TALLADEGA, Ala. –At the epicenter of Earnhardt Nation, all seemed right again late Sunday afternoon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in more than a decade. His adoring legions raucously cheered in nearly sold-out grandstands. A ‘WINNER’ sticker signifying a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth was affixed to the No. 88 Chevrolet.
All seemed right about the feel-good finish that left a 12-time most popular driver on the verge of tears of joy in postrace interviews – except everything that transpired before it.
For the second time in its past four Sprint Cup races, Talladega’s reputation as the most thrilling of NASCAR tracks took a serious hit in the Geico 500.
Earnhardt took the lead off the final restart and didn’t face a serious challenge over the final 26 laps.
At a 2.66-mile oval renowned for its furiously entertaining scrambles and infamous for its sickening high-speed pileups, the finish featured a mostly single-file line that had more in common with the preponderance of processionals at 1.5-mile speedways that have NASCAR focused on tweaking its rules.
It would have seemed extremely odd if it weren’t so oddly familiar. In the October 2013 race at Talladega, Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag as a 500-mile race ended with a 15-lap parade.
This is a disturbing trend for a track that has built its reputation around photo finishes and furious charges to the front.
Of the 10 closest finishes in Sprint Cup during the two-decade era of electronic scoring, three have occurred at Talladega – more than any other track. In the final victory of his storied career 15 years ago, the late Dale Earnhardt zoomed from 18th to first in the final five laps – a virtually implausible scenario at any other track on the circuit.
But this increasingly isn’t the Talladega of yore. Over the past decade, a confluence of factors – a repaving of the track, new models of Sprint Cup cars, the rise and subsequent eradication of two-car tandems – have contributed to a decline in the late-race strategy plays that made Talladega so enthralling.
Something seems rotten in the state of restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s palace of speed. Is there any way to recapture it?
“If we could, we would,” Earnhardt said. “If we knew what makes the best package, we would put it on the cars. I know we would.
“But the cars evolve. They always have. We went from big old tanks in the late ’70s to the downsized ’81 cars, into Monte‑Carlos, big old Thunderbirds. The cars just continue to get smaller, bigger, taller, shorter. The sides get flatter. The quarter panels get longer. The cars are just always changing. That alters how they draft.”
The draft is the key to everything at Talladega, and there is a serious problem with how it currently functions in the waning laps when the leader settles into the top lane, and the field tucks in behind.
Earnhardt said surveying 43 Sprint Cup drivers would yield 43 answers on how to fix it. But there is a consensus on what’s broken: There is no incentive to risk pulling out of line to form the massive packs now needed to challenge the leader
Jeff Gordon led 47 laps, but he knew his chances were shot after speeding in the pits on his final stop and restarting in 31st with 26 laps remaining. That would have been an eternity to make a recovery at Talladega with a strong car years ago.
But on Sunday, Gordon knew he was toast. He settled for small gains and slowly crept into the top 20 before a last-lap spin.
“It wasn’t that no one was trying,” he said. “It’s that you’ve got to get organized. It takes a group to get it done. There was a lot of effort being made. I was one of them for a while. Then I realized it wasn’t going anywhere.”
Tony Stewart and a few others attempted to mount a counterattack in the bottom lane – and they paid the price by plummeting through the field without the immense drafting help needed to catch the leader.
“It’s not about trusting one (driver), you’ve got to trust 10,” Gordon said. “You can’t just go down there by yourself. When they’re lined up on the top, you need nine, 10, 12 cars to run in that lower lane to make it work. Even then it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work. You have to have the right cars.
“Guys would go down there, make a little of ground and then get shuffled back. It was like one step forward and three steps back. It’s frustrating.”
As Earnhardt put it Saturday, it’s about waiting until “hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”
It’s a far cry from his April 2003 win at Talladega. Earnhardt’s Chevy sustained damage in a multicar wreck on the fourth lap, but he was in the lead again just past the halfway point, and he outmaneuvered several strong cars with plate-racing savvy and skill.
Drivers can’t make as much of a difference anymore because their cars won’t allow it.
“They’re slower, they’re lazy,” Earnhardt said. “The runs we used to get years ago, man, you’d fly by guys, just dominate. The runs that the cars get, even with the great cars we have, are real lazy. You really aren’t sure it’s a run you need to take advantage of or not.
“I made about three real power moves (Sunday). Maybe 10 years ago you would get 20 of those in a race. The cars just were way more active, reactive to each other. Another thing about this particular car is they get stuck side‑by‑side. The side draft is so powerful that basically you get on the guy’s quarter panel, you start side drafting him to slingshot by him, he can counter you by side drafting you. You go nowhere.”
Earnhardt conceded Sunday if he were in the same position as Gordon, he would have been just as helpless.
“Man, if you get back there, you don’t have a chance,” he said. “If you’re sitting third, fourth, whatever, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘This ain’t a bad spot.’ “
As Carl Edwards put it, “it’s like a big sociology experiment. You’re waiting for one guy to go and everybody to follow.”
It’s known as a herd mentality.
Of course, the hordes of fans at Talladega didn’t care Sunday as they waved their No. 88 flag and saluted their hero.
All was right in Earnhardt Nation.
But it’s worth asking whether all will remain right at Talladega with more finishes like Sunday’s.