TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t happy — far from it.
That’s understandable. In a split second, Earnhardt’s hopes for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship were swept away in the final corner at Talladega.
A victim of a 25-car last-lap crash, Earnhardt finished 20th in Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 and fell to 11th in the Chase standings, 51 points behind leader Brad Keselowski and a pocket full of miracles away from his first Cup title.
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it — I’ll just put it to you like that,” Earnhardt told reporters after the race. “If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.”
Jeff Gordon dodged the wreck and finished second. Yes, Gordon survived the war of attrition, but that did little to mitigate his aversion to racing at NASCAR’s biggest restrictor-plate track.
“That literally is bumper cars at almost 200 miles per hour, and I don’t know anybody that likes that,” Gordon said.
The Hendrick Motorsports teammates said essentially the same thing, that under the current configuration, cars are forced to race in such close quarters that maneuvering is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.
“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun,” Gordon said. “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 . . .
“But I do remember times when the draft and the thought you had to put into it — the strategy working the draft and the cars in the lines — was fun. You had some room in between the cars, and you had to use the air instead of the bumper.”
Earnhardt’s father, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., was the master draftsman, the tactician who could “see the air” around the cars and act accordingly. With the competition package at plate tracks today, maneuvering means shoving the car ahead of you and hoping for the best.
“We can’t get away from each other, with the bumpers lining up and everybody pushing all the time and spinning each other out,” Earnhardt said. “That’s no good. It’s not working. Somebody needs to change it.”
That “somebody” is NASCAR, and recent tests of the new-generation 2013 cars suggest the new package is headed in the right direction.
Kasey Kahne tested the 2013 Chevrolet SS at Talladega on Wednesday and remarked that the performance characteristics of the new car may lead to some noticeable differences in plate racing. For one thing, the new cars feature shorter spoilers and noses that don’t align as comfortably with the rear bumpers — making the prospect of pushing much more of an adventure.
Aerodynamically, the 2013 cars are different, too. Kahne could feel a difference while drafting in groups of five or six cars.
“I felt like you could get bigger runs on the cars in front of you,” Kahne said. “I went from third to the lead out there, because (Jeff) Burton came up behind me — he didn’t hit me, he just came up from behind me.
“I think if you can feel it today with not near as many cars, you’ll definitely feel it more when the speeds pick up and you have that many more race cars on the track.”
Whether it’s possible to return to the drafting of a bygone era remains to be seen, but NASCAR is trying. Over the past two years, the sanctioning body has made a concerted effort to minimize the tandem “love-bug” racing that was a turnoff to the majority of fans.
Before the introduction of the current-generation race car in 2007, Bobby Hamilton, Mark Martin and Earnhardt Jr. won caution-free races at Talladega, in 1997, 2001 and 2002, respectively. Today, the so-called “Big One” at the plate tracks is more than likely. It is inevitable, despite the sort of skill and car control exhibited throughout Sunday’s race by the likes of winner Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Gordon, for starters.
The biggest myth may be that, even though drivers don’t particularly like the current style of plate racing, fans love it.
“From an entertainment standpoint, they should be lined up out to the highway out there,” Gordon said. “That I don’t get at all. 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 threeâ€‘wide racing all day long, passing back and forth. I want to see guys shoving one another.Â
“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.”
Then why aren’t they? Estimated attendance at the fall Talladega race has dropped from 160,000 in 2006 (the year before the Car of Tomorrow debuted) to 88,000 on Sunday, despite the best efforts of the track to provide enhanced amenities and more comfortable seating for the fans.
Blame the economy, if you will, but also recognize that fans are discerning when it comes to the product they are watching. Perhaps the fans feel, as many drivers do, that the balance at plate races has swung more toward randomness and luck and away from the skill required to work the draft at 200 miles per hour.
The 2013 cars could address some of those concerns — and NASCAR needs to make sure that happens.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.