Racing at Talladega, especially in the last couple of years, has been a dual-edged sword.
On the one hand, the two-car draft has made it a chess match with two cars against 20 other pairs. It’s a video game with real-world consequences, complete with sound effects.
On the other, it’s a confounded pain in the rear spoiler to have to race like that, four times a year. In the Chase, one bad race can mean the difference between hoisting the Cup in Homestead and getting a much smaller check in Vegas, provided you get to the banquet at all.
Kyle Busch found out that racing at Talladega can cost you a legitimate chance at the title. His contact with Juan Pablo Montoya put him 33rd in the rundown… and all but out of the title race with four races remaining.
Busch is sixth in the points, 40 points (finishing positions) behind Carl Edwards, and Jimmie Johnson, driving for his sixth straight title, had a less-than-stellar race to finish 26th. That put him 50 points out of the lead with four to go.
Kurt Busch crashed out of the race after Bobby Labonte was sent spinning, and he’s all but done in the Chase. He finished 36th and trails by 52 points. Kevin Harvick, likewise, was caught up in a crash and finished 32nd. That knocked him back to fifth in the points, 26 out, and while not a mortal wound in terms of his Chase chances, makes things a lot more difficult.
Tony Stewart had a good day, leading a lot of laps, but got shuffled in the green-white-checkered and fell to seventh. Still, that put him fourth in the points, two spots higher than when he got to Talladega and 19 out of the lead.
Best of the Chasers on Sunday was Brad Keselowski, who pushed Dave Blaney to third place and finished right behind him in fourth. He’s third in the points, one ahead of Stewart.
Third-place finisher Edwards, who leads the points by 14 over teammate Matt Kenseth, had a term for what happens every spring and fall on the plate tracks.
“It’s a very spiritual event,” he said with a smile.
“You just have to hope that the guy sticks with you. Everybody leaves this race and thinks of a hundred thousand things they could have done different. It’s a tough, tough race. If you finish it with your car intact… you feel like you got away with something.”
Runner-up Jeff Burton was more blunt.
“You feel damn lucky,” he said.
Funny stuff happens in the air out there in Alabama. Just ask Andy Lally, who took a hard ride into the concrete late in the 188-lap event.
“It just felt like someone drove through the back of me,” Lally said later. “I have no idea. The back end started turning and I have no idea if I got lifted up or if the air came off the side. Once it started turning that much, it was gone. I was just along for the ride, unfortunately.”
“This racing is crazy. It is funny because at Daytona when everybody was a tandem it was actually easier. Now you have a few guys riding, it makes it harder because every other couple laps you get these massive closing rates. That is what happened to us. We were passing a slower group on the bottom and the top.”
As if the drivers didn’t have enough to think about. They’re holding lines with their partners, trying to spot for both cars, calling moves, checking temps and gauges… praying nothing goes wrong. Then a puff of air — or your drafting partner — turns the car sideways and you’re a frog in a blender set on frappe.
NASCAR has tried several things to combat the nature of the new cars at Talladega and Daytona, from changing restrictor plates to spoilers and pop-off valves and this and that and the other. Can’t grease the bumpers, but you can slide your front bumper all over the other car, then hope it doesn’t stick and turn your drafting buddy into the wind. And with NASCAR enforcing the “out-of-bounds” line better than the NFL does, that means you’re in a narrow corridor, going 200 miles per hour, blind to the front and unable to catch more than a quick glimpse out the rear, hoping it doesn’t get hinky in the pack.
It’s like New York City suddenly decided to make all of its subway cars tandems, then sent them out in groups down the same line at full boogie tilt.
The fans either love the two-by-two or they don’t, and a larger percentage doesn’t. NASCAR is going to have to either let them run the way they used to or figure out another way to let them run so that they don’t have to rely on another driver for everything.
Consider Kenseth’s plight. He and Roush Fenway teammate David Ragan had one of the fastest two-car tandems all day and were in the hunt on the final restart, only to have Ragan suffer a mechanical ailment and drop away.
Kenseth finished 18th on a day when he could have had the point lead all on his own.
“It was frustrating that we ran up there most of the day,” Kenseth said later. “David was a great drafting partner and he broke something on the last restart, broke something in his engine. I had to try to find somebody with two laps to go and that is hard.
“Trevor [Bayne] also really tried to help me at the end and that was the first time we did that all day and we didn’t have our timing right. We got in up there real high and had a bunch of cars pass us. It was disappointing to run in the front all day and then finish where we finished, but we made it through so I guess the damage could have been worse.”
The damage could have been worse for a lot of teams on Sunday, at least in terms of equipment. For some, the damage was near total, as the results ended their chance to be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion in 2011.
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