TALLADEGA, Ala. — The problem with Talladega, Tony Stewart says, is that there aren't enough wrecks.
"Honestly, if we haven't crashed at least 50 percent of the field by the end of the race, we need to extend the race until we crash at least 50 percent of the cars," Stewart said after climbing from his car. "It's not fair to these fans to see any more wrecks than that, any more torn-up cars. I mean, we still had over half the cars running at the end, and it shouldn't be that way."
Look, let's stress this right now: Stewart was joking. It was sarcasm. Obviously an owner/driver doesn't want to see more wrecks. But he was absolutely deadpan, with none of the wry wit or sarcasm that usually enfolds his jabs. And with his interview-as-performance art, he was making a point: If this is what the fans want, why not give it to them?
Some more samples of this, one of his strangest interviews in a career marked by bizarre on-camera and on-the-record performances:
• "If we could make [Talladega] a Figure 8, it would absolutely be perfect here. It would be better than what we have."
• "I'm upset that we didn't crash more cars. That's what we're here for. I feel bad if I don't spend at least $150,000 in torn-up race cars going back to the shop. We've definitely got to do a better job at that."
• "That's what the fans want, they want to see that excitement. I feel bad that as drivers, we couldn't do a better job of crashing enough cars for them today."
• "The racing was awesome. It's fun to be able to race and have to watch the gauges at the same time. It just adds that much more. Being able to make yourself run on the apron and everything to try to get clean air, it makes it fun."
Stewart's performance was so convincing that Chevy had to take the unusual step of noting that he was speaking with a "tongue-and-cheek [sic] manner," lest anyone take his words seriously. Though even on video, Stewart certainly looks dead serious.
Sure, Stewart is aiming the bile he usually reserves for the media at the fans who demand millions of dollars worth of motorsport carnage every time the series comes to Alabama. But he's hitting on the key issue that divides NASCAR drivers and NASCAR fans: the need for drama via wreckage, particularly at Talladega. This, after all, is NASCAR's most famed automotive graveyard, where small wrecks become large and large wrecks become The Big One. It's fantastically entertaining to a large segment of the NASCAR populace, and this year Talladega has been billed as the antidote to the allegedly "boring" extended-green-flag racing we've seen at Texas and Kansas in recent weeks.
But in a weekend where Eric McClure hit the wall so hard that more than a few observers feared the absolute worst, you can forgive drivers for not sharing in fans' — well, let's not call it "bloodlust," let's call it "enthusiasm for automotive destruction." When asked about Stewart's perspective, that fans place too much emphasis on wrecks at Talladega, Kyle Busch gave a measured but definitive answer.
"For me, whatever Talladega and Daytona is, it's a restrictor-plate race," he said. "That's what we all know going into the weekend. Some of us love coming here, some of us dread it. I'll be the first one to admit I hate restrictor-plate racing. You don't have control of your own destiny ... Everybody is fighting for every square inch you can get."
Matt Kenseth, on the same podium, declined to comment. He smiled at Busch and said, "Glad I passed on that one."
But Brad Keselowski has a different take, informed in part by the fact that he's won twice at Talladega in four years:
"As a race car driver, you walk a fine line between being a daredevil and a chess player," he said after the race. "I look at chess matches — not a whole of them on TV. Sure as hell don't get 100,000 people to come to the match ... This [track] might be a little bit more to the daredevil site, but I'm all right with that, because we go to places where it's more to the chess-player side. That's balance. I'll live with that and I'll be happy."
There's always a disconnect between what fans consider good racing and what drivers consider good racing. It's led to the repaving of some tracks (Bristol and Kansas, for instance) and the outright removal from the schedule of others (Atlanta). But nowhere is that gulf more evident than at Talladega. We return here in five months. Start funding those car-repair accounts now, owners.
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