NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Talladega, Where You Don’t Have to Be Good, Just Lucky

It’s better to be lucky than good. That adage is as old as racing itself, and couldn’t be more true. Luck has won drivers races and the occasional championship, and no matter how good you are, well, Lady Luck can remind you of what last place looks like in a hurry. So, yes, sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.

Until NASCAR took it one step too far.

An aphorism once meant to inflate the thrill of victory or take away a bit of the agony of defeat has taken on a whole new meaning in NASCAR. It reflected a moment in time, a lucky break… not every second of every lap.

Yet that’s all restrictor-plate racing, especially at Talladega, has become – the survival of the luckiest, fittest be damned. Sure, it’s exciting to watch, I suppose; after all, there were a lot of lead changes on Sunday. But they weren’t lead changes based on skill of the driver or of the team in setting up a racecar. They weren’t even born of a day-long strategy that a driver used to need on these tracks. Instead, they were based mostly on luck: being able to jump in front of a faster car in the draft. Several cars that ran up front at Talladega Sunday wouldn’t have been in the top 20 at most other tracks, but the parity of plates made them run with the Big Boys. I love to see the underdogs perform, don’t get me wrong; it’s just some of the leaders Sunday just got lucky.

I am probably in the minority among those in racing circles, but I would also love nothing more than to see every race be totally crash-free – a wish that doubles for plate races. If no car touched another for 500-plus miles at Talladega, I’d be ecstatic. Unfortunately, with the rules in place and the current aerodynamic package, that’s not going to happen.

One of NASCAR’s worst decisions ever was made as a knee-jerk reaction to one type of crash that used to happen fairly commonly on plate tracks: a driver would dive onto the apron to gain position on the straightaway, then try to blend into traffic on the monster banking in the corners, often upsetting either that car or another as they jostled for real estate at nearly 200 mph. So, NASCAR had what they thought was an easy and appropriate solution: they simply would not allow a car to gain position with any of its wheels below the racing surface.

It might have sounded great in theory, but it has never been enforced correctly, nor has it prevented any wrecks on track. In fact, on Sunday it caused at least one of them. On the second of the three green-white-checkered attempts, when Greg Biffle ran out of fuel and Jimmie Johnson wrecked off of his No. 16, Johnson had a huge run on Clint Bowyer, but was forced by NASCAR’s rules to try to get to Bowyer’s outside – a space already occupied by the rapidly fading Biffle. Luckily, only Johnson suffered damage in a wreck that could have been so much worse.

Not only that, but once again there were a driver and fans left to question how the rule really works, because when Kevin Harvick made his winning pass, his wheels were clearly on the line, dipping below after the pass was made. So, what constitutes out of bounds? Is on the line legal, then, as today’s finish suggested? In any other sport, on the line means out of bounds: are we to assume that’s not the case in NASCAR? Or was it, as a few fans have suggested, a “judgment call” used to keep Jamie McMurray from tying a record three consecutive restrictor-plate wins: a record held by a guy named Earnhardt? I don’t think that’s the case, but considering that NASCAR has never made a correct call on yellow-line violations, it could still have been a miscall. The tape shown by FOX was inconclusive.

Last week, I wrote about how an ongoing rivalry could hurt the championship bids of both Jeff Gordon and Johnson, but it appears that is alive and well – although FOX made a convenient mistake to make it look worse than it was. After the race, Gordon said that he was “pissed” at Johnson for possibly causing the wreck that ended Gordon’s day. However, as much as the skirmish last week was Johnson’s fault, this time it was not. The footage that FOX replayed with Gordon’s interview was not the footage of the incident, which occurred on the frontstretch, but of half a lap sooner, on the back straight. Johnson was at the head of the lower line of traffic and Gordon had a furious run. He would later blame Johnson for not letting him pass when he was clearly faster; but that’s not a racer’s job if the race is for position, as this battle clearly was. Second, during the incident where Gordon’s car did end up crunched into a new shape, it looked as though the No. 24 got loose as he tried to force his way into traffic, causing the No. 48 to slow as well in a bobble that ended with a three-car crash.

If that incident was the fault of anyone, once again it was the yellow line rule. Had Gordon not faced a penalty for doing so, he could have easily maintained his position below Johnson: but instead, Gordon had to force his way into traffic, causing the pileup. Truly just a racing deal, but one that could have been avoided before it started.

NASCAR does deserve a measure of praise for the decision to run the rained out Nationwide Series race on Sunday after the Cup show instead of on Monday. For the real Nationwide teams especially, one extra night is an expense they can ill afford, let alone two. It also ensures that more ticket holders will see the race, though many fans might be spending a few dollars extra at Starbucks on Monday to make it through the workday. The fans, sponsors, and teams all deserve to save money, and it’s the right thing to do at a track where Cup ticket sales lag to the extent where both Cup and Nationwide ticket buyers can fit in the stands. It’s best for everyone, and more Nationwide Series fans will get to see the race on television as well. It’s a win-win situation.

But when all is said and done, it’s time for NASCAR to come up with a solution for restrictor-plate “racing.” A whole race should not be built around the notion that someone will get lucky and win. Don’t let 80-odd lead changes cloud what plate racing actually is: a “lottery,” as Dale Earnhardt Jr. called it before Sunday’s race. Junior is right on that one. Talladega is a great party, from what I’ve heard. What it’s not anymore is a great race.

NASCAR has put an end to that.

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