This race fan never looks forward to Talladega. It seems like something terrible is going to happen in every race and everyone hopes that terrible thing doesn’t claim somebody’s life. Such was the mood entering today’s Amp Energy 500. Okay, it’s okay to have a track that scrambles up the standings. Bristol and Martinsville do that but they’re fun not frightening. Last lap theatrics are fine too but not when cars go flying in the air like Rusty Wallace did years ago as Dale Earnhardt snuck across the finish line or just last spring when Carl Edwards flew in to the retaining fence as Brad Keselowski scored his first win. Not only did this race have a last lap wreck that seriously messed up any remaining chase possibilities, just a few laps earlier was the flying car, that of Ryan Newman that fortunately claimed no injuries but shows what happens when cars want to go over 200 mph but are choked back to just a little bit less than that bunching up in huge packs.
Jaime McMurray won the race as a lame duck driver in the #26 Irwin Tools Ford, a team that Roush is disbanding as NASCAR will limit owners to only four full-time teams effective for 2010. Take ‘em where you can get ‘em as this has been a horrible year for Ford and Roush after the first two races won by Matt Kenseth. Kasey Kahne, Joey Legano, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton rounded out the top five while it was a good afternoon for Michael Waltrip in 6th and Elliot Sadler in 7th all ahead of Jimmie Johnson in 8th. Brad Keselowski, 9th and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 10th round out the top ten. Surely, this was an afternoon the 88 team has been looking forward to for a long, long time!
With about ten laps to go, it looked like the Chase could gain some life. Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon were flirting with decent top five finishes while Jimmie Johnson was languishing down around 28th to 30th position. Such a finish would be exactly what’s needed to give meaning to the last three weeks, but the wreck going into the final lap killed that with Jimmie Johnson finishing 8th while what was left of “The Chase” found Martin in 28th and Gordon in 22nd. Now with three races to go, Jimmie Johnson leads Mark Martin by 181 points and Jeff Gordon by 195 points. The lead over Martin is essentially a whole race and slightly more than a whole race worth of points for Jeff Gordon. Only a major catastrophe that would have Johnson finishing at or near the bottom while Martin or Gordon would have to be at the top of the field could bring back any kind of real competition for the championship.
Wasn’t the whole concept of “The Chase” supposed to make the final races ones worth watching because there would almost have to be something at stake?
Well, there have been five championships since “The Chase” was initiated and Jimmie Johnson has won the last three and will almost certainly make it four out of six. However, the format for the last ten races really can’t be blamed for the situation. The #48 team is truly just that darned good and it drives fans of the other 42 teams crazy every Sunday.
How cruel is Talladega? Consider this, Paul Menard is basically running out the string having had a miserable campaign with the struggling Yates operation in its final days before merging with Richard Petty racing next year. He cut a tire on lap four collecting Joe Nemechek who has typically been a start and park driver who was racing with added support through a massive support drive initiated by his fan club specifically for this race. It looks as though only Dale Blaney in the #66 car was successful in sneaking off the track on lap 12 to avoid the carnage and expense.
From the first race back in 1969 when the drivers refused to race fearing tire problems and Bill France Sr. fielded a lineup of replacements, Talladega has been a threatening track that for what excitement it breeds is accompanied by more than its share of horrors. Speeds escalated as cars became more aerodynamic culminating in Bill Elliot setting the official record of 212 mph in 1987, but that spectacular accomplishment was met with tragedy in the race when Bobby Allison blew a tire in the Winston 500 sending car and drive flying into the retaining fence injuring several fans. Thus the era of restrictor plate racing began, but while cars have stayed closer to the ground, fans anxiously fear “the big one” at all Daytona and Talladega races, and seldom is there a race at either track that doesn’t deliver the horrific multicar accident.
While Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, Talladega seems to be the more threatening track. Besides that, the 2 ½ mile Daytona track is laid out that allows for some real racing where Talladega is more a matter of lining up competing “trains” of drafting cars. For what excitement can be generated, 2009 tells the story that something needs to be done.
Carl Edwards hit the fence just short of the finish line in the spring race. Fans were injured. Ryan Newman’s accident today featured more aero-acrobatics but at least away from the stands.
The cars are engineered where blazing speeds are so easily obtainable, it’s hard to imagine what can be done to slow them down yet provide for competitive racing. Rusty Wallace tested an unrestricted “Car of Tomorrow” at Talladega in 2004 reaching a top speed of 228 mph for an average lap speed of 221 mph. Wallace described the situation as “out of control.” Wallace indicated, however, he thought through aerodynamics, electronics, and mechanical changes the car could be manipulated to slower speeds without restrictor plates. The Camping World Trucks do not run plates at Daytona and Talladega but their boxier aerodynamics and less powerful engines appear to work.
The time to stop pussy-footing around is long overdue. The Talladega situation must be addressed. It’s simply too tense and too dangerous to really be called good racing. The track was designed for the ultimate ability to race at the highest speeds possible, but back in 1969, midsized cars were bigger, heavier, and less aerodynamic. Many theories have been offered on how to slow down the cars, but where are the results? Where are the prototypes, the test cars?
Perhaps the track itself needs to be re-engineered. How about lowering the banks? Maybe the oval could be shortened to a more conventional length. What’s bragging rights to NASCAR’s longest track worth anyway?
We offer these as just guesses of things that might be considered. Our greatest hope is that we’re not dead right because the day is coming when a driver or fans might be killed in a Talladega mishap.
NASCAR and all the Sprint Cup teams must make sure that day never happens.