The most notable moments of Talladega, contrary to popular belief, came two days before multiple cars flipped upside down. Prior to the Chris Buescher melee, long before Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano flared up once again there was a meeting of political minds behind closed doors. The Driver’s Council, an unofficial union of racers feeling more like a “Union” with each passing day, found itself the recipient of a special guest: NASCAR CEO Brian France. France spoke early and often during the closed-doors affair that became ten times more important the second he walked into it.
“At least from Brian’s perspective, it was well done,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon on his participation. “He was happy he did it.” “We just had a good discussion,” added France while refusing to delve into details.
What was discussed may never be public knowledge; to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. The fact France attended the meeting, rather than ignoring it, legitimized a Council composed of some of the sport’s more well-known names: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart. It was a council who, just a few days earlier, publicly offered to pay a $35,000 fine for Stewart after the veteran became openly critical of NASCAR’s rules regarding lug nuts.
What was the end result of that talk? New rules last Monday offering stiff penalties if teams intentionally tried to leave off those lug nuts. It was the exact safety move Stewart was asking for and still calls into question why he’s paying $35,000 in the first place; criticism takes a different tone when those words wind up written in the rulebook.
But that moment, followed by France’s visit has vaulted the Driver’s Council to a new level of power. And for Daytona Beach officials, it proved poor timing as it all happened before a track most drivers dread: the restrictor plate carnage that is Talladega.
For 30 years, ‘Dega has been the epicenter of the parity this brand of racing creates. It’s also an equal opportunity employer of turning a driver flat on his head. Some of the worst crashes the sport has seen have come here; Dale Earnhardt, Sr. may have died at Daytona but ‘Dega has offered far more close calls. There was the 2009 incident between Sunday’s winner Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards where debris wound up injuring multiple fans in the stands. Virtually every year has ended with at least one car upside down, the finish in question and the running order a Russian Roulette of who wasn’t swept into a wreck not of their own making.
It’s all a mangled mess but it’s complicated; the fans keep paying, there’s no other real solution to slow the cars down and so NASCAR keeps dragging its feet. But there would be one simple way to stop plate racing once and for all. It’s simple when you think about it, really.
Note to drivers: don’t show up.
Cue this comment from Busch then after a second — let me remind you — a second-place finish.
“I’d much rather sit at home,” he said. “I got a win [that locks him in the Chase]. I don’t need to be here.”
Busch knows firsthand the danger of plate racing; he missed three months last year after a devastating Daytona wreck in the XFINITY Series. Of course, he wasn’t alone in expressing criticism Sunday; the popular Danica Patrick, Buescher, Kenseth, and so many others were open about their disdain for that type of racing.
Kyle’s comment, though appears to carry the most weight. He’s on the Council and his words make factual sense. If you feel as a driver your safety is in danger, plus you’re already locked inside the playoffs why put the rest of your season at risk? We already saw Stewart sit out Sunday because of the worries a Talladega “Big One” could do to his back; he had no such concerns about returning at Richmond a week earlier. How soon before “minor injuries” gobble up some of the sport’s biggest stars heading into the next restrictor plate race?
It would be a way to send a message while hiding behind the rules and forcing NASCAR’s hand. Would the sport punish Busch or threaten him with missing the Chase if he didn’t start Talladega? After all, they just handed the guy a championship after Busch missed the first 11 races of 2015. What if the nine main council members said, “Hey NASCAR, we’re tired of no solution here. Pull the plates or we’ll pull our participation at these four races each year.”
Those words, those actions appear more plausible than ever, especially in an era where a driver strike would be devastating. We’re not in 1969 and there aren’t a list of 50 replacements lining up to drive these Sprint Cup cars. Ownership is limited, manufacturers are stuck at three and the fan base follows the personalities far more than the horsepower or a Toyota logo. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. says he’s going to sit out a race and boy, will people stop and pay attention. The drivers are realizing that; they’re not ignorant to this moment or their bargaining power.
The drivers, more than any other time in NASCAR history, have decision-making sitting squarely within their hands. The future of Talladega and Daytona, more than ever may depend on what they decide to go do with it.
Who knew the decision to dump the plates really has been that easy this whole time?
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