Two restrictor-plate races, two last-lap finishes and two frightening crashes. We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly the last time out at both Daytona and Talladega, with battles for the win turned battles for survival in little more than the blink of an eye. The way these wrecks unfolded were eerily similar, the type of Twilight Zone moments that remind you just how easily history repeats itself.
Of course, there is one glaring exception made readily apparent only after the checkered flag flew – the way each “victim” chose to handle his fate.
It’s less than two laps to go at Talladega, and Carl Edwards is riding a freight train. Brad Keselowski had a run on the restart, sensed an opening, and is literally pushing the No. 99 car down the backstretch and surging through the turns. Coming through the tri-oval, the teamwork between the two men has them bump-drafting at five mph faster than Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in front of them. At the start/finish line, it’s Edwards out in front… the first green-flag lap he’s led all day….
With time running out, it’s two laps to go at Daytona and Kyle Busch is desperately searching for an opening. He’s got his teammate Denny Hamlin in tow, and if the two work together Tony Stewart in front of them is little more than a sitting duck. Coming out of turn 4, both Hamlin and Busch do the expected, their momentum and drafting too much as they leave Stewart all alone on the inside line. Busch sneaks in front of the pack, with Hamlin ready and raring to follow him by… but his teammate is too busy fighting for the win to worry about a tag-along. Leaving too much room, it’s easy pickins’ for Stewart, who slides into second while Hamlin in the No. 11 gets hung out to dry. Still, Busch comes to the finish line a car length in front… the first green-flag lap he’s led all day….
Sliding down the Talladega backstretch, Keselowski and Edwards know exactly what to do. The two remain hooked up, like glue, pulling so far away from Newman and Earnhardt they’re certain to settle the race amongst themselves. Going through turns 3 and 4, Keselowski doesn’t try too hard to loosen up the leader in front of him – he’s ready and willing to use the draft a little closer to the start/finish line….
But on the Daytona backstretch, Kyle Busch is busy fighting for his life. He no longer has his teammate to back him, and it’s every man for himself as Stewart is trying every which way to get by. Getting up on Busch’s bumper entering turns 3 and 4, Stewart, a restrictor plate ace, knows how to get Busch loose – it just doesn’t work enough for him to get alongside initially. He has to hope the constant pressure will give him enough of a draft a little closer to the start/finish line….
Which is where the race at Talladega is reaching its thrilling climax. Keselowski knows now is the time to make his move, and with the checkered flag in sight, he dives to the bottom of the track – earning just enough momentum from the draft to pull about a foot alongside Edwards’s No. 99. Immediately, as a move of desperation, Cousin Carl dips his Ford down to block.
It’s too late….
Are the words muttered out of Stewart’s mouth, as he heads through the Daytona tri-oval without the momentum needed to win. But just when a runner-up finish seemed a mere formality, Busch finally wiggled while trying to straighten his Toyota off the turn. Stewart’s pressure cooker finally sways the rear bumper of the No. 18, and Busch’s speed slows just enough for Stewart to get just a bit of his Burger King Chevy alongside. The crowd cheering, pit crews on their feet, Busch starts realizing his mistake while coming up to block the fast approaching No. 14.
It’s too late. Contact is made, the cars touch, and in the blink of an eye… he’s beginning to spin….
Spin is a word Edwards only wished he could have used for those first few seconds going sideways at Talladega. The No. 99 is now flipping towards the grandstands, hitting the catchfence both airborne and at a 45-degree angle after the No. 39 of Newman plows in the back of him. The car bounces back onto the racetrack, a moving obstacle course at over 100 mph that the rest of the field so desperately wants to avoid. In the end, it’s a miracle Edwards isn’t hit a second time as he spins to a stop, his chance for victory over as Keselowski takes the checkered flag….
Back at Daytona, Stewart finishes long before Busch’s car comes to a stop. His car turns sideways, slams the outside wall (driver’s side first) before going airborne and parking itself right smack on top of Kasey Kahne’s oncoming hood. The No. 9 smacks the No. 18 like a pinball flipper, pushing Busch’s green car in the air once more – the first of about half-a-dozen cars that make contact before the speed and smoke finally starts to stop. Yet despite more hits than some drivers experience in a full Sprint Cup season, Busch realizes within seconds that’s he not only alive… but unhurt.
From leaders to losers, both Busch and Edwards shared similar heartbreak, the victims of a type of racing as dangerous as the speed it intends to restrict. They’re crashes both will never forget – but, perhaps more importantly, in the aftermath of their tragedy averted came the behavior that would define a moment. For, as it’s often said, the difference between good and great is the way in which athletes handle adversity.
It is here that our story stops weaving together so nicely.
Back at Talladega, Edwards refocuses… and in the midst of disappointment, the beauty of competitive spirit takes over. Edwards wonders if there’s any way he can complete the race, jumping out of his car and running full-bore towards the start/finish line in a move straight out of Talladega Nights. The crowd cheers, Edwards waves, and he heads back to the infield care center shaken but not stirred.
“We were just racing for the win,” he said, his anger focused correctly on the plates and not the victor himself. “Brad did everything right. He faked high, he went low… I didn’t think he was all the way in there and I tried to block and I got turned, but that’s racing at Talladega. NASCAR puts us in this box… we were just racing hard.”
Hard is a proper adjective to describe what Busch might think about his wreck… because he never let us know what he felt. Angry and disgusted, Busch left his Toyota failing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd, sickeningly happy not for his health but that he was the one with the car smoldering in a million pieces. Walking slowly but steadily up pit road, the driver’s beef appeared to be directed not with his ill-timed block – but at the man who left him spinning sideways to take the trophy right out of his grasp. At the time, Stewart was already expressing remorse for the dangerous type of racing that left him as subdued as Kyle appeared to be sulking. But that didn’t change matters much for a man whose focus was on vengeance. Physically forced by a NASCAR official into the infield care center and out of victory lane, the confrontation between Kyle and Tony was best left to the imagination. However, the way in which Busch sped away from the hospital after getting released, refusing comment while speeding to his motorhome… that still became an unpleasant reality.
I could draw my own conclusion from there; but on this one, I’ll leave it mostly up to you, considering a quote from none other than Edwards himself. Talking about the pressure of famous athletes, he said something to me this year that’s stuck in my head ever since.
“Now, all of us who grew up (hopefully) had the same lectures in sportsmanship, that you congratulate someone if they beat you,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s the same things our kids are learning now. But the fact is, you don’t know what happened behind the scenes [in conflicts between drivers]… it’s up to each individual how they want to do things.”
I’d buy that idea, 100% – until it’s worth noting what Cousin Carl was thinking following his race at Daytona. While several drivers counted their blessings, he had plenty more on his mind despite finishing fourth and coming out of that mess relatively unscathed.
“I was really concerned about Kyle,” he explained. “I saw the right side of his car lift off the ground, he hit the fence. Man, that’s a hard hit. I was real nervous for him.”
That made me wonder what Kyle said about Carl’s wreck back in April at Talladega. And then, I remembered… it was nothing at all. Jeff Burton made contact with the No. 18 that race, sending Kyle spinning and ruining his chance to take the win. Afterwards, he left the track without comment… just like Saturday night.
Turns out history may have repeated itself a little more than we thought.
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