It’s a fine line – usually a split-second bobble or a mistimed flick of a steering wheel – between breathtaking exhilaration and bone-chilling dread at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sunday might have confirmed the margin is just as narrow with rules changes at the 2.66-mile oval.
The well-intended removal of ride-height restrictions (to help reduce the likelihood of cars getting airborne) might have seemed benign on its face, but it produced the most ill-handling pack of 200-mph missiles at Talladega in years.
From the moment Cup drivers took the wheel (and surely from the moment Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet barrel-rolled down the backstretch seven and a half times early in Friday practice), there was a general unease about the dearth of drivability in the pack.
Confidence helps in the literal death-defying environs of a restrictor-plate race, and when things get extremely skittish, a single line usually forms – a quasi-sit down strike in which drivers effectively log laps with the tacit understanding that everyone plays nice until the final 100 miles.
But the difference Sunday was that even when drivers wanted to force the action, they couldn’t. With cars low to the ground and lacking downforce and stability, scooting to the front was as tough as it’s ever been at the track where Dale Earnhardt famously charged from 18th to first in the final five laps of his last win.
The 25 lead changes were the fewest at Talladega since 20 in the Oct. 11, 1998 race, but it wasn’t an anomaly – the total lead changes in each of the past seven races were 30, 26, 31, 37, 30, 27 and 38 after a stretch in which 13 of 18 races from 2005-14 featured at least 50 lead changes. (Per an astute number-crunching fan, quality passes also hit a record low for the spring race at Talladega.)
Racing at Talladega has been creeping this way as increased emphasis on handling has lessened the free-for-all nature that normally has defined NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track.
As Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long postrace Sunday, handling has become so important to performance, winning teams bring cars better suited for downforce than raw speed (a concept that once would have been unheard of at Talladega).
And approaching a plate race as if it were an event at Kansas, Charlotte or Chicagoland seems to produce a different brand of racing.
Rather than form the massive packs with rows three wide and 10 deep, drivers for at least one championship-contending team were instructed before Sunday’s race to avoid heavy traffic (and the pileups that invariably occur with it).
There still were two multicar crashes, one triggered by a seven-time champion losing control.
Has NASCAR made the cars too difficult to drive at Talladega?
NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell indicated Monday that there would be no changes for the July 7 plate race at Daytona International Speedway, which is understandable given that the 2018 Daytona 500 produced a highly entertaining spectacle with the same rules.
But on the next trip to Talladega in five months, it might be wise to restore drafting confidence via stability. When the Drivers Council meets with NASCAR this week, the feedback might be “if you give us a larger spoiler or a minimum rear ride height, we will race better.”
Yes, the tradeoff might be higher speeds (presuming last Friday’s plate change is reversed) along with the increased likelihood of cars lifting off the pavement and going airborne – the preventive reason that restrictor plates were introduced 30 years ago to choke down horsepower (after Bobby Allison’s car sailed into the Talladega catchfence in the May 3, 1987 race).
But if the fan reviews were as mixed as social media indicated, it could be a move that NASCAR is forced to make, just as it was in the elimination of tandem drafting because of vehemently negative feedback.
Unfortunately, a cardinal rule of restrictor-plate racing is that safer isn’t always better for the show.
Sunday’s most intriguing storyline easily was Chase Elliott taking umbrage at receiving no drafting help from Ford drivers, and he didn’t mince many words about it.
In the absence of any visits to victory lane by the “New Kids On the Track” (with apologies to the moniker coined by Eddie Gossage, most boy bands would be playing shopping malls if they took this long to score a No. 1 single), the shade thrown by Elliott toward veterans Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch made for a delicious reminder of a potentially simmering narrative. (Especially given Harvick’s recent digs at the youth brigade’s lack of success.)
It also was a welcome departure from a typical Elliott interview, which is always polished and professional but sometimes can feel slightly rote.
It’s good for NASCAR if the driver most likely to be named most popular in December is comfortable and confident with speaking his mind so bluntly (and consistently in multiple postrace interviews).
The first clue this wasn’t the most eventful Talladega race ever?
Maybe it was that the race’s buzziest social media item was an enormously large power saw.
NASCAR could use a decent feud right now.
The best hope for a compelling 2018 rivalry remains the much ballyhooed generation gap, and it’ll take some results to stoke those flames (Talladega winner Joey Logano, who turns 28 this month, actually is young enough to be in the youth movement, but his 10 seasons of experience disqualifies him).
Bubba Wallace led five laps Sunday in finishing 16th (his fourth top 20 in six races), and an eighth last month at Texas Motor Speedway (where he kept Harvick behind him for three dozen laps) also was a “huge confidence-booster,” as were some words of encouragement from crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.
“The young guys, we’re coming about, we’re getting there,” Wallace told NBC Sports.com after a Tuesday morning sponsor announcement. “You look at what (Ryan) Blaney is doing, I put him at the top of all of us right now. Him and Larson. It’s cool to see what we’re all doing in trying to get there. For us, it’s going to take a little bit more. We’re a smaller team on a smaller budget.
“I was devastated about the finish at Bristol (where he led six laps but finished 16th), but Drew says we’re the smallest team taking like 25 percent of the big team’s budget and outrunning them with it, and that’s what you have to look at it.”
Logano led the final 42 laps at Talladega, a track that once produced a minimum of 87 lead changes in three straight Cup races.
During the Talladega plate era, that’s the third-most consecutive laps led to the checkered flag by a winner, and Logano also holds the second-highest total (45 in his Oct. 23, 2016 win).
The record for most consecutive laps led to end a Talladega plate race? Davey Allison led the final 71 on May 3, 1992.
A humble request: Can we stop referring to accidents involving several cars as “The Big One” (ack)?
It’s a crash. It’s a pileup. It’s a wreck.
And there’s a certain level of gravitas that should be employed with describing the violence of a 200-mph collision.
It demands a label more befitting and less flippant than something that possibly could be confused with the title of an Aerosmith album.