Race Weekend Central

Darlington 2003 vs. Talladega 2011: 2 Photo Finishes, 1 Clear Winner

The Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch finish at Darlington back in 2003 holds personal significance to me beyond being the closest finish NASCAR has seen since electronic scoring came to be. It was ultimately the race and the episode that turned stock car racing from a curiosity into a consuming passion for me.

Over eight years later, I finally witnessed a finish that at least, in terms of margin will go down as the equal to that dramatic episode of the Lady in Black. And I can safely say that despite the razor-thin margin of victory, despite the fact that six cars crossed the finish line at Talladega within milliseconds of each other to decide a 500-mile race, despite seeing a furious last-lap charge take the fifth-place driver to first when the pay window opened, this one doesn’t even come close to stacking up.

Anyone that watched the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 back in 2003 should remember just how, well, different, that Sunday on the Track Too Tough to Tame felt… and not just because Saturday had seen no racing (the Nationwide Series was rained out and run that Monday). From the drop of the green flag, early cautions and contact on-track were prevalent; cars were dropping like flies, the commentators noting how bluntly obvious it was that the Cup field was getting after it in a big-time hurry on this race day.

It was hardly a surprise to see this race come down to the result that it did, Busch and Craven beating the living daylights out of each other for nearly half a lap coming to the checkers, crossing the stripe in a cloud of smoke with Dave Blaney charging hard, within a few car lengths of stealing the win himself. It was a mano-e-mano engagement, a single-car team getting it done against a five-car superteam, the quiet, methodical Craven getting the best of the still brash Busch.

The same couldn’t be said for this Sunday… because Saturday had already set the tone and it was a drab, dreary reminder of what Sunday was going to bring at Talladega. That, of course, was the two-car tango that’s become the current restrictor-plate fashion of choice.

Racing in pairs, individual drivers were either reduced to two, uncomfortable decisions each lap: be steered by someone else, or rely on the driver in front to keep them out of harm’s way. Drivers dumped by their drafting partners, be it Mike Bliss on the bumper of Joey Logano (who also dumped Brian Scott earlier in the event) or Scott spinning Michael Annett late were only able to shrug it off… because they knew that without that partner, actually competing for the win was simply out of the question.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Aaron's 312 at Talladega

Talladega’s new asphalt, still silky smooth without a sign of weathering meant that tires and handling proved to be non-issues for drivers to handle, making it hard to justify running 312 miles. Conservation was reduced from tire management, improving setups and balancing the need to last with the need to keep one’s self up front to simply being sure to duck out from behind a dance partner once in a while to get air into the radiator.

And last but not least, the plate races that are so often referred to as “opportunity races,” events that have produced surprise winners such as Mike Wallace‘s 2004 triumph at Daytona, gave actual Nationwide fans a brutal teaser and nothing more; Wallace came within a half a lap of having a shot at the win, only to end up on his roof while Kyle Busch and Logano Buschwhacked their way to another victory. Sure, David challenged Goliath; but when Goliath still crushes that slingshot, does the fact David put up a fight really matter?

Turns out that harsh reality would happen twice. Go figure… Sunday (April 17) played out just like Saturday down in Alabama.

Drafting partners proved to be their teammates’ undoing (Logano again, this time wrecking Kyle Busch). Tires and handling proved to have no impact on the race at all, making the case for a 499-mile distance extremely hard to make. And the “opportunity race” for the second day in a row was violently ended, this time with Blaney literally getting the boot from the lead draft by Kurt Busch with less than 10 laps to go.

That said, there’s plenty of arguments that fans of today’s Talladega could make. Some do enjoy the two-car drafts. Some have no problem with the big guns being up front during all days of a NASCAR race weekend. And some couldn’t care less about who’s finishing where, as long as the finish is as close as this Sunday’s was, one that saw Jimmie Johnson top Clint Bowyer by literally a matter of inches.

But the biggest difference here was seen after the race and how the competitors on track handled their narrow victories and defeats.

After taking the checkers at Darlington and heading to victory lane, Craven did have Kurt Busch meet him there. But the discussion was what one would expect. Busch congratulated Craven, both reveled in a spectacular race… it’s just there was a clear winner. Craven had gotten the best of Busch and no one would argue otherwise. Two incredible racecar drivers did battle, doing themselves and teams justice, but there was a hierarchy when all was said and done.

That’s not the case this Sunday. Johnson’s last-second charge to victory came not because of a well-played move that he made and that was something another driver should follow, but was facilitated because of a teammate deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that was reached well before that final scramble to the checkers. Dale Jr. didn’t make the move to go with Johnson because it was the right thing for him to do it — he did it to stick with his teammate and partner.

The commentators and Johnson’s crew were both right in noting that Dale Jr. won Sunday’s race as much as Johnson did. And though he dismissed such talk once Johnson gave his teammate the checkered flag on his victory lap, there really is an argument to be made that Dale Jr. deserved some kind of trophy for his role in the finish.

So the score sheets may well say this Sunday what happened at Talladega equaled what was seen in 2003 at Darlington. But those finishes, by and large, are equal on the score sheets only. On this Sunday at Talladega, no matter what the pictures say, there wasn’t a driver that can safely say he was the better wheelman in Alabama. Driving a package that absolutely requires a dance partner, a manner of driving and a role for each driver depending on their position within the pair is frankly removed from racing — more like a form of synchronized driving at high speeds.

Take it to the stunt tracks, boys.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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