For much of the first half of the Coke Zero 400, 43 (or so) of the world's best (or close enough) drivers toured Daytona International Speedway at speeds of around 200 mph, getting close but not TOO close to one another. This was pack racing, this was anything but 2x2 racing, this was speed and skill and ... and, let's be honest, this was boring as hell.
Ah, but all we needed to do was wait.
The carnage began, as it so often has this year, with one Kurt Busch, who decided that going three wide into a corner when nobody had even come close to attempting such a feat all night was a good idea. He got squirrelly and got into both Aric Almirola and Trevor Bayne, and that was all it took to set off the first of four catastrophic wrecks. Before the night was done, several of the sport's biggest names would be spending a fair amount of time in the infield care center, and some would see their Chase chances dim.
This was undoubtedly a sharp departure from the ride-around green-flag parade that dominated the first half of the race, but did it qualify as good racing? Most of the drivers didn't think so.
"Frustrating describes this whole type of event," said Carl Edwards, who would finish seventh. "It's very difficult. It's great when you're out front, but any other spot you're just really trying hard not to wreck and not to try too hard and ruin your day or other people's day."
Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among those with cars strong enough to win that ended up pointed in the wrong direction. Gordon saw his best chance evaporate during a bizarre pit-road incident in which he and others were taken out while completely unaware. And Greg Biffle had one of the strongest cars of the night, yet still found himself wrecked on the final lap thanks to ... well, his own actions: "I just turned down in front of the 29. He got a hell of a shove off the front of Junior, I just watched the replay, and just shoved him in that hole. I'm like, 'It's impossible that somebody could get into that hole that quick,' but he got squirted off the bumper of the 88 and shot in there. It was my fault."
This is the logical outgrowth of what fans want, the always-present "unintended consequences" that seem to accompany every NASCAR action. Jeff Burton, who finished an uncharacteristic second, was in a diplomatic frame of mind at his postrace press conference, and he summed up today's restrictor-plate racing style effectively: "You kind of get whatever race they [NASCAR] want to do with the rule package. They wanted to separate tandem racing and they've done it. They've made it where you can't push anybody for too long. You can do it for three or four laps maybe at the end of the race but you can't do it at any other time ... But I'm not going to judge the quality of races. That's just not my place. I have a perspective that's different than perhaps a fan's perspective, but they [NASCAR] have been known to make changes to get the race what they want it to be."
So how do you win one of these? Ask the winner, Tony Stewart: "I think we just survived the wrecks. I mean, you look at where we were at when they happened, they happened right behind us each time. The track position that Steve [Addington, crew chief] got us, that was very key. I mean, if we got stuck fourth or fifth on back, we were going to be one of those cars that got caught in the wreck. Fortunately we were ahead of them both times."
There you go. We've got one more of these restrictor plate races this season, and it'll come right in the middle of the Chase. Think any driver in the hunt is going to get any sleep the night before Talladega this year?