Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Multiple Yellow Issues, Fan Woes & ARCA Goes Old School

ONE: NASCAR Threw Saturday’s Yellow Way Too Early

There’s no denying that Mike Wallace‘s flip to end Saturday’s Aaron’s 312 (April 17) was both a crushing disappointment for Nationwide Series regular fans and a scary moment all wrapped into one. But for NASCAR to end that race nearly half a lap short of the finish as a result, with the field having already passed the wreck in turn 3 was both a disservice to the fans and competitors… and completely unnecessary.

The field had already cleared Wallace’s wrecked No. 01 machine after he landed (upright, for that matter). The race was far from decided; Kyle Busch and Joey Logano had indeed taken the lead, but between Brad Keselowski, Joe Nemechek, Elliott Sadler and others, there were a million storylines capable of playing out over the final half-lap. And Talladega? That’s a huge freaking racetrack, with a full mile of racing still to go at the time of that wreck.

So what was stopping NASCAR from sending the safety crews out onto the backstretch immediately to tend to Wallace, while the rest of the field raced to the checkers – again, over a mile away? Hard to say. Keep in mind the field then had the whole sweeping banks of turns 1 and 2, along with the backstretch to get slowed up after the checkered flag. It certainly wasn’t a consistent call, either; Clint Bowyer crossed the finish line on his roof in the 2007 Daytona 500 but that race ran to completion under green anyway.

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

And it’s probably way too much of a stretch to say that NASCAR threw the flag trying to manufacture a finish, although it probably made ESPN’s day to have Kyle Busch prove his awesomeness by winning again instead of some series regular or small-timer that would require a deviation from the template post-race story. No, what was seen Saturday was nothing more than NASCAR again demonstrating just how rudderless it really is.

Scarcely one year removed from “Boys, Have At It,” the Nationwide Series was robbed of one of the few compelling finishes it was likely going to see this season. In a 2011 that’s still being dominated by the big guns, the tower got trigger happy to pull a yellow flag and unintentionally shot another one of them into victory lane.

Then again, maybe there’s something to be said about the TV argument. After all, ESPN was running late on their time slot… and it’s no secret that the France clan would love for races to fit in easily broadcasted boxes.

TWO: The Yellow-Line Issue is Anything But

After Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stormed to a last-lap victory on Sunday, it was only a matter of seconds before Twitter starting screaming yellow-line controversy. Replays showed the No. 48 diving tantalizingly close to it; so was Johnson’s pass legal? Did being the dance partner of an Earnhardt suddenly give Mr. Five-Time the same dominion over the out-of-bounds marker that allowed Junior to suspiciously win the 2003 event at the same track?

Or was this one simply a matter of writers and fans alike not having enough to talk about after a decidedly canned and uneventful Talladega race? All signs point to yes. The action being seen on restrictor-plate circuits these days has little to offer those wanting to see competitors duke it out mano y mano. Instead, what you get resembles more of what fans see on the slot racetracks under tents outside the stadium – cars streaking back and forth at varying speeds until the event is over.

So of course, with Hendrick Motorsports dominating the finishing order and Earnhardt being the driver ultimately responsible for scoring the No. 48 car the win this Sunday, what better failsafe story than Earnhardt and the Land of Subjective Yellow-Line Calls at Talladega?

Please. Watch the replays. Johnson’s position was not advanced under the yellow line. Did he touch it? Yes. Did he go under it to advance his position? No.

So give Johnson the checkered flag and the trophy. And if he wants to give some of that to Earnhardt, so be it. Who cares who got the hardware? Sunday wasn’t a race and there sure as hell wasn’t a winner.

THREE: The Fans Seem to Agree… See Attendance

While maybe not as big a story as Bristol struggling to draw 100,000 for its spring race last month, seeing thousands of seats in the upper deck of the frontstretch at Talladega covered with a banner is not a sight that was even conceivable a few years back. Sure, ‘Dega, just like every other track out there, has taken its lumps courtesy of the economy. And for as bad as Bristol was in March, proportionally Talladega had a much better showing when the green flag dropped on Sunday afternoon.

But as Daytona and Phoenix showed earlier this season, there’s still a market where the product is good. The Daytona 500 is still a tremendous race… plus, no one had seen the joke of two-by-two racing play out the way it would over Speedweeks. And Phoenix, well, Phoenix capitalized on the Trevor Bayne phenomenon and delivered a stellar finish of its own between Busch and Jeff Gordon.

Bristol’s struggles, as much as it is poetic justice that a race community responsible for some of the highest price-gouging seen in NASCAR is now unable to fill hotel rooms, have been found to be a product of dissatisfaction with the oval’s new configuration as much as the cost of traveling to the middle of nowhere for a weekend.

And it seems that Talladega may be enduring a similar fate. The only pack action that could be seen this weekend came at 8 a.m. local time on Saturday morning courtesy of a rescheduled ARCA race… and chances are fans that were stuck in their tents and campers all night, dodging storms were likely not even awake when those cars took to the track.

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

Until the economy truly recovers (meaning unemployment actually drops significantly while gas and food prices aren’t going up exponentially every weekend), it will be impossible to tell if it’s the on-track product or hard finances that are responsible for continuing attendance woes at some of the sport’s most popular tracks. But the racing is changing… and the numbers aren’t improving. The mere chance of a correlation between those trends is downright scary.

FOUR: The 2011 ARCA Title Chase is Looking Old School

Looking for an old-school battle for a series title? Well, record ARCA champion Frank Kimmel now sits fourth in points with the restrictor-plate races, long his Achilles’ heel on that stock car circuit, behind him for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, courtesy of a perfectly timed move heading down the frontstretch on the final lap, young gun Ty Dillon shook off a disappointing season opener at Daytona to score his third career win in only five ARCA starts, firmly putting the RCR No. 41 team at the front of the field heading into the season’s first short-track swing at Salem and Toledo.

There are two takeaways from the first race of the season that wasn’t full of part timers tackling Daytona, the event that will likely go down as the real start of the ARCA campaign. One: this year might be the one that Kimmel truly challenges for a title driving his self-owned No. 44 car. Restrictor-plate races again have always, even in Kimmel’s heyday driving the No. 46 Tri-State car to eight consecutive titles, been the weakest link for one of the all-time greats.

Yet, Kimmel made it through this year unscathed, meaning he now sits in prime position to make noise on two Midwestern bullrings that he has all but owned in the early parts of May. Two: Dillon’s going to win a lot of races this year. He’s batting .600 for his career, for crying out loud.

After an off year last year that saw a plethora of young guns, from Patrick Sheltra to Craig Goess to Tom Hessert duking it out in a rollercoaster title chase, 2011 is looking to be back to business as usual for the ARCA ranks; Kimmel vs. the new gunslinger in town.

It’s a shame Salem isn’t being televised.

FIVE: It’s a Standalone Nationwide Weekend?

It’s a weekend for the Nationwide Series to stand on its own two feet. Yet Busch is racing. Logano. Carl Edwards. Brad Keselowski. David Reutimann. The entry list is a paltry 43 cars. And of those entries, a minimum of six are guaranteed to start-and-park. Add those numbers up and that’s a quarter of the field who’s either not racing or double-dipping.

Might as well run the Cup cars at Nashville, right? Because this weekend’s shaping up to play out just like any other companion show.

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