Synchronized Boredom

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Congratulations Rusty. You too, Tony. Good job Mark. Hey Jeff, way to go.

If all you boys would do a quick limb count, you'll see you're all in one piece, and for that, you deserve a pat on the back.

Oh yeah, you too Bobby. An extra pat for you.

It was Bobby Hamilton, after all, who got the bonus. He not only brought home all the wheels and fenders after 500 miles at Talladega, but in this high-speed game of musical chairs - where racing basically gives way to a game of chance - Hamilton was in the right place at the right time when the music stopped.

Forgive me for not gushing over what happened at Talladega on Sunday afternoon. Relieved, yes. Thankful we're not calling a hospital for updates - or worse, yes. But genuinely excited about what we saw Sunday afternoon? Please.

This was much like going to an air show and watching the Blue Angels. It was precision driving - synchronized swimming, without the water and fake smiles. Maybe someone saw something I didn't, but from this vantage point, it looked like 43 men out there with one goal: To show up this coming weekend in California.

And, obviously, you can't blame them. Restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega has taken a turn for the hairier since last fall, with new aero rules dog-knotting an already bunched field into the type of pack usually reserved for the start of the Boston Marathon.

This was more about survival than racing. And while we're all for survival, a little racing here and there makes it easier to accept the cost of that ticket.

Sure, there were a record number of lead changes for Talladega, and others will point to Hamilton's pass of Tony Stewart on the outside with a few laps to go and say, "Hey, who can ask for more than that?"

But come on. Right place, right time. Sure, there's a little bit of know-how involved when it comes to putting yourself into the position necessary for late-race heroics. But with a rules package that equalizes the field from top to bottom, driver skill and equipment advantages are overshadowed by pure happenstance. Look where Dale Jarrett finished (18th)… or Sterling Marlin (23rd).

Said Jarrett: "That's not racing. That's just the luck of the draw."

Said Marlin: "We had a good car, but we just got boxed in the back. There was nothing else we could do. It's pretty ridiculous racing. It's crazy. It's like you're riding down the interstate and you've got four slow drivers in four lanes and they're all in front of you and you can't go anywhere."

Said Ricky Rudd, who finished 14th: "Today the racing was all about getting the right track position."

The instinct is to point at NASCAR and say, "Do something!" But they're somewhat helpless to the situation, and also held prisoner to those who have to sell tickets and commercial time for these races.

Mechanical aces much smarter than you and I have been working over a decade to find an alternative to the restrictor plates, but can't make something work. A costly yet seemingly fool-proof alternative to the plates would be to shave down the high banks at Daytona and Talladega, which would force drivers to brake through the corners - thereby holding down speeds.

The shave-the-banks solution has been floated for several years by many folks, including Benny Parsons and Jack Roush. But those banks were the pride and joy of Big Bill France. And nowadays, when Bill Jr. hears such talk… well, you'd have a better chance of convincing the Egyptians to take down the pyramids.

So we're stuck with what we have for the near future, at least. They survived Sunday thanks, in part, to talk at the prerace drivers meeting. NASCAR President Mike Helton gave a Dutch-uncle warning to drivers about "leaving the playing field" - do not, he warned, get caught driving under the yellow line, or you'll be black-flagged.

That warning prevented the type of wildness we saw during Saturday's Busch race, where Jimmy Spencer (of all people) got bullied by winner Mike McLaughlin.

Also during the prerace gathering, Michael Waltrip pleaded with his fellow drivers to mind their manners. And they did. With very few exceptions, it turned into one big happy Sunday drive - only thing missing was Martha Stewart giving the starting command.

"That's not racing," said Spencer. "I don't know. It's racing, but it's not racing the way we were taught to race. We were taught to beat one another and not be lifting off the throttle all day long. There's no strategy, nothing really, just give. You let them go, let them go and keep lifting off the gas."

What makes it all so frustrating is, there's no one to really blame. NASCAR needs to keep the speeds down to a reasonable level in order to feel like they're protecting the paying customers (airborne sheet metal makes everyone's heart stop), but they also want to give the fans tight racing.

This, however, is too tight for their own good, and the sooner they find a solution, the better.

"The only strategy really was not to wreck," said Matt Kenseth, who was 19th when the music stopped. "For a while there we had a pretty good car and we could stay up front pretty good with the leaders, but everybody could. Everybody was pretty even.

"If somebody did cut you off, everybody let off the gas and let 'em get in their hole," added Kenseth. "So it's good there was no wreck and it's good it went green all the way. It was good nobody got hurt, but other than that, for me, it's not much of a race. It's a good race for the fans to watch, but we're not really racing out there. We're just kind of riding around."

Suddenly, even California Speedway looks inviting. You won't have long to wait for truly great racing again, however, since Richmond arrives in two weeks.

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