Following the finish of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega this weekend – I’m sorry, the Aaron’s 532 – the general consensus by the media at large was that it was a fantastic race that validated a number of variables.
As much as some would downplay it, the spoiler was a rousing success. Not only did it maintain those two-car breakaways from the glob of cars running 200 mph (remember, the winged restrictor-plate races produced the same phenomenon), it also appeared to prevent the aerial antics seen the past two events here; absent were the harrowing accidents involving Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman. Nary a rear wheel was lifted off the ground in any of the wrecks Sunday, much to the relief of spectators and PA equipment surrounding the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Additionally, Jamie McMurray wowed the crowd with an incredible late-race performance to the front. Despite a second-place finish, he has established himself as the man to beat at restrictor-plate racing, now suddenly the Dale Earnhardt Jr. – or at least the Michael Waltrip – of years past at Daytona and Talladega.
Also roundly lauded as contributing to another memorable moment at the biggest track on the circuit were the green-white-checkered finish(es) that made it possible for Kevin Harvick to sneak by McMurray in the final few hundred feet in a pass nearly identical to the one executed by Brad Keselowski – and Regan Smith – in recent races at Talladega. The prime reason for the finish that we saw Sunday, however, is proving to be a double-edged sword for our sport, one that could very well cut deep should it continue in its current form: the green-white-checkered (GWC) finish.
The whole notion of the GWC rule was born in the Truck Series upon its creation in 1995. It was a series that was, in effect, a bit of a gimmick – take a Cup chassis and put a pickup truck body on it – a way for NASCAR and the manufacturers to take advantage of the burgeoning popularity of pickup trucks as transportation options for the public at large, as well as create another touring feeder series, in particular for tracks and drivers west of the Mississippi. With the amount of banging, beating, and bashing that went on, and in an effort to help create and maintain viewership, it was the GWC finish that was devised as a way to differentiate itself from virtually every other professional racing series in the world.
Following a few high-profile incidents with fan displeasure of Cup races finishing under a late-race caution, most notably Waltrip at Daytona in 2002 and Jeff Gordon at Talladega in 2004, the GWC made its way to the Cup Series in 2005, and has become as much a part of our weekly racing lexicon as “Double-file restarts… Shootout Style!”
As of 2010, however, the term GWC has grown from trendy favorite to being long in the tooth – for things have gotten way out of hand.
So far, we are all of nine races deep into this season, and five of them have gone past the advertised distance, in the name of “giving the fans a good finish.” Sadly, in the process, the lengthy races have compromised the legitimacy of not only stock car racing, but also motorsports in general, as NASCAR is far and away the most popular and recognizable form of auto racing in the United States.
For a sport that is routinely criticized for making up the rules as it goes along, arbitrarily slapping another seven percent to the stated length of the event in the last couple of minutes doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling argument. Adding insult to injury, taking a look back at the races this year that were decided by the GWC, you will see that most have been at those hallmark venues which routinely host the most anticipated races, home to the most memorable moments in our sport’s history.
Prime example: The Daytona 500. Clint Bowyer led from laps 186-198 of 200, while Greg Biffle took the lead on 199. But two accidents on the ensuing GWC restarts cleared the way for the cars of McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. to come from relative obscurity to finish the event first and second by the 208th and final lap.
Two races later in Atlanta, Kurt Busch survived a late-race restart when Elliott Sadler and “Maxis” Papis tangled, which led to a multi-car incident as McMurray went sliding backwards through the field on old tires, eventually spun in the midst of the field and took out a number of cars running in the top 10.
Martinsville saw a day that Gordon had in his grasp, only to get slapped out of his hands by GWC restart contact from Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Two weeks later, Newman scored his first win over two years courtesy of a car running mid-pack blowing a tire as Kyle Busch was preparing to take the white flag. The resulting finish led Busch to remark, “it’s not a race, it’s a show.”
One could interpret that as sour grapes – if he wasn’t right. Don’t think so? Consider this past weekend’s event at Talladega.
The race was advertised as the Aaron’s 499 – albeit a 500-mile event with the 188 laps needed to complete it. However, on this day it would require 200 circuits, as NASCAR now allows three attempts at a GWC finish. Why? Because it is important for races to finish under green, apparently with no regard to the number of cars that may be wrecked, drivers who could possibly be injured or how laughable and questionable the outcome of the race becomes.
As the laps wore on, just lengthening the race for a few short miles put every crew chief’s worst nightmare into play: gas mileage. With the time involved to clean up the results of “the gloves coming off” in multiple late-race incidents on Sunday, many cars, including leaders McMurray and Biffle were driving around on the apron, desperately trying to not run out of fuel they wouldn’t need to save if the race didn’t head into overtime. Never mind that there is another flag available to NASCAR – the red one – which is used to stop the field from circling, and is typically brought out when it is raining or the track starts falling apart.
If this method is available, might it make more sense to wave that flag should there be an incident in the closing laps, to make sure that the race finishes under green and within the specified time distance?
While many drivers involved in these late-race accidents were understandably agitated at the style of racing and actions forced to get up to speed on a restart, at least one who actually finished the race intact was less than enthused about it as well.
“I don’t think they need GWCs here,” Earnhardt Jr. said following his 13th-place finish. “Maybe one is enough; it’s expensive. We’re in a tough environment economically, and I know it’s great for fans to see cars hit the fence and drivers climb out and everybody getting excited about the drama that brings… [but] it’s just not a good practice, I don’t think.”
Even Newman, who benefited greatly from the GWC two events ago in Phoenix, was nonplussed following his accident on lap 190.
“It’s the product of the racing here – or what happens here,” he said. “It’s not racing.”
For an event that is generally considered a lottery pick at best, rolling the dice a few more times for the sake of possibly making Sportscenter or your local newscast is hardly worth the risk, the expense, the potential for more accidents and injury, as well as the image and stock of NASCAR further devaluing itself to what it once was mockingly mischaracterized as: a demolition derby of drivers smashing into each other like Cole Trickle, Russ Wheeler and Rowdy Burns. Wrestling with racecars, helmets and firesuits was a common refrain when things began to run afoul of what organized competition should resemble, and we’re well past that point again already this year.
NASCAR already has the tools in place to help make sure races end in a timely and orderly manner. Should there be an incident with a handful of laps left, they can stop the race with the red flag, clean things up, and revert to the scoring loops to help set the field for a final restart within the stated time limit.
It seems many of us old schoolers are constantly harping on the same fundamental issues time and time again – NASCAR is not a stick-and-ball sport; we don’t need overtime. We didn’t need it for over 50 years, and things seemed to be progressing just fine. Not every race needs to be a photo finish – that’s what made close races so special to begin with. Taking three shots at just getting the race to completion gives credence to another criticism and accusation that often surrounds stock car racing; just keep restarting it until the driver they wish to see win does so.
Hopefully, in the process, somebody doesn’t get hurt, and the shred of decency that remains in NASCAR is not forever tainted.