No other track in the Chase for the Sprint Cup causes drivers to lose sleep like Talladega Superspeedway.
Located in Talladega, Ala., the 2.66-mile oval has one of the craziest tailgates on the NASCAR circuit. However, the wild activity in the infield doesn’t hold a candle to the racing itself.
Running within inches of each other, the sport’s stars spend the entirety of the 500-mile event on the edge of their seats, looking to work their way to the front of the pack in a high-speed chess game. Spotters fill their ears with constant noise as they inform their drivers of nearby competitors, and for good reason. With the whole field running within two seconds of each other, a small slip can result in a cacophony of wrecked racecars.
Following a slew of bad crashes and lost championships in the annual return to Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, fans and critics have pondered whether such an event should be featured in the 10-race playoff. The recent changes to the Chase, placing Talladega as one of three elimination races, have put the event under the microscope more than ever.
Tom Bowles discussed the unpredictability of the Chase earlier this week, and proved some interesting points along the way. With those points noted, the question must be asked:
Should NASCAR Remove Restrictor-Plate Racing from the Chase?
Opinion One: Yes. It’s Time for Change.
I’ll preface this by saying that, like most drivers, I’m not a fan of modern restrictor plate racing. The tight packs, the huge crashes, the increased risk of injury to drivers and fans… it doesn’t seem like racing to me. More like a high-speed rush-hour commute.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the draft, I like high speeds, I like close racing. But I’m scared to death that someone is going to be seriously hurt (or worse) in one of these races run under the current package, so much so that I only watch the start and final handful of laps anymore, and I tend to watch every lap — even on the boring tracks.
If it were up to me, I’d find a way to spread the cars out more – something not good for intermediate tracks but great for plate tracks – and allow the draft to be a bigger part of the race than it already is. Cars would still be close, but not close enough that turning over would be as big a concern.
Austin Dillon’s walking away from his wreck in July was a miracle. I don’t want to play the odds that something like that happens again and we get the other outcome.
That’s one huge reason to cut plate tracks, but let’s put safety away for just a moment. That’s a full-season issue, with four races held using that package. This is a Chase issue. Should such a crapshoot be a part of the championship-defining stretch of races?
No. No, no, no, no, no.
Let’s start with the obvious: drivers don’t really control their race. It used to be with a good car, a mastery of the draft and no fear you could make things happen on the track. Dale Earnhardt’s masterful drive in 2000 proves this. I mean, 18th to first in five laps?
Today, those five laps are impossible for a driver to do anything with. With cars three-wide and eight-deep, there’s just no room to move around. It doesn’t matter if you have a good car if you’re stuck in the back. Perhaps in the 1990s a plate race would make a good Chase race, but not in today’s competition.
Not only are drivers unable to make the moves necessary to win or even just advance into the next round of the Chase, they are at the mercy of their competitors. Sure, things can go wrong between drivers each week (Joey Logano and Morgan Shepherd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards, et al.) but this is the exception, not the rule.
At Talladega, it’s the rule. And not a good one.
Tom Bowles said it great yesterday when he wrote, “This inability to control your own destiny, leaving your fate similar to which bingo ball gets called out of the spinning machine, is perhaps the biggest argument on paper as to why this race should not be involved in the postseason.”
Talladega’s previous five Chase races? 36 DNFs due to crashes and 10 due to engines — including eight Chase drivers. That doesn’t even include Chasers who were caught up in wrecks, repaired their cars and were still running at the finish despite being multiple laps down.
All because someone got a little impatient or couldn’t control their car.
For Johnson and Martin, their 2005 title hopes went up after the Big One occurred soon after the start of the race. While the wreck was more memorable for sending Michael Waltrip end over end two times, both drivers suffered a significant hit in the points. Martin came in fourth in the points, but after finishing 41st, he dropped to ninth.
Johnson, coming off a win at Dover was leading the points but dropped to fourth in the standings.
They finished the Chase in fourth and fifth, respectively.
For Busch, 2014 looked to finally be the year that he would shake off his Chase gremlins and contend for his first Sprint Cup. Following the first two races of the Contender Round, he sat second in points and only needed to finish 24th in the race to assure himself a spot in the third round of the playoffs.
Then came lap 103. Busch, who was riding toward the back of the pack in hopes of avoiding a wreck should it happen, failed to do so when he was tapped by Dillon while slowing to avoid a crash. He hit the backstretch wall hard, and while he was able to eventually return to the track he finished 41st, well behind his target finishing position. He dropped to ninth in points and missed the cut.
And who can forget Bowyer’s 2012 season, where he finished second in points to Brad Keselowski. If you ask him where his Cup hopes went wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it wasn’t the revenge exacted by Jeff Gordon the week before at Phoenix, but the last-lap wreck at Talladega three weeks earlier.
Bowyer was running ninth at Talladega before getting caught up in the Big One. He’d finish 23rd, losing 14 key points in his Chase-long battle with Keselowski and Johnson. Couple that with the wreck at Phoenix, where he was running fifth yet finished 28th after needless contact by Gordon — and he’d score 37 more points than he ended up with by season’s end.
Keselowski won the title by 39 points. See just how close things could be if true wild-card races weren’t a part of the schedule? Say the Gordon incident hadn’t happened and the Big One didn’t happen either. Could Bowyer find the extra couple of points he’d need to win the title? You bet.
If that happened, things would be entirely different today for Michael Waltrip Racing. Instead of closing its doors in 2016, it could throw the words “Sprint Cup champion” around to potential sponsors and stay afloat. It’s pure speculation, I know, but what if?
If drivers can’t really control their destiny at a track, it isn’t right to have it included in the playoffs. Plate tracks are a case study in this kind of occurrence. So they shouldn’t be included.
Speaking of not including a certain track types in the playoffs, it wouldn’t be a sin to kick Talladega out of the final 10 races. There’s already a precedent in place for excluding certain track types — road courses, anyone?
It used to be 36 races determined a champion. Then it was 10. Now multiple rounds of three races. And at the center of it all, the unstable Talladega. What’s the point in running the other 35 — the other nine, even — if a single race dictates the outcome? – Sean Fesko
Opinion Two: Talladega Deserves to Stay in the Chase
So, let me get this straight. There are four bland, 1.5-mile cookie-cutter tracks in the Chase, yet we’re debating removing Talladega?
Talladega and Daytona, the two restrictor-plate tracks on the NASCAR circuit, have become staples of the sport throughout the years, and for good reason. The racing – fast, tight, edge-of-your-seat pack battles where the race can swing good or bad in a moment’s notice – is everything that casual fans look for in a NASCAR event.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at viewership. Last season, the fall Talladega race’s 2.7 rating topped five of the other nine Chase races, falling short only to the Charlotte, NASCAR’s home market, and the final three events of the year at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, where the championship battle brought fans in.
By comparison, none of the opening four races of the Chase managed a rating higher than 2.4. Even Martinsville, a crown jewel race for the sport, which was won by its most popular driver in Earnhardt Jr., managed only a 2.5 household rating the following week.
Ratings are only the beginning, though. For the last several years, fans have made it known that they would like to see a road course in the Chase. NASCAR.com even posted an article on the topic this summer.
While that’s a topic for another time, the premise of adding a road course to the Chase can also be applied to keeping Talladega in it. If NASCAR is going to trim the championship battle down to a 10-race shootout, the series should have each type of track seen regularly on the circuit represented in said shootout, both for the sake of the show and to provide a fair competition for the competing drivers.
Like it or not, restrictor-plate tracks are a common part of the Sprint Cup Series schedule. With four points-paying events, restrictor plates make up 11.1% of the tour. In comparison to the Chase, where one race is equivalent to 10%, have a lone restrictor-plate event in the playoff makes logical sense.
The common knock on Talladega as the race approaches once again is that it’s unfair to the teams involved, that they don’t control their destiny as they circuit around the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Ultimately, that argument is proved invalid by the race itself.
Each year, through whatever disaster may fall during the 500-mile event, the same few drivers tend to make themselves known as contenders. Despite a myriad of issues befalling their competitors, Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Keselowski and others seem to rise through the field and contend for victories more often than not.
Sure, sometimes the contenders stumble upon issues, just as they could at any other track. They could be caught up in an accident, have a part break, or even lose the draft as a result of a bad pit stop. However, when things go according to plan, drivers such as Johnson and Kyle Busch always find themselves in a position to fight for the victory because they know how to play strategy.
Through all of the ebbs and flows of each restrictor-plate race, strategy often finds a way to affect the race. Some drivers succeed by cruising behind the pack for much of the day, positioning themselves to avoid the Big One whenever it may happen. Others look to dominate the event, driving to the front and staying ahead of the carnage.
When teams are stuck in the middle of the pack, they may not completely control their own destiny, but they did control the path that led them to that point, a fact that is often lost on fans when their favorite driver is left in the garage area pondering what could have been.
Another issue that’s come into the limelight in recent events is safety. Mind you, this is a real issue that is being worked on by NASCAR every day. However, as bad as it may have been, Dillon’s harrowing accident in the July 5 Coke Zero 400 offered as close to a perfect test of the catchfence and in-car safety features as can be completed. The result? Dillon climbed out of his car, on-track, with minimal injuries.
As terrible as it may sound, the imminent danger present at all times is one of the things that makes auto racing so alluring. Fans watched in awed disbelief as the Verizon IndyCar Series managed a record 80 lead changes at Fontana. RACER’s Robin Miller, long-time reporter for the open-wheel series, called the event “one of the five best races I’ve ever seen” in a rant to the sanctioning body.
Was the event the safest? No. The field ran within inches of each other for the entire 500 miles, and Ryan Briscoe’s crash at the end of the event was equal parts violent and terrifying. However, for fans and critics to both watch and praise the event spoke to their fascination with that style of racing.
NASCAR’s pack races at Talladega and Daytona don’t share the same speed or freedom to pass as their IndyCar compatriots, the the thrilling style is as close as stock car racing gets.
Keselowski’s furious drive to an upset victory at the Alabama track was everything the Chase was hyped up to be last season. On the brink of elimination, the Michigan native held off the field and used a push from rival Kenseth to advance in arguably the best event of the entire playoff.
If fans would prefer NASCAR replace an event like that with another boring, cookie-cutter event, fine. Just don’t be surprised when the ratings and overall integrity of the playoff suffer. – Aaron Bearden
About the author
A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.
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