Here are two really interesting reactions to yesterday’s Talladega 500, which was won by Jamie McMurray and pretty much guaranteed a fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for Jimmie Johnson.
This is reaction No. 1 – an email from a friend of mine who's one of the most knowledgeable fans I know, after the race finished:
"The only thing missing from the procession through the first 175 laps at ‘Dega today were the funeral flags on the hoods and the police escort."
This is reaction No. 2 – a remark from my 12-year-old son who’s not really a race fan but happened to look in when the 43 cars were running four-wide (yes, four wide):
"That’s a disaster waiting to happen."
Both observations were particularly astute. That race was about as exciting as a funeral procession – until all hell broke loose not once but twice with less than 10 laps to go.
I don’t find restrictor-plate racing (which pretty much guarantees everyone will run at the same speed) particularly exciting because it means one thing and one thing only: big wrecks. They had two dandies yesterday and we’ll address them both in a moment . . . but first.
NASCAR might find this surprising but I don’t think all that many people are really all that turned on by huge accidents because, a) they are terrifying to watch when they happen, and b) it takes a long time to clean up the mess afterward and crashes only make those already stupifyingly long races even longer.
But NASCAR thinks wreck-‘em races are wonderful. They must – or they wouldn’t continue to promote them. But just wait till Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Johnson gets killed (and each and every one of them, at one time or another, has complained about the insanity of restrictor-plate racing and how dangerous it is) and see what the reaction is then.
When Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at Daytona in 2001, it forced NASCAR into action. Mandatory use of the HANS device resulted and the much-safer Car of Tomorrow was a direct result of research into automobile safety in the event of violent collisions. The Tony George-University of Nebraska-developed SAFER barriers were also installed at most tracks where NASCAR runs.
In short, though, it took the death of the most popular driver in NASCAR at that time before the sanctioning body got serious.
Is it going to take another death of a Big Name before NASCAR scraps restrictor-plate racing?
Now, the first wreck at Talladega yesterday was eerily reminiscent of the crash that killed J.D. McDuffie at Watkins Glen, also in 1991. The car of Ryan Newman got upside down after colliding with cars driven by Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick and came down hard and flat on its roof and stayed upside down.
In the case of McDuffie, he was killed on impact of the car’s landing. Newman, yesterday, had a really close escape because almost the same thing happened: the roll-cage was jammed down as far as his helmet. It took the speedway’s safety crew nearly 15 minutes to cut through the roll cage tubing and to get the sheet metal off in order to get Newman out.
Like others before him, Newman was very vocal afterward about NASCAR’s attitude toward its drivers.
And then, with just a green-white-checkers finish on tap, Brad Keselowski slipped up and before you could blink 13 cars crashed – including those driven by Mark Martin (who was also upside down although his hit wasn’t anywhere near as hard as Newman’s) and Jeff Gordon. Those two guys had either been at the front or near the front all afternoon and wound up 28th and 20th, respectively. It pretty much ruined their chances of catching Johnson in the Chase.
Johnson, meanwhile, had been hanging around the tail end of the field all day and somehow managed to avoid the carnage and came home sixth. He can clinch his fourth straight championship by averaging a tenth-place finish in each of the final three races.
Kasey Kahne was second yesterday and Joey Logano was third.
They’ll do it all over again next Sunday at Texas. Let’s hope the rabbit’s foot in NASCAR’s pocket holds.