Dark clouds covered the Talladega Superspeedway on a hot, humid Sunday, casting an ominous haze over the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field. Moisture threatened to cover the field throughout the day, but the only particles to fly across the 2.66-mile oval were the myriad of debris sent flying from the many crashed cars.
As it turned out, mother nature didn’t need to bring the storm for Sunday’s Geico 500. NASCAR provided a perfect storm without needing a drop of rain.
First, it was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., losing control of his ‘Amelia’ machine and smashing into the wall. Later, it was Carl Edwards losing a tire and watching his two-race winning streak end in violent fashion on the track’s second turn.
Two cars went airborne. Chris Buescher was sent flipping three times just past the race’s halfway point after contact with Michael Annett. Later, Matt Kenseth found himself upside down as he careened into the inside wall as a result of an incident with who else other than Joey Logano, trapping him back in the pack and later putting him in the path of a crashing Danica Patrick.
After smashing into Kenseth, Patrick ran from her car and held her sides as she attempted to breathe and process what had just happened to her.
The Big One happened in the final quarter of the race, decimating the field and leaving less than 25 cars to compete for the victory.
Somehow, the field still managed a horrible crash coming to the finish, too.
The end result of a dangerous day for the field was a group of cars that looked like they’d been through 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway instead of 500 miles at Talladega.
Car owners looked at triple-digit losses as most of their cars were trashed. Wives, mothers and children tried to fend off tears as they waited to find out if their husband, son or father was alright.
In the media center, writers grimaced with each passing wreck, their stomachs churning as they tried to figure out whether to wait for drivers on the finishing grid or at the care center.
Sunday’s Geico 500 was the latest in a string of terrifying superspeedway races.
Back in 1969, Richard Petty and a group of NASCAR’s best drivers refused to race at Talladega, afraid the 200 mph speeds and horrid tire wear would render them helpless and unsafe. Not one to be superseded, Bill France, Sr. held the race anyway, replacing his best drivers with anyone that would race.
The aftermath of France’s decision continues to ripple through the garage area today. Since its inception, fans, drivers and media have criticized superspeedway racing for its dangerous, uncontrollable style. But regardless of the concern, the field continues to make the pilgrimage to Talladega and Daytona four times per year.
Since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. following an incident in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s focus has shifted to safety, and lessening the likelihood of drivers getting seriously injured, or worse, after one of the many wrecks they endure each year.
Yet still, even after 15 years of improvements, one can’t help but hold their breath during restrictor plate races.
Last year, it was both Kyle Busch’s life-changing crash at Daytona and Austin Dillon’s terrifying flight into the catch fence to close the Coke-Zero 400 that brought about the discussion of safety. In 2012, it was a crash at Talladega that took out nearly the entire field, and left Earnhardt concussed and out of his machine for the following three weeks.
Somehow, though, one of the worst days of all at Talladega came on Sunday. With 35 of the 40 cars in the Geico 500 crashing, flipping, lighting on fire or otherwise suffering damage, the majority of the drivers in the field were left scratching their heads and wondering why they do the things they do.
“I hate it,” Kyle Busch said after the race. “I’d much rather sit at home. I got a win. I don’t need to be here.”
“I’m sick an tired of speedway racing at this point,” Buescher muttered after his second hard crash in as many superspeedway races.
The four superspeedway races are among the most exhilarating on the Cup Series tour. With brutal consequences and tight packs, each daring decision becomes almost breathtaking in its riskiness.
In their most basic essence, each race at Talladega and Daytona plays out like the ultimate risk vs. reward. Bold moves can send a driver to the front of the pack. However, one careless mistake can take out half of the field.
Perhaps it was the impending rain, or the hopes of a Chase bid, but on a dreary Sunday in Alabama, there were many more mistakes than successful moves.
To their credit, NASCAR’s safety equipment did its job with each nasty crash. Buescher was no worse for wear after his backstretch flight. Logano climbed from his machine sore, but okay after two difficult crashes in as many days. Even Kenseth, who was one errant flip from a trip over the infield fence, put his window net down and climbed out of his machine unhurt.
Still, one has to wonder when the drivers will take a stand.
Ask anyone in the field, and they’ll tell you how careless the racing at Daytona and Talladega is. Sure, it’s exciting for them when things go well, but at the worst moments, the two tracks can cut careers short and put fans in danger.
Yet, sort of a few grumbles, the field continues to pile into the two tracks – and each other – for 1900 miles per year.
Why? Because that’s how it’s always been.
“It’s part of the game, speedway racing, always has been,” said Austin Dillon after his third-place finish.
“I don’t have a solution. It’s been this way for 30 years, so…. Stop complaining about it, I guess,” added Kyle Busch.
Perhaps nothing can be done. Daytona and Talladega seem like they’ll continue on as they are on the tour until NASCAR’s end. After all, fans love the racing (and crashes), and drivers seem defenseless to do anything about their growing fears.
Big Bill France set the standard for Talladega in 1969, and that standard still lingers on today.
Until someone’s willing to take a stand against that standard, I guess we’ll all have to keep holding our breath.