_“Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s blood-thirsty if that is what people want. I can’t believe that nobody is sensible enough to realize just how ridiculous that was. Everybody is just ‘ho hum’ no big deal… that is not alright. I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”_ – _Dale Earnhardt, Jr._
Let’s just all sit for a second and let that quote sink in. As the dust settled on another day of Talladega carnage, over $2 million in damaged race cars, an unknown amount of bruised egos and some sort of blind luck that no one got killed the sport’s most recognizable driver made a brazen statement. Here we have the man with the famous last name, whose father made an art out of mastering Talladega and Daytona – whose quest for the sport’s biggest race won millions of fans in the process — stating the competition there has become little more than (insert wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap word here). More importantly, Earnhardt came out and said that when it came to the sport’s Daytona 500, what’s supposed to be the pinnacle of racing competition in America based on this style of racing he’d rather stay home.
What would you think if Tom Brady of the NFL, or Peyton Manning said, “I don’t like the way the Super Bowl is being selected. I’d just rather stay home.” Wouldn’t there be an outcry from the league offices? Wouldn’t fans feel compelled to find out why – and to push for change if something was wrong? And wouldn’t there be a groundswell of support from peers, most lining up side-by-side with this leader going forward?
That ugly precipice of disaster is where NASCAR _should_ be standing this Monday morning. Earnhardt, criticized through the years for not being vocal enough spoke his mind, and he spoke it properly after a last-lap finish that for those inside the sport could be considered little more than an embarrassment. I hope they realize it, because outside the sport it’s a bit of a running joke this Monday morning. _Talladega Nights_ is supposed to be a comedy, _making fun_ of our sport – yet the wrecks that movie showcased were exactly what came to pass on Sunday. Ricky Bobby, had he gotten out of his car on fire and ran to the finish line had a good shot of finishing in fourth place, that’s how many vehicles wound up sitting in a Talladega third-turn junkyard of disaster.
Restrictor plate racing, for all its boom-or-bust didn’t always used to be this way. Old packages and more leeway on the rules led to cars spreading out, in the early 1990s creating separation and smaller packs where you didn’t wind up in this kind of mess. No, it wasn’t tandem drafting, the last change designed to spread out the field (but creating some sort of weird, ‘will you go on a man-date with me?’ courting system in its wake to challenge for the victory.) No, the old school plate racing, which Jeff Gordon termed “fun” in his postrace press conference Sunday involved some ability for drivers to control their passing, setting up moves to the finish while running four-wide with the knowledge that hey, maybe 25 cars instead of everyone with an engine would be in the final grouping.
It was parity lite, the old form of plate competition where some underdogs came out of nowhere and a few favorites didn’t have enough horsepower to hang with the lead draft. But in this age of parity, where NASCAR puts the engineers in such a box that type of separation is impossible now when you put a plate on these motors. Heck, at intermediate tracks cars run up on each other and then take 50 laps to pass because their lap times close to within hundredths of a second. What happens when you take any sort of variable away – braking, horsepower, handling – and leave everyone running at the exact same speed?
The answer, of course is what we saw Sunday – no separation, except for pit road penalties. You get spectacular four-wide racing when things go right… but a 25-car disaster, costing owners millions in repairs and putting multiple driver lives in jeopardy when it all goes wrong. You get a record number of lead changes (54 was a season high on Sunday) but they’re a moot point because the driver out front immediately becomes a sitting duck.
There are some who, this Monday morning are criticizing those for saying this style of racing needs to be changed. “These are what the drivers sign up for,” they claim. “200 miles an hour, in close competition means wrecks happen.” They point to the drivers becoming fearful instead of brazen, the opposite of a Dale Earnhardt, Sr. mentality that may turn some fans off.
Look, I’m not saying race car driving isn’t without some sort of risk. But it’s one thing to race in the Indy 500, go for the win on the last lap and then crash side-by-side at 200 miles an hour. That’s the risk you sign up to take, the one you’re expected to. But when you get put in a box, as these drivers do where your very fate is out of your hands – leaving any type of skill on the sidelines as you’re placed on some sort of sickening Russian Roulette wheel – I don’t think anyone should be signed up for that. It’s to the point now where people are intentionally running slow, at less than race pace (like Denny Hamlin did Sunday) to not only protect their positions in the points but their lives.
That’s a problem. As Clint Bowyer said, the way these plate races are now there’s no reason for them to even go 500 miles. With minimal engine failures, no separation and the “run in the back, really slow until the end” strategy employed by some the first 450 miles are really run just for show. You can accomplish everything NASCAR is offering through Talladega and Daytona in a pair of 50-mile sprints.
That’s right; the Daytona 500, once the toughest trophy to win in all of motorsports is reduced to a roulette wheel and a 20-lap dash to the finish. So people can “ooo” and “ahh” about the spectacular four-wide racing all they want this Monday. In the end, do you really want your marquis race (or races) reduced to that?
I’ll save the best thing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said, hidden in his heat of the moment comments for last.
“I mean it’s good for the here and now and it will get people talking today,” he said of Sunday’s finish. “But for the long run that is not going to help the sport the way that race ended and the way the racing is. It’s not going to be productive for years to come.”
Five minutes of heart-pounding action does not a nine-month, or even nine-year NASCAR fan make. If that’s the best racing left this series has to offer, and no one’s willing to find solutions, well… this sport may be in more serious trouble than anyone thought.
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