I’ve seen better races (lots of them) and worse races (a few of them) than Talladega on Sunday, but I simply can’t recall a single race that pissed more fans off. Maybe it’s for the best I don’t have this Twitter thing everybody is always talking about because I’m told I only saw the tip of the iceberg. Twitter comments on Talladega were absolutely toxic. If I were in charge of selling tickets to next year’s two races at Talladega I’d be cleaning up my resume starting now because it’s going to be a tough sell. (As if in this economy the job was easy to start with).
One of the things that left some fans fuming was Trevor Bayne agreeing to work with Jeff Gordon for the final two laps then leaving him hanging in the breeze. Bayne’s quasi-teammate (and Chase contender) Matt Kenseth had lost his wingman David Ragan and needed Bayne’s help. Gordon was livid after the race. Bayne was apologetic though Gordon was hardly the first driver at Talladega to get left hanging after an implied agreement. I recall Davey Allison being so angry after one of those Talladega plate races (July, 1991) he punched his transporter and broke his hand. Why? Prior to the race the Ford drivers had all agreed to work together to get a Blue Oval into victory lane and derail that damned black number No. 3 car. The plan seemed to be working too. With two laps to go Allison, being pushed by Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin all in Fords, nosed ahead of Earnhardt. But Elliott decided it looked like Earnhardt was faster and jumped in behind that infamous black car. The rest of the trailing Fords followed Elliott. Earnhardt won, Elliott finished second, Allison finished ninth and broke his hand. The more things change the more they stay the same. Only this time no trailers got punched though one did go up in flames.
After the race Bayne said he was following orders. With no ride lined up for next year as of yet, he’d have to be pretty wary of pissing off the folks at Ford despite having won this year’s Daytona 500. Bayne’s contrition seemed genuine and it was the talk of Twitter. But now top Ford brass say Bayne was never given such an order. He was thanked for being a member of the Ford family and told if he could help out one of the championship contending Fords time to time that would be just dandy. Hmmm. The BS meter is pegged here. Other younger and less experienced Ford drivers talked about getting the same orders while the more seasoned veterans just smiled shyly and refused to confirm or deny the report. Having discussed the matter so openly Bayne likely yielded the seat in the No. 21 Ford to Ricky Stenhouse for next year.
So why the sudden about face? Two reasons I’d hazard. Firstly the “all for one” strategy didn’t play well with the public, potential car buyers one and all, and even ticked a lot of them off. Secondly payback is a bitch. Only Tony Stewart said it out loud but those drivers in Chevys, Dodges and Toyotas can make life difficult for the Ford boys. There’s all sorts of ways they can do so many of them subtle. A driver doesn’t have to yield to a faster driver trying to pass him. He can let that other fellow burn up his tires trying to get by even while the lead pack draws further off. A driver can choose to pit deep into his pit box to slow down the stop of the driver in the stall ahead of him or behind him. A little nudge to the fender here or there can knock out that other guy’s steering alignment or force him to the pits to get a tire replaced and a fender pulled out. Heck, if we’re going to play by a new rule where it’s part of your job to help your car manufacturer claim the title why not have Martin and Logano act as four wheeled battering rams on the No. 99 and No. 17 cars?
Another thing that unexpectedly drew the fans ire was the open admission that a lot of drivers had picked a partner, usually a teammate, to work with during the entire race. Such things have happened before but never so openly the network broadcasting the race could show a long list of the expected “dancing partners.” And I’ve never seen the strategy play out so blatantly with one driver willing to drop all the way to the back to pick up his lost buddy. It got to the point drivers were waiting for their partners in the pits or during caution flag stops even choreographing getting another car between them and their intended so the twosome would be lined up nose to tail on the restart. It was hard to swallow and I don’t blame other folks for being irritated.
Perhaps the issue drawing the most fire from the fans this week is the decision by many top drivers to cruise around in the back of the field until there were ten to twenty laps left to go. Here’s the rub. Jimmie Johnson fans came to see him race. Jeff Gordon fans came to see him race. Carl Edwards fans came to see him race. And oh, did Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legion of fans come to see him RACE and perhaps even finally win a race again. It was pretty hard to ignore the massive cheer that went up in the stands when Earnhardt did lead briefly to get his one point bonus for having led a lap. An Earnhardt win would do more to sell tickets at every track on the circuit than anything I can imagine other than free beer in the grandstands. And it would doubtless help raise TV ratings for the races back above the Cannibal Cooking Channel.
Earnhardt himself seemed at times irritated by his team orders. He prefers to run up front and listen to his fans cheer. But he’d been paired with Johnson and Johnson wanted to cruise around in the back of the pack. Junior tends to see things as I do. If you’re leading at Talladega it’s unlikely anyone is going to wreck ahead of you until you start lapping the field. A lot of folks were simply delighted that Johnson and Gordon suffered poor finishes as well. But the main focus of attention was Carl Edwards.
That’s kind of odd because there at the end Edwards did indeed make a charge to the front…for all of two laps en route to an eleventh place finish. (Yes, it’s obscene that a 500 mile race is decided routinely in the final 5.2 miles but we’ll get to that). Talladega has never been kind to Edwards so he wasn’t there to race, he was there to Chase, preserve his points lead and potentially, successfully as it turned out, leave some of the less wary Chasers trying to run him down in the dust. It might have been a good move strategically but it wasn’t much fun to watch. It’s sort of like punting in a third and long situation with your team up by 3 and time running down. I think it would be deliciously ironic if Edwards were to lose this year’s title to Brad Keselowski, who actually did race much of the event, by the same seven points he surrendered at Talladega. Think it can’t happen? Remember Denny Hamlin arrived at Phoenix last year with the points lead and two races left to run.
Of course those of us who still cook our meat rather than eating it raw and have and IQ above room temperature weren’t real thrilled by the carnage of the race even if it is to be expected at Talladega. Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte and Regan Smith in particular all took hard hits. Some folks seem to think a driver can’t die at a track with SAFER barriers but NASCAR seems determined to prove them wrong. Of course you have to expect a lot of wrecking when fully half the drivers out there can’t see where they’re going. The trailing driver in a tandem might as well be blindfolded. It would appear NASCAR’s experiment in breaking up the tandems by giving the teams larger restrictor plates, lowering allowable coolant system pressures and banning some (but clearly not all) methods of making the bumpers more slippery was a dismal failure. So what’s next? Oh, those lamebrains down in Daytona will come up with something else that won’t work.
Face it. They tried the plates after Bobby Allison’s car almost got into the grandstands. (Though to my eye Carl Edwards car came just as close to breaching the fence). They tried those taxicab strips in a race that proved to be fatal. They’ve tried bigger and smaller plates, this aero package and that aero package, rules about staying above the yellow line and making the fuel cells smaller. Nothing has worked. At Talladega and Daytona we’re always left with one of three things: A) A single file parade which fans hate. B) A huge snarling two and three wide pack ten or twelve deep which the fans hate or C) This tandem racing nonsense which the fans hate.
So what’s the solution? It’s time for NASCAR and the ISC to bite the bullet and do what they should have done back in 1988 when Bobby Allison had that scary wreck. Dig up the antiquated tracks at Daytona and Talladega, lower the banking, remove the lowest fifteen rows of grandstand seats, take off the plates and let the drivers race. And how is Talladega going to pay for that? I don’t know what scrap metal dealers are paying for aluminum in Alabama but it surely does seem they’ve got a whole lot of grandstand seats that become increasingly unwanted every year.
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