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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Blocking – It’s Just Racing!

Following last Saturday night’s exciting final lap of the Coke Zero 400 from Daytona International Speedway, there has been a renewed call for NASCAR to “do something” to prevent what some view as the just too dangerous practice of ‘blocking’ – a driving maneuver as much a part of stock car racing as rubbing door handles is to the sport. That’s a shame, because blocking is a practice that cannot be effectively regulated – nor should be.

Interest in the issue had gained momentum following the spectacular last lap crash during the running of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega at the end of April. That is, of course, when Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards ended up in the catchfence while attempting to prevent upstart Brad Keselowski from overtaking him for the win at the biggest track on the circuit. The wreck that ensued sent Keselowski to victory lane in a true “Cinderella story” of a win, while images of Edwards’s airborne No. 99 Ford were featured in sports and non-sports newscasts for the best part of the following week.

Though the circumstances surrounding the two wrecks and ultimate finishes were not exactly the same, the similarity cannot be ignored. In each incident, the leader (Edwards at Talladega/Kyle Busch at Daytona) wrecked as a result of attempting to
“block” his fast-approaching challenger by maneuvering his racecar in front of his rivals as they tried to make what would be race-winning passes for the lead position. In both instances, the leader not only was passed, but wrecked as well.

Perhaps in each case, the term blocking is being misused, and a better description of the moves both Edwards and Busch executed are better termed “failed blocks.” For on both occasions, the very short window of opportunity to throw their racecars in front of the second-place vehicle and force their competitor to back down had passed. By the time both lead drivers made their moves to block, their challengers had already gained enough on them to have positioned themselves at least partially alongside the lead car.

In short, what Edwards did at Talladega by turning into Keselowski and Busch steering into the second-place running Tony Stewart at Daytona was simply drivers willing to wreck rather than concede defeat. Both did successfully block their opponents initially; however, in both situations, chose to counter their challengers’ second move that had gained them at least a smidgen of a front fender forward of the leaders’ rear bumper.

Of course, both Edwards and Busch hoped that their aggressiveness would result in their challengers backing off ever so slightly for fear of wrecking and, in turn, slow enough to thwart their charge and allow them to maintain their top spot – a risky move that as many times as not fails, often ending in the disastrous manner that both Edwards and Busch experienced.

A gutsy last-ditch effort to win the race is what both drivers attempted. A block is another animal that is not nearly as risky as what both Edwards and Busch tried. Blocking is just what the word implies… blocking a competitor’s progress. The risk of a block, though, is that the blocked driver may choose to then drive through the lead car. This was not the situation that either Keselowski or Stewart found themselves in; they had been successfully blocked, but had then changed course and had steered to the side of the leader only to have the leader steer into them.

It is stock car racing in its purest form. A split-second decision is required by both drivers as to whether to take such a risk. For the challenger, the decision has to be made to put the fender alongside and accept the possibility that the leader has not conceded the position and will cut across the bow. Conversely, the leader must estimate the likelihood that he will lose control of his racecar after making contact with the opponent’s fender. and sometimes sever contact that very well may end with not only a good finish being lost, but a wrecked car as well.

It’s a game of chicken to some extent. There are driver’s that will not yield a race-winning position without a fight. Some are warriors willing to take the risk and do what they feel is necessary to win. Then again, other drivers take a safer route, and although willing to battle for the win. they are not willing to gamble away a good finish for the possibility of a win.

Well=meaning folks have questioned the blocking maneuver on grounds that it is unnecessarily dangerous, and believe that it is only a matter of time before someone is again seriously hurt or killed unless NASCAR intervenes. To those folks, it needs to be said that racing automobiles at speeds approaching 200 mph is, at least on the surface, unnecessarily dangerous. The same could be said for most any form of racing, whether it is cars, motorcycles, boats or horses.

It should not be news to anyone that racing is a dangerous sport, and there certainly is a call from time to time to eliminate glaring and easily remedied dangers within it. The introduction by NASCAR of the current racecar – with its vastly improved array of safety features – is one such example. The HANS device and safer barriers are two other such examples. But prohibiting drivers to use their own judgments, skills and competitive will behind the wheel of the car is contradictory to a great deal of what makes auto racing exciting and challenging.

So, those promoting the notion that NASCAR needs to mandate rules that prohibit blocking should be careful that they might, in fact, get what they have asked for. They then need to imagine what affording someone in a booth the authority to subjectively analyze and judge a driver’s skill and decision-making abilities for possible violations of their driving etiquette policies.

Such a thing cannot be done with any assurance of accuracy and fairness!

Edwards and Busch did not only lose the lead in their separate but similar incidents, but they gambled and lost solid top two or three finishes as well. Yet they also made it clear to their competitors that those are risks they are willing to take to win, a fact that is now embedded in the minds of every driver on the track. Drivers that, in the future, might be battling either one of them for a critical spot and will have to decide if they are willing to take such a risk… or, back off and be satisfied with a good and safe finishing position.

Remember, Auto racing is not just a test of machine, but also a test of the man in the machine. It is a risky sport that requires great skill by individuals not adverse to risk. Leave them alone. Let them race.

And that’s my view from turn 5.