By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Maybe this NASCAR thing is going to work out OK after all. A victory by Chase Elliott at the Talladega Superspeedway in front of a big crowd capped a race under new rules that produced bellowing engines, more horsepower, greater speed and closing rates, not to mention more passing. The Geico 500 was, using some old-fashioned terminology, an excellent motor race, even if a last-lap caution meant Elliott didn’t race to the finish.
On the 50th anniversary year of Talladega’s opening, there couldn’t have been a better result than a nearby Georgia native and the son of “Awesome Bill of Dawsonville” getting his first win at the track where his father earned his nickname and set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record at 212.809 mph. This time, the cynics couldn’t crank the crank by suggesting Chase had received a special restrictor plate, because tapered spacers now rule.
As it was, Kurt Busch’s extraordinary re-start and assault on leader Joey Logano set the table for Elliott to move to the front with 4 laps to go. That was action aplenty. Chevrolet driver Busch’s aggression in his Chevy versus leader Logano’s Ford might not have been possible without the new rules package. Prior to the race, the jawboning by Chevy executives with its teams to encourage them to work together probably had something to do with Busch’s effort as well.
It was only a few weeks ago that a Facebook fashion, if not a thing, broke out that featured photos of empty grandstands at the Bristol Motor Speedway after a fine race on the half-mile bullring. The promoters at Bristol goofed by closing off certain sections of the stands, setting themselves up for vast empty stretches and photos by those who seem to love NASCAR’s fall from grace.
At Talladega, the promoters produced a full grandstand, and the sanctioning body got it right. There was some risk that came with speeds averaging more than 200 mph. One car, the Chevy of Kyle Larson, almost reached the top of the inside fencing after getting airborne during a last-lap schlemozzle. (It fell short of The Big One.) But the fact drivers had an additional 100 horsepower with the tapered spacers appeared to result in a little more patience and fewer cautions. Drivers were confident about being able to regain positions and a bit less inclined to throw audacious, wreck-inducing blocks. The overshoot by “Bubba” Wallace in the early laps that took out three other cars was the lone exception.
Prior to the race, I met a fan during the infield party known as “The Big One on the Boulevard” who seemed to sum up the attitude of lapsed fans. He had not been to a race at Talladega in three years, he said, and only came back due to the availability of three $500 spaces on the Boulevard, where the reserved plots are hard to come by unless you know somebody willing to give them up. “The racing’s not as good as it used to be,” he told me over beers.
If he had last fall’s race at Talladega in mind, he had a point. In that one, Kurt Busch led almost all the laps before Aric Almirola led only the last one for the victory. This after the Fords of Stewart-Haas Racing teamed up to produce a snoozer by drafting together.
It used to be fans always accused NASCAR of manipulating events to get a preferred outcome. Once the sanctioning body started using video to police the pit lane and intense pre-race and post-race inspections, plus penalties for those trying to “fudge” who were caught during inspections, the complaint became “too many rules”. NASCAR took much of the subjectivity out of the equation and fans jumped to a new island of woe over too much rule enforcement.
I must admit that my first thoughts about the new generation of rules for the restrictor plate racing were not positive. Prescribed nine-inch rear spoilers and splitters plus more horsepower sounded like NASCAR was sounding an alarm and dreaming up a prescription for ignominious failure. But on this occasion, “too many rules” and other such complaints did not seem to apply.
Yet, there were calls for a change in the rules. Twitter-dom had posts against the rule calling for the race to end on a caution if the leader has taken the white flag at the Start/Finish. Some fans insist on a race ending under green – or they feel like they are not getting their money’s worth.
In this case, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall on the front stretch without a caution being thrown as the pack continued to race across the Start/Finish. There are races, such as the Indy 500, where a caution is automatic if a car hits the wall, but that has never been the procedure in NASCAR. Instead, the race directors took a “wait and see” attitude about Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford, which appeared it might continue on the last lap.
The caution fell after a large piece of debris came off the No. 17 Ford that would have been dangerous for a pack coming back to the Start/Finish and the checkered flag. Ironically, a wreck occurred at the exit of Turn 2 at the tail end of the pack, which appeared to bring out the yellow. NASCAR could not have predicted the multi-car incident that collected Larson, among other drivers, and that’s not why the race ended under yellow.
Should NASCAR have thrown a yellow earlier for Stenhouse Jr.’s incident as soon as he hit the wall? Maybe so, but the opinion here is that NASCAR should not be in the business of guaranteeing overtimes. The last lap rule works well – if only because there’s no incentive to intentionally spin another driver to bring out a caution. Was NASCAR playing to the crowd, which would have liked to see an Elliott victory? Well, Elliott had to drive around a large chunk of material on the front straight after the race in order to do a last-pass victory lap in front of the grandstands.
At the end of the day, the sentiment appeared to be that NASCAR and its participants deserved to have a relatively safe and successful day at a track that was commemorating 50 years of extraordinary events. In any case, a good race in front of a good crowd at an iconic track was a welcome change.