Talladega and Daytona Races: The Best Driver or a Coin Flip?

Jim FolsomContributorOctober 8, 2012

Drivers race in tight packs at Talladega.
Drivers race in tight packs at Talladega.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

After the race Sunday, as the whole field was being towed back to the garage on wreckers and nobody could figure out where their favorite driver finished, Jeff Gordon was asked about the half-empty grandstands.

Gordon said he couldn't understand where all the fans were and why they weren't lined up around the corner trying to get in to watch such exciting racing.

We do.

First off, we can blame the economy. Not everybody has an unlimited supply of cash like you do, Mr. Gordon. When your house is being foreclosed on, you don't really have any business buying race tickets.

But there is also another reason, and it also shows how "out of touch" NASCAR is. And that is this: the first couple of times we saw a race where the entire field was in it all day long, it was exciting. But now it's getting old.

Sunday, I watched the pre-race show and all I heard from Rusty Wallace, Ray Evernham and the people on this show was how scared everybody is when they come to Talladega, and how they hated to come there. Well, who wants to pay money to watch that? Would you pay money to watch people being tortured? Would you pay to see it four times a year?

Part of the fun of watching sports is thinking, "I bet that's fun to do. I wish I could do that." If you watch an hour of comments like, "This place is scary" before the event starts, that kills any of that excitement.

I've been watching NASCAR, and especially Daytona, Talladega's sister track, for a long time. I grew up in Daytona Beach and I cannot even recall when my first Daytona race was or how many I've seen. What I can recall is a day when the cars were tightly packed for the first few laps. That was the best part of the race.

But as cars spread out, the race was still interesting. There were things going on in the middle of the race. One car might get out to a fairly big lead. Then it was a question of how anyone was going to catch him. Sometimes, it came down to a late caution. Sometimes, it was pit strategy such as Richard Petty used to get his last 500 win in 1981. All of that is out the window now.

Now what you get is 180 laps or so of everybody in the same pack, everybody pitting at the same time, everybody getting shuffled to the back and working their way back up front with the help of other cars and then getting shuffled to the back again. The first 180 laps all look the same. They are high speed pace laps, only you're allowed to pass. Basically, the first 180 laps are all about trying to avoid getting in a wreck.

But when it's "go time" and you find yourself boxed in, you have to create a hole. And that is when the melees happen.

I was watching the race Sunday and for an entire lap I told my wife, "This is going to be bad." Now, if I can see a 30-car pileup a lap before it happens, where's the fun in that? Part of the reason you watch a race is the wrecks happen in a split second. If you can predict it, that isn't any fun.

Somewhere NASCAR got the idea that this was exciting racing. I understand where it came from. Many NASCAR races have one car run away from the field. The last part of the race is just plain boring. They didn't want boring for their marquee event, the Daytona 500. I get it.

But, sometimes the World Series is a four game sweep. Sometimes the Super Bowl is a blowout. What would fans think of those sports if they tried to make sure it all came down to the last play or last pitch?

As I said, I have been a fan of Daytona for a long time. There was nothing boring about Petty vs. Pearson in 1976 at the 500. There was nothing boring about Yarborough vs. Allison in 1979. There was nothing boring about Yarborough vs. Petty in the 1984 Firecracker 400—still the best race I've ever seen. There was nothing boring about Darrell Waltrip trying to stretch that last ounce of gas in 1989 and there was nothing boring about Jarrett vs. Earnhardt in the two 1990s races.

What was boring was in 2000 when the cars were so equal nobody could pass anybody. That literally was 200 pace laps. Worst race ever.

What happened at Talladega Sunday did not make the race great, contrary to what Jeff Gordon thinks. NASCAR is lucky they didn't kill anybody. Tony Stewart's car went up in the air. Once cars go up in the air, all bets are off. All the safety features on the car and on the track mean very little. That car can fly up into the grandstands or who knows where. Why invite that?

Figure something out other than equal cars. Get back to "old school" racing where the better the car, the better your chance to win. NASCAR thinks this "equal cars" stuff means it's all about the best drivers winning. And that is true up to a point. But, really, it's about pure dumb luck. The best driver on the circuit is more likely to get caught up in the "Big One" than he is of winning the race. That's not racing. That's a high speed coin flip.

And that, Mr. Gordon, is why many of us choose to stay home.