Jeff Gordon remembers when racing at Talladega Superspeedway was fun — but that was long ago.
The 2.66-mile track historically breeds multicar accidents — and the last lap in Sunday’s race was no exception, when Tony Stewart pulled down to the bottom of the track to protect his position and ignited a 25-car wreck in Turn 4.
Gordon drove through the smoke and debris to finish second to race-winner Matt Kenseth. Half of the field wasn’t as lucky.
“I don’t really know how we made it to the white flag,” Gordon added. “Coming through that tri-oval, being hit from behind, hitting the guy in front of me, you’re sandwiched in between basically cars. There are cars doing the same thing on that side of you, cars on that side of them doing the same thing.
“It was just insane. But you’re doing all you can to try to move your lane and hope that you make it back around. In today’s case, we did.”
When sixth-place finisher Greg Biffle was asked what he saw at the finish he replied, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been involved in in my life.”
Over the radio at the finish, Biffle described the action behind the wheel as “like being in a video game.” It just didn’t seem real to him. But for the nine drivers that ended up in the infield care center for the mandatory checkup after the accident, and the teams that watch their cars return to the garage on wreckers, the racing was very real.
“It’s not safe,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led 18 laps before he was collected in the wreck and finished 20th. “Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s blood-thirsty if that is what people want. It’s ridiculous.”
Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte described the incident as “a $3-million lap.”
Earnhardt insists that wrecks are inevitable with the current car package. And he believes that if the sanctioning body wants to continue racing under these rules that “NASCAR should build the cars. It would save us a lot of money.”
Some drivers such as Kenseth, who also won this year’s Daytona 500, simply adapted the gameplan to suit the racing.
“When they went to the strips on the roof and everything, it drastically changed restrictor-plate racing,” Kenseth said. “It used to be when I started here it was very difficult to pass. If you could stay in the lead and stay at the bottom, it was hard for people to pass you. There was no pushing and tandems. There wasn’t any of that.
“The first couple years we try to make a strategy. Let’s all hang back. Let’s go up front, but if it looks scary, let’s go to the back. Honestly, we got tired of it, so I think (crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig) and I talked about it last July before Daytona. We decided the fans pay a lot of money to watch us race. These guys pay me money to drive the race car fast. We just race hard every lap. We try to qualify the best we can. Go up, try to lead the most laps we can, and put ourselves in position to win the race and not really worry about all that.”
Kenseth acknowledges that “there is no safe place” on tracks such as Talladega and Daytona. Drivers must accept their fate and race. For Kenseth, being at the front of the pack has resulted in an average finish of second on restrictor-plate tracks this season.
“You’ve got to race sooner or later,” Kenseth said. “The last lap is the last lap. Everybody’s trying to get to the front. I’d rather already be there if we can be.”
NASCAR will debut a new car model for 2013. For now, it would be premature to prognosticate whether it will have any effect on the current style of restrictor-plate racing. Teams will simply have to load up their trucks four times a year and hope to survive.
“Do we have a choice? I guess we do, but I don’t feel like I really do,” Gordon said. “It’s just part of racing here at Talladega. You have to accept it. You have to know that you’re going to be going through that at certain times during the race, but at the end, for sure, especially with a green-white-checkered.
“You put a lot of faith in your safety equipment and you kind of white-knuckle, hold on tight.”
Still, with only 88,000 fans the grandstands — the lowest since NASCAR began recording attendance figures — it’s questionable whether it’s the economy or this style of racing that’s keeping people away. Gordon believes that from “an entertainment standpoint” the loyalists should be filling the stands.
“That I don’t get at all,” Gordon said. “That makes no sense to me. So there’s got to be something more to it. If I’m a race fan, I want to see two- and three-wide racing all day long, passing back and forth. I want to see guys shoving one another. I want to see the big one at the end of the race because guys are being so aggressive, and knowing that is not something that as a fan you could ever imagine putting yourself into and sort of defying danger.
“Why they’re not lined up out to the highway is beyond me because I think they should be.”
After all, shouldn’t the risk should be worth some sort of reward?
Now you see it, now you don’t
Penske Racing President Tim Cindric posted a picture on Twitter of Brad Keselowski emerging from the Big One running in fourth position despite the fact that the No. 2 Miller Dodge was scored seventh following the race with the caption: According to this photo, @keselowski looks to be 4th when the caution flew?
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the sanctioning body took nearly an hour to ascertain the finishing order of the top 15 cars.
“When it comes down to the end of the race, you freeze the field,” Pemberton said. “You have that time, but we score it by all means. We have a lot of video, a lot of replay and things like that. It’s about maintaining reasonable pace and other things.
“Once they saw the video, they were good with it. If you froze the field, there was a car (No. 14, Stewart) on its roof that would have been ahead of other cars, too, and that wasn’t the case. As we walk through these things, everybody appreciates the effort that we took. Once we show them the evidence and where cars merge in, everybody understands. There’s always a discrepancy or an argument over one spot here or there, but once you talk through things everybody understands.”
After crew chief Paul Wolfe and other team principals reviewed the situation, Cindric sent out a follow-up tweet: "NASCAR ruled @keselowski didn’t maintain speed."
Keselowski extended his points lead to 14 over Jimmie Johnson.
4: DNF’s on restrictor plates tracks for Jimmie Johnson in 2012. His average finish at Talladega and Daytona was 32.5.
38: Laps led by Jamie McMurray, who held the point nine times during the race but spun out with five circuits remaining in the race.
245: Laps led by Matt Kenseth on restrictor-plate tracks this year.
When Keselowski was told he had a 14-point lead after the race, he replied:
“That’s pretty big. I just feel lucky to survive Talladega.”