TALLADEGA, Ala. – There are large garbage bins outside every garage stall at Talladega. After most races at the superspeedway, enterprising scavengers will scour these bins for some of the most valuable junk in sports: the colorful hunks of sheet metal ripped off cars during the inevitable Big One.
This Sunday, though, the bins were virtually empty. In a stark contrast to the usual state of affairs at Talladega, which renders at least a dozen cars unrecognizable and undriveable, the Camping World RV Sales 500 was a tame affair. In these days of team cheating, Chase rejiggering, sponsor defection and other PR nightmares, a controversy-free race at NASCAR’s most controversy-inspiring track must come as something of a relief to NASCAR, even if Jamie McMurray’s victory didn’t exactly ignite the imagination of the masses.
All right, Talladega wasn’t entirely tame. Austin Dillon didn’t exactly treat the No. 14 of sidelined Tony Stewart with respect, pinwheeling through the air on the final lap. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya tangled earlier in the race, sending Montoya home early. And Denny Hamlin’s engine gave way, sidelining him as well.
But, with all due respect to those hardworking drivers, they weren’t who the paying customers at Talladega came to see. This race was billed as a head-to-head battle between points leader Matt Kenseth and on-his-heels pursuer Jimmie Johnson, as well as the last best chance for anybody to close the gap on those two.
When it was over, when McMurray had won under caution and the metaphorical – not literal – smoke cleared, Johnson had stolen away the points lead by a mere four-point margin, while Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon all remained at least 26 points behind Johnson.
Because of the Chase’s points format, which saddles most of the Chase field with an impossible-to-close points gap within the first two races, Talladega holds a curious position. Because it’s so random, because so much can potentially go wrong for even undeserving drivers, Talladega puts fans in an ethically awkward position: if we want to see anything more competitive than a two-man Chase, we have to root for misfortune to befall Kenseth and Johnson.
And, indeed, NASCAR dangles the possibility of that misfortune at every turn. Broadcasters refer to “The Big One” with the hushed-yet-expectant tones of a teenager in the first reel of a horror movie. We all know what’s coming, don’t we…?
The Talladega Conundrum, wishing for a wreck just to inject drama back into the Chase, is a flaw of the Chase system, which punishes poor finishes far more harshly than it rewards good ones. It leaves drivers feeling relief rather than satisfaction at finishing Talladega in one piece. And it has enforced a kind of driving that could be described as – well, let’s not say “tentative,” let’s say “deliberate.”
As the laps wound down—20, then 10, then five, then two – drivers remained strung out in the dreaded single-file train, all running along the high line, no one wanting to go low without help.
“I’ve never seen guys have that much patience here in my life,” Jeff Gordon said. “So I was pretty shocked to see them holding that line like they did.”
“It was kind of sitting around waiting for something to happen, really,” said Paul Menard, who finished fourth. “You didn’t want to be the guy that made a move and nobody went with you. So there really wasn’t a whole lot we could have done there at the end.”
“The risk isn’t worth the reward” for going low, McMurray said after the race. “If you couldn’t get 10 guys to go with you, you’d be shuffled to the back.”
So that led to the world’s fastest parade, one that satisfied nobody except McMurray and his fans. Again, when the penalty for failure far outweighs the benefits of success, nobody in these conservative days of NASCAR is willing to make that leap. It’s a failure of perspective that the sport needs to address, and soon.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup now enters its final turns. Next up is Martinsville, a track where Kenseth has had modest success and Johnson is virtually unstoppable. Accordingly, it will be exceptionally difficult for anyone else to wedge their way into their race for this year’s Sprint Cup.
“The races forward now are up to where the competitors go earn it,” Johnson said. “You don’t have the luck issue that can take place at plate tracks … We just go racing from here, and that is the thing I’m most excited for.”
The garbage bins at Talladega, meanwhile, will have to wait for next April.