_NOTE: Tom Bowles took care of Matt’s column today._
*Key Moment* – Matt Kenseth entered Turn 3 of the last lap a sitting duck – even though he was leading the race. Seconds later, he exited Turn 4 the only car still standing in a 500-mile event that could have easily been run as a 1-lap Demolition Derby.
*In a Nutshell* – A spectacular, heart-stopping final 20 minutes of side-by-side drama turned into an eyesore of an ending. Drivers left angry, owners lost millions, officials are lucky no one was killed, and the sport wound up with a virtual punch in the face.
In other words… just another day at Talladega?
*Dramatic Moment* – No doubt: the wreck that wiped out every meaningful contender. With one ill-timed block on Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart lost control, got airborne, started flipping, and, suddenly, 25 cars of 43 (a whopping 58 percent of the field) suffered some degree of damage in a wreck NASCAR video games couldn’t master. To have it happen in the last minute of the race, on the white-flag lap probably left several fans flirting with heart attacks.
That’s if they weren’t already carted to the hospital. The number of hair-raising moments throughout the final 40 laps left everyone on the edge of their seat, torn in half with every type of conceivable emotion except for “bored.”
You also had an “uh-oh” every time someone hit another’s car, which down the stretch was pretty much an every-lap occurrence. Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, in particular, made highlight-reel saves after bad bumpdrafts that only a handful of drivers will ever be capable of doing.
*What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week*
*Will NASCAR do anything to change the style of racing at Daytona and Talladega?* The finish of Sunday’s event was embarrassing, a mess of mangled cars that made the sport look more like the WWE than actual athletic competition. When the Cup Series’s Most Popular Driver refers to the current plate package as “bloodthirsty,” says he doesn’t even want to race here or at Daytona next year, and refers to officials’ inability to come up with a better solution as “incredulous,” you know you have a problem. Frankly, during that vicious final wreck where Stewart landed on top of and nearly inside several cars NASCAR was lucky no one wound up getting seriously injured or killed.
*So, in order for change to happen… will those who watch suck it up and deal?* Jeff Gordon summed it up perfectly when he said, “I don’t like the type of racing that I have to do. But if I’m a fan, I would love that. I think it’s incredibly intense.” The sport has used that enthusiasm as an excuse for decades, especially since the ratings back it up; Daytona’s July night race ranks as the most-watched for the sport since Charlotte’s Memorial Day Weekend. So will a return to tandem drafting, or even a package that forces single-file competition at points keep everyone tuning in?
*It’s a shame the championship could be decided by which mangled race car made it to the finish line first.* Yes, every race is filled with could haves, would haves, and might have beens. But you’re telling me Jimmie Johnson could lose six straight because of the ten title contenders, his car caught on fire a little more than Denny Hamlin’s? Come on. It’s an abomination this race is in the Chase and could affect the outcome of a postseason NASCAR started to (how ironic!) create more legitimacy compared to the stick ‘n’ ball sports.
*The ability for cars to bounce back quickly from a one-lap deficit is getting out of hand.* Check out this scenario from Sunday: a debris caution with fewer than 50 laps to go gave Kyle Busch a free pass back onto the lead lap. Then, after his normal stop (one lap after the leaders by rule, keeping him back in the 30s), Busch watched a number of cars in front of him duck in for a quick splash of gas. That meant by doing nothing in particular, other than a yellow coming out the No. 18 car jumped up from 31st to third in the running order for the restart. Confused? I sure am; it has nothing to do with Kyle, of course, but NASCAR’s asinine policy that makes getting back in contention easier for those who face adversity during the event. Remember when drivers lost ground and actually had to get it back by racing for it? The rule should state that whoever gets their lap back needs to start at the end of the longest line, period no matter how many people experience problems ahead of them.
It’s about time NASCAR did something to change its qualifying system, a process that’s favored the “haves” over the “have nots” since eliminating provisionals. *But bringing back the sport’s old way of setting the grid, giving fewer guarantees to anyone attempting to qualify on speed is a classic case of too little, too late.* Removing the top 35 rule would have added plenty of drama in a 43-car grid when there were more than 43 funded cars attempting to qualify. Now? The question becomes if a start ‘n’ park team can knock out a Cup Series regular and force them to “buy” a ride.
*Rusty Wallace during the ESPN Countdown Show Sunday: “I wouldn’t let little kids watch this race.”* What a great way to advertise an event and attract new fans! My “Twitter feed”:http://www.twitter.com/NASCARBowles/ was also lit up with complaints from people angry a longtime analyst couldn’t pronounce the name of their hometown racetrack correctly. I would say Rusty’s just Rusty when it comes to television, but it’s been six years now – he should know better. Time to get with the program or get out. On another note, did anyone catch how distraught Brad Daugherty looked when talking about pursuing future sponsorship in a later segment? One wonders how much cash that No. 47 Toyota has on hand for 2013.
*ISC this week reported a $1 million dollar loss for the last quarter of operation.* That’s huge news for a company who’s spent the last two decades virtually printing money faster than the government itself. Chicagoland, Fontana, and other underperforming tracks beware; the bigger the number becomes, as time goes on make the Speedway Corporation a little bit more open to pressing the “foreclosure” button.
*The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune*
Whether *Kurt Busch* ran out of gas or simply got gassed by a bad move on the backstretch is anybody’s guess. Here’s what we do know: the No. 51 slammed into the inside guardrail after contact while running up front. Busch was unhurt, but before the safety crew could finish their checks decided to drive off with their heads in the window and a giant bag of equipment on the roof. Without a helmet on, he went several hundred feet before stopping on his own accord … not NASCAR’s directive. As you might imagine, that’s ticked off everyone with a suit down in Daytona Beach, and Kurt Busch’s bizarre postrace interview (which had a bit of a “why me” slant to it) might add to indecision and tip the scales in favor of suspension. Either way, it was the perfect ending to Busch’s career with this team: Maximum effort, poor luck, stupid result, then frustration unleashed in the most inappropriate way possible. Have fun selling mattresses, Furniture Row!
The only thing worse than leaving Talladega with a damaged car is trying to ride around all day with one. *Carl Edwards* had that feeling for over 400 miles, part of an early yellow that saw Cole Whitt crash hard right into the side of the No. 99. As icing on the cake, the crew was visibly and audibly disorganized in making repairs, sloppy performances all around which left Edwards ten laps down in 36th.
*Michael Waltrip* saw his chance to be the biggest upset winner at a race this year disappear the second Tony Stewart turned down on him. Ditto *Casey Mears,* Waltrip’s unlikely drafting partner who led several laps and put himself in position to win with the No. 13 takes the runner-up spot – both were simply _taken out_ in that last-lap wreck for the ages.
*Jamie McMurray* had a top-5 result in the making, his first since Bristol in August of last year before getting wrecked in the tri-oval to set up the final round of chaos.
*”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune*
*The drivers.* Once again, we had Demolition-style carnage at one of the sport’s fastest tracks and people wound up walking out of there on their own two feet. That’s a major plus.
*David Ragan’s* car will likely make its way straight to the junkyard this Monday morning. But despite getting hit every which way, the engine kept running and the car stayed straight enough for him to limp the underdog Front Row Motorsports car home in fourth place.
*Jeff Gordon,* for all the terrible luck he’s had this year finally had the odds swing in his favor on that wreck. Shoved down onto the apron, that forced him away from the carnage and he was able to drive the DuPont Chevy up to second.
After a penalty for pit road speeding, *Kyle Busch* appeared destined to end the day a lap behind the leaders. But a late-race caution for debris — that mystery kind which also helped Dale Earnhardt, Jr. get back on the lead lap — led to the free pass and an eventual third-place finish.
* Matt Kenseth (1st) ended the restrictor plate season with podium finishes in all four events. His average finish in 2012 at Daytona and Talladega? 2.0.
* Jeff Gordon (2nd) has podium finishes in six of his last seven races. If he had simply run fifth at Chicagoland, which is about where he was before that stuck throttle Four-Time, would be second in points, 12 behind Brad Keselowski and in perfect position to challenge for a fifth.
* David Ragan (4th) earned his best result since Roush Fenway Racing released him at the end of last season.
* Regan Smith (5th) wound up with his best performance since Indianapolis in the summer of 2011 (third). That’s the way to go out with a team you’ve been a part of for four years; the driver will move over to Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 starting next week.
* Travis Kvapil (8th) scored his first top-10 finish of 2012 and the best ever performance for first-year BK Racing. When’s the last time Kvapil ran that well in the Cup Series? You have to go back to November, 2008 and the season-ending Homestead event, a seventh-place run driving the former No. 28 Ford for Yates Racing.
* Interesting quirk: Kevin Harvick (11th) has an average finish of 11.8, with none lower than 13th during the Chase but has zero top-10 finishes.
* Jimmie Johnson (17th) was technically given credit for “running” at the end of Talladega’s Frightfest 2012. But in reality, he finished off a dubious record of being wrecked out or suffering engine failure at each of the sport’s four restrictor plate events this season.
* The top-10 finishing drivers Sunday drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Toyotas, and a Dodge. Turns out there’s parity when it comes to sheet metal destruction…
*What’s the Points?*
With results very unofficial at this point, it’s likely a three-horse race for the title from here on out. Brad Keselowski’s lead has grown to 14 over Johnson; Hamlin sits third, 23 back and on the fringes of contention. Kasey Kahne, in fourth place is 36 behind and would need help to get back in it with the “Big Risk” races out of the way. Ditto for Clint Bowyer, who fell to fifth after a late-race pass attempt on Kenseth fell short.
Jeff Gordon sits sixth in the standings, up a few spots but still a likely-insurmountable 42 outside the leaders. Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Greg Biffle sit behind him, facing a deficit at or over one race’s worth of points behind that would be borderline miraculous to overcome. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. post-wreck fell to 11th in the standings while Matt Kenseth rounds out the top 12.
In the “Best Of The Rest” category, Kyle Busch continues to run away with it. He’s ahead of Ryan Newman by 47 with six races remaining.
*Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort):* In the past, I’d say five cans but there’s no more ignoring the major danger plate racing has become. We’ll go with one can of three-year-old beer, with some awful bacteria growing inside and crossed fingers you won’t catch cold once you drink it. “Talladega for Dummies!”
*Next Up:* The sport attempts a return to normalcy at its home track for most Cup Series organizations – Charlotte.