Let the phony smile-a-thon begin. While NASCAR and FOX revs up for another nail-biting weekend at Talladega, how many drivers are actually looking forward to the race?
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Junior said after getting involved in an accident at Talladega last fall. “I’ll just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week, I’d find another job.”
“I don’t even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year,” Earnhardt Jr. added in the fall of 2012, “but I ain’t got much choice.”
Earnhardt’s race Sunday might end with barrel rolls down the backstretch, or maybe even jumping the frontstretch fence to do some crowd surfing. Fans are going to have to group up tightly to catch that 3,400-pound, flaming piece of metal coming at them.
A good weekend for Earnhardt might involve a last-lap crash where his car stays grounded and he walks away unscathed. Unfortunately, that is the most likely scenario. That’s how most restrictor-plate races end, with a large pile-up in the final three laps that usually starts at the front of the field and collects everyone but the pace car and Brian Keselowski (because he lost the draft).
The final results look like something from a blind drawing. David Stremme was running 34th at the white flag, but ended up seventh. Jeff Gordon led to the white flag, and he ended with a DNF in 26th, his car on its roof in a sea of metal carnage. Those of us with functioning cerebellums are left thinking, “What was the point to what I just watched?”
That’s not a once-every-10-races ordeal, either. That’s the norm. It’s what we’ve come to accept.
“I can’t believe nobody is sensible enough to realize just how ridiculous that was,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race last fall. “That is ridiculous that all those cars were tore up. And everybody is just, ‘Ho hum, no big deal.’ That’s not alright.”
Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in that wreck, but that was the only significant injury. NASCAR wasn’t as lucky at the February Nationwide race at Daytona. Michael Annett broke his sternum and half of Kyle Larson’s car ended up on the wrong side of the fence, injuring 28 innocent fans. In the investigation that followed, NASCAR focused on reinforcing the fence by the gate at the start-finish line. Daytona and Talladega have each reinforced their crossover gates since.
Well, I guess we’re all set then. Hey NASCAR, what about the parts that flew over the 22-foot fence at Daytona?
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Vice President, Racing Operations apparently didn’t see a problem with it, telling The Associated Press the following week that NASCAR was “comfortable” with the racing at restrictor plate races.
I’m glad the NASCAR executives are comfortable because the drivers are not. The drivers know that it is a weekend all for the fans. The spring race at Talladega received an average television rating of 5.1 last year according to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal. That was much higher than the race preceding, Richmond (3.6), and the race following it, Darlington (3.8).
Those who don’t enjoy racing at two of the best track’s NASCAR has to offer — Richmond and Darlington — tune in for the circus that is Talladega. There are 40 cars in a pack and at any moment, hell could break loose. Once the big wreck begins, one driver might fly over another, while another driver might do barrel rolls into the pits, and another might take out the flagman. Four times a year, the best drivers in the top form of auto racing in the United States turn into carnival performers, so that fans can talk about it at the water cooler the next day.
“Everybody can get on the chip about it and get all excited about what just happened, but for the longevity of the sport, that ain’t healthy,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t care what anybody says. It’s good for the here and now — it’ll get people talking today — but for the long run, that’s not good for the sport, the way that race ended and the way the racing is. It’s not going to be productive for years to come.”
And if the fans are the reason some of the best drivers in the world have to play this ridiculous charade, maybe it’s time the fans stop accepting it.