Sunday, November 1, 2009

Did NASCAR Go Too Far Policing The Talladega Race?

Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Expecting the typical on-track action on the final restrictor plate race on the 2009 schedule, this past Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway has become more remembered for the action that didn't happen. Concerned with the aggression of Sprint Cup drivers during opening practice on Friday, NASCAR reacted to the untamed driving with a stern warning to all competitors forbidding bump drafting, or any contact through the corners. NASCAR warned they will actively watch the race during the driver's and crew chief's pre-race meeting indicating also severe penalties may be pending.

The effect of NASCAR's word put all drivers on a tight leash compared to the way they are able to race in the spring Talladega. On at least four occasions during the Amp Energy 500, almost the entire field formed into a single file drafting train void of any passing for approximately 20 laps a piece. Ultimately, NASCAR threat of penalties went untendered to any driver as only a few blanket warnings were issued. Amp Energy 500 race winner Jamie McMurray said in a post race interview "When I listened to Mike Helton (NASCAR President) describe what they wanted, you could tell it's going to be very hard to police 43 people." With McMurray understanding to the need why NASCAR needed to warn competitors against contact within the corners, second place finisher Kasey Kahne also reacted neutrally to NASCAR's orders responding "Yeah, I felt fine with it, really." However Ryan Newman, whose #39 Chevrolet was tapped into a violent flip and crash near the end of the race, railed on NASCAR in frastration feeling perhaps that NASCAR's policing of aggressive drafting early forced risk-taking deeper into the 500 mile distance.

As NASCAR experienced abundant growth through the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, the emerging sports body knew that their formula was a winning ingredient for an exciting family-friendly event. The sport's expansion to present day brought new drivers, new venues, new cars manufacturers at the eventual loss of certain respected NASCAR staples. To NASCAR, the loss of 4 drivers in stock car racing competition (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr, Tony Roper and most significantly Dale Earnhardt) would greatly affect a once passive nature of NASCAR to their race formula. From the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, NASCAR considered all parts of the sport of stock car racing as flexible in the name of safety.

While NASCAR had been cited unfavorably for influencing the race finishes with their deployment of cautions, NASCAR's first hard procedural change in the Cup series happened in 2003 when they would freeze the field under caution and allowing one lapped car a "Luck Dog" or "free pass" around the leader. Prior to the rules, Cup series cars were permitted to race to the start/finish line settling positions in this race to caution with the leader granting or fighting unlimited lapped cars around to gain a lap back in competition. While NASCAR brought the change in to prevent potentially race racing back to the line Some fans felt NASCAR took something away from the sport by instituting a procedure.

However, the noise loyal NASCAR fans created with the field freeze rule would only be a whisper compared to the enduring uproar for the Sprint Cup Car of Tomorrow (COT). Again promised to be safer, NASCAR expressed that this newer generation stock car would enhance competition for the series. Arguably the contrary proved true as the COT appeared and behaved unnaturally with the big Sprint Cup superteams still dominating race by race. In fact, the 2007 debut of the COT at Talladega was accompanied with similar alerts from NASCAR on bump drafting. Comparing the 2007 race to the 2009 Talladega race, at least the drivers were able to try and make a half-decent battle on the track in this year's race.

Ultimately proving unpopular with true stock car fans, NASCAR's influence on the on-track product will either be seen as an unwelcomed intrusion or simply the way the race must be run.

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