll change it,” he was right about everything up until the word “then”.

After Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, NASCAR immediately sprang into action, mandating the HANS device, installing SAFER barriers at racetracks, designing a completely new racecar and completely and utterly ignoring the elephant in the room with the restrictor plate on his trunk.

Yes, what happened to Earnhardt could have happened anywhere. He was tapped, spun and was sent into the wall. How did he get tapped? He was blocking, as drivers do on the last lap of a race. Where does blocking take place the most, beyond a shadow of a doubt?

Think of all of the times you have seen a 15-car wreck at Atlanta. You probably couldn’t think of two specific incidents of something that happens at nearly every Daytona race. Now name all the drivers you can think of who have flipped or barrel rolled at Charlotte. At Talladega? Earnhardt. Rusty Wallace. Elliott Sadler. Edwards. Kyle Busch. Matt Kenseth. I can’t imagine why people would play that up.

And now we know that restrictor plates won’t save a car from testing the catch fences either – which, after Bobby Allison’s scary crash, was the reason for their implementation in the first place.

But what’s invariably a part of every pre-race show at Talladega? A segment on the Big One. A continuous highlight reel of hideous wrecks, in one of the most glaring examples of playing to people’s darkest instincts this side of the Faces of Death videos. For something that is routinely and comically declared as being absolutely necessary for safety, networks sure market the hell out of the danger.

Meanwhile, NASCAR twists itself into granny knots trying to somehow make plate racing safer. The last two Talladega finishes have now demonstrated that obeying a yellow-line rule is just as perilous as not obeying it. The rule results in drivers choosing between losing a win and risking sending a competitor airborne. Regan Smith should feel vindicated for having chosen the safer option. Brad Keselowski surely didn’t know what holding his ground could have meant. (Please do not try to tell me that two cars making contact going for a win was a fluke occurrence.)

Then there are the “aggressive driving” rules and the ridiculous attempts to police bump drafting. I’ll never forget Mike Helton’s driver meeting line: “While bump drafting is a no-no, a certain amount will be tolerated.” While most of us would wonder what in blazes that means, drivers probably understood perfectly: plate racing is a total crapshoot, and how much one can bump draft is not possible to define. Darby has suggested that they’re going to get tougher on bump drafting and blatant blocking now. Can you imagine being Mark Martin and hearing once again that you’re the problem at plate tracks, after you just finished 43rd by getting caught up in someone else’s multi-car wreck?

Besides all of this, with all due respect to Keselowski and James Finch, restrictor plates create results that have nothing to do with the best drivers or the best teams scoring the best finishes. Take a look at some of the names in the top 15 last Sunday: Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose, Scott Speed, Joey Logano, Reed Sorenson, Paul Menard, Joe Nemechek, Smith. These are not guys that have been tearing it up this season. Three of them haven’t made the field for every race this year. And here are some names in the bottom 15: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin.

Plate race results are almost always some kind of bizarro-world perversion of what fans would expect. The only real skill required from a driver in a plate race is to avoid causing a wreck, which granted is considerable. But driver ability and a great racecar mean little results-wise at a place where not only can a driver easily get taken out through a minuscule amount of bad luck, but can also go from 3rd to 30th in the last two laps just by getting shuffled out of a draft. I’m not sure how that is great racing.

And Talladega is a part of the championship battle. In just 10 races, being third or 30th in one of them can easily be the difference.

So what’s the solution, as so many demand to know? Here are several. Lower the banking. Change the configuration of the track so drivers are not going into turns as fast. Mandate a smaller engine at bigger tracks. Build stronger and higher catch fences. In short, just about anything other than a rule mandating that a whole field of racecars containing fragile humans must race inches from each other for 500 miles. Whatever solution anyone suggests, there has to be something better than restrictor plates. If absolutely nothing else, take Talladega out of the Chase, so drivers and teams can win or lose championships based on the merits of their efforts and not by “losing the draft” or being victimized by a “blatant” block.

But we have now heard it from the horse’s mouth that it isn’t the lack of an alternative that causes NASCAR to put drivers in a 190 MPH death trap. John Darby confirmed this week that the risk being taken by the insanity of plate racing is worth it to NASCAR and the networks for the spectacle and for the ratings and attendance. Whoa, that fan got her jaw broken! They’re airlifting people to the hospital! The No. 99 car landed on the No. 39’s windshield! What a finish!

To paraphrase Edwards, we’ll race like this until someone gets killed, and then we’ll keep on doing it. A top ranking representative of NASCAR officially announced that they weren’t even going to consider giving up the excitement of Talladega just two days after one car went airborne and landed on another, and then bent the catchfence and injured seven fans.

I hope their priorities are different from how that sounds.

Kurt’s Shorts Special Edition – David Poole R.I.P.

I read David Poole’s columns fairly often and disagreed with what he said plenty. More than anything else, I couldn’t understand his affection for the Chase. But there wasn’t any disputing that Poole was no apologist for NASCAR. Nor was he a writer who took every opportunity to gratuitously bash Brian France to increase hits and comments for his blog.

Poole’s columns were thoughtful, insightful, and always an entertaining read. He brought a perfect mix of thought and emotion to his work, a balance that is very difficult for a writer to strike. He got angry like most all of us do, but he made sure he was telling us the truth, too.

Poole had as much access as any writer, probably more than most, and didn’t abuse it or kowtow to it. If a driver acted like an ass, Poole would say so. That’s harder to do than people think. It’s very easy to get sucked into the privilege of hanging out in the garage and not wanting to risk giving that up.

I will always remember that Poole’s last column and blog entry were diatribes about how the racing at Talladega is unacceptable. For the first time I can remember, I 100% agreed with him, as you can see from reading Happy Hour today. And many, many other fans did not. He didn’t care.

I wish I could agree with him again in another five years. Rest in peace David.

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