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How do you solve a problem like Talladega?

3 November 2009

On Saturday evening, Juan Pablo Montoya broke the tension of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a visit to Six Flags over Georgia, a sprawling amusement park outside Atlanta.

At Six Flags, you'll find a wealth of gigantic roller coasters. Metaphorically, a roller coaster is exactly what drivers found at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

For those who haven't ridden one lately, a roller coaster starts with a long, slow, steep climb, as the cars are pulled up an incline. As the riders approach the crest, adrenaline starts pumping, heart rates escalate and anticipation of the imminent thrill ride reaches a crescendo that's part excitement, part fear.

A minute or two later, the high-speed ride is over.

Amusement park patrons typically stand in line for lengthy periods of time before boarding the popular rides. But what if you had to wait another hour for the car to climb to the top at a snail's pace?

That's what Sunday's Amp Energy 500 at Talladega felt like.

Concerned with the aggressiveness of the bump-drafting and push-drafting it saw in Friday's practice, NASCAR issued a succession of stern warnings in both the spotters' and drivers' meetings before Sunday's race. NASCAR always warns drivers not to bump-draft in the corners at superspeedways, but in this instance, the embargo seemed particularly emphatic, and drivers took it seriously.

“They tried to take away an opportunity for us to wreck,” said sixth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson, who rode around at the back of the field for most of the race. “But I think we all knew it was coming. On Friday they sent some feelers out. In (Saturday's) truck race there were some more opinions floating around of what could and could not take place.

“I think we all knew about it coming into the race. So we weren't blindsided.”

The only problem was that there was more drama in Friday's practice - with Michael Waltrip pushing Johnson around the 2.66-mile track and getting black-flagged for his aggressiveness - than there was in the first 90 per cent of Sunday's race.

As drivers tried to get a feel for NASCAR's stricter enforcement of the no-contact-in-the-corners rule, they raced single-file around the top of the track. As green-flag pit stops approached, there was jockeying for position, but, for the most part, spotters on the roof spent as much time during the single-file runs talking to each other as they did to their drivers, trying to figure when, and with whom, the drivers would ultimately make their moves.

Until lap 185, when Ryan Newman's car tumbled end-over-end in a multicar wreck on the backstretch, the preceding 184 laps were the slow climb to the top of the roller coaster hill. Six laps later, after the inevitable 'big one' (a 13-car wreck) caused the race to end under caution, the brief thrill ride was over.

In other words, it was feast or famine, as far as action was concerned.

“If they have to drive a little bit differently, it may take a half a race or a number of laps or miles - or a race - to get used to driving in that fashion,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. “I think we're satisfied with the way the drivers controlled themselves. Not every race is a barn-burner, but I do recall many races - and some of them that are in the 500-mile, 600-mile length - that guys do what they do to log laps to get to the end of the race, because it doesn't pay anything to lead a third of the way through.”

Fans in the stands, however, pay to see the entire race, and for much of Sunday afternoon, they saw a freight train of stock cars running in line lap after lap.

Admittedly, there's a delicate balance between safety and aggressive racing, and for NASCAR, it's a moving target, as drivers interpret not only the rules but the mood of the sanctioning body.

Suffice to say that no one has solved the Talladega conundrum yet. But with drivers asking facetiously for NoDoz during the race and calling it boring afterward, figuring out how to create excitement on the superspeedways without destroying half the field ought to be at the top of NASCAR's to-do list.


by Reid Spencer / Sporting News


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