Whether you are outraged or pleased by the controversial decision by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to hold back rather than go aggressively for the win late in the Aaron's 499 Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, there is another legitimate question the incident brought to bear.
Earnhardt openly admitted afterward to Tom Jensen of Fox Sports that he lingered back in part because he already has one win this season and probably won't need another to get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but did this admission expose a possible problem with NASCAR's new rules governing who qualifies for the Chase?
The disturbing answer is yes.
As in "it is possible." But honestly it is hard to imagine what Earnhardt did becoming an epidemic in the highly competitive, testosterone-fueled world of Sprint Cup racing.
All season long, NASCAR has reaped nothing but praise for the changes it made in the offseason regarding how drivers qualified for the Chase. And rightly so. It has, on the whole, made the racing better throughout the first 10 races of the season, as drivers scramble more than ever to earn victories that almost certainly will guarantee their participation in the expanded 16-driver Chase field.
The Chase is essentially NASCAR's playoffs, which determine the season's champion over the last 10 races.
But now we have seen how the new rule actually can have the opposite, unintended effect.
Having won the season-opening Daytona 500 to virtually guarantee himself a spot in the Chase, Earnhardt laid back in the closing laps of the wreck-filled Aaron's 499 at Talladega.
He told Jensen that he wanted no part of the crazy action that was happening in front of him, that he didn't want to risk injury and that he felt justified in not going all-out for the victory because, well, he already has one this season: "It's hard to drive up through there. The track is three-wide forever. You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck anymore here. So, you've just got to pick your battles."
Jensen also wrote that Earnhardt was blunt in his reply when asked if the possible reward of making an aggressive run at the end of he race was worth the risk. "Not to me," Earnhardt replied. "We already got a win and like I said, I've been in too many late-race wrecks. I didn't want to be no part of it."
Many fans were outraged by Earnhardt's decision and took to Twitter to express their displeasure:
Other fans applauded his decision, saying he played it smart:
Both sides have legitimate arguments.
It's hard to imagine someone with the last name of Earnhardt not racing all out for a victory at the end of a big race—for any reason. But it has long ago been established that Junior is not his father—in driving style or other facts of his life. And folks who aren't OK with that by now, well, they never will be.
That is not Junior's fault.
Besides, on the other side of the argument, it is very difficult to chastise someone who suffered a concussion in a late wreck at Talladega that caused him to miss two 2012 Chase races for playing it safe under the circumstances that played out last Sunday. Why risk such an injury again, especially this early in the season?
But the fact of the matter is that Earnhardt no doubt would have been much more aggressive at the end of last Sunday's race if he didn't already have a win in his fire-suit pocket. That scenario could possibly play out for other drivers who have one or more victories in some other pre-Chase races—perhaps especially so if two teammates are going for a win and one already has one, but the other doesn't and needs it to qualify for the Chase.
If so, that will be an unintended, unfortunate and largely unforeseen byproduct of an otherwise seemingly great rule implemented by NASCAR governing who gets into the Chase and how. It might even turn into last year's Richmond race scandal all over again, but on a larger scale.
Joe Menzer has covered NASCAR for years and has written two books about it. He now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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