It’s a NASCAR theme that plays out as regularly as the seasons on the calendar change—in fact, it occurs seasonally, as NASCAR’s four restrictor-plate dates reside in February, May, July and October: The perils of “pack racing” at the sport’s largest venues, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Quarterly, television commercials sell viewers on the promise of intense, white-knuckle, photo-finish action, complete with a major-league version of the local Saturday night Demolition Derby.
Make no mistake, the selling points are true. Horsepower-sapping restrictor plates put a ceiling on the power each engine produces. The result is a giant pack of sleek racecars, jostling just inches from one another at nearly 200 mph.
The spectacle is undeniable; the outcome all-too-predictable. Drivers, hellbent on leading the only lap that counts—the last one—fight for every inch of real estate in the race’s final circuits. Inevitably, the paint-swapping turns too aggressive and savagery commences.
Such was the case on Sunday, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its fall pilgrimage to Talladega, Ala., home to the 2.66-mile behemoth superspeedway, with its lurching tri-oval and 33-degree-banked turns.
Filling in the event’s template this trip, it was Matt Kenseth that avoided the big wreck on the final lap of a green-white-checker overtime finish, taking the win. Sunday’s version of the “Big One” was, in fact, an actual big one, as 25 cars piled into one another.
Tony Stewart accepted blame for this trip’s destruction, which occurred as the 30-car pack barreled through Turns 3 and 4. Defending the lead, his ill-timed block of Michael Waltrip’s surging machine ignited the grinding melee that saw Stewart’s car turn upside down, only to land on all four wheels. He, along with all others involved, walked away physically unharmed.
“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across Michael (Waltrip) and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was.
“I was trying to win the race. Michael got a great run on the bottom, a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across Michael’s racecar. Just a mistake on my part that cost a lot of people.”
Kenseth, meanwhile, had the good fortune to be on the high side of the three-wide pack. As chaos ensued behind his Ford, he had clean track in the windshield and sailed through the tri-oval unchallenged to take the checkered flag.
Somehow (and there’s always a “somehow” in these wrecks) Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch skated past the mess and finished second and third.
Kenseth, as most race-winning survivors state, had little insight into what happened. After all, he was in front of the incident. The obligatory, “I’m really proud to be in Victory Lane with these guys; they worked on it hard today,” and “I don't know how that happened,” was all the victor could muster.
However, other drivers—even those not involved— had strong words about the style of racing on NASCAR’s two largest tracks.
“At the end you know it’s going to get aggressive,” Gordon said. “It started to ramp up, so you’re pretty sure there’s going to be a caution, and then with the green-white-checker, you know you’re not making it back to the checkered (flag).
“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, I really do, and I haven’t experienced that in a long, long time. I don’t like coming here. I don’t like the type of racing that I have to do.”
The most unlikely critic this time (and there’s always at least one post-race critic), was the man who once championed pack racing: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it, I will just put it to you like that,” said Earnhardt, who was swept up in the accident and finished 20th. “If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.
“I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”
But return the series and its band of driver will. Daytona testing is scheduled for January while Speedweeks at the same facility culminates with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
And the same story will be written then. Just insert here the race-winner’s quote, offending-party’s name and number of cars involved in the last-lap crash.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro