Gloom In Dega

Thank goodness for the optimists among us.

Today, the sunny-siders are looking back at the weekend past and looking only at the good fortune. Nobody got hurt on the track, and Jack Roush escaped death due to amazing good fortune in the form of Larry Hicks, that ex-Marine who was the right man at the right place and right time – an unbelievable story.

If not for the optimists, some of us might not only despair over the still-uncertain status of Roush's future (near and longterm), but we’d be forced to examine the so-called action of the past weekend and fret yet again over the godforsaken status of plate racin’.

For a while last week, our minds were diverted from the fact we were approaching another 43-car lottery at Talladega. Early-week focus remained very much on Kevin Harvick and whether or not NASCAR made the right call in benching him at Martinsville, and how he’d react in his return.

Others were keeping an eye on the Jeff/Brooke legal maneuvering, and how Jeff's lawyers filed a counterpunch that said Brooke isn’t entitled to such a chunk of the assets because, after all, it’s Jeff who’s out there risking life and limb each week (given that claim, the way I figure it, a lot of cops, soldiers and lion tamers are interested in which way this one turns).

And then, Friday night, came the horrible news about Roush. Regardless of what happened during the weekend, this was the news for which the week would be remembered.

But, for good measure, perhaps, we were given a jolting reminder just 15 laps into Saturday's Busch Series race.

“Oh yeah. Talladega. Almost forgot.”

They’ve taken to calling it “the big one” in recent years. This time, they could call it “the biggest one.” Twenty-nine cars. That’s well over half of the field. I’m not sure, but by the time they sorted things out and restarted the race, somebody named C.W. Smith was running in the top 10. Or was it C.W. McCall? Who could tell by that point?

There were so few cars remaining on the track, I thought I was watching the late stages of an IRL race.

“It was raining race cars,” was how Michael Waltrip explained it.

Surely that kind of thing couldn’t happen in Sunday’s race, not with the experienced drivers Winston Cup can offer. For the longest time it looked like they would indeed avoid it. But we should’ve known better. In fact, it’s only news when they DO avoid it.

Showing what experience and know-how can do, only 24 cars were involved in Sunday’s free-for-all. There are many fans, a few fans and, unfortunate a slew of NASCAR officials who will tell you that the restrictor plates aren’t to blame – instead, they say, it’s usually triggered by driver error.

If the drivers would simply be content to follow each other around and mind their manners, everything would be fine. Instead, amazingly, they want to race. Imagine that. And when the competitive juices take over, mistakes can be made. And when hamstrung horsepower keeps everyone within spitting distance of the other 42 cars on the track, mistakes are often magnified (you may have noticed).

We can argue all day about whether or not NASCAR should put the drivers in an environment much more dangerous than that which they’re familiar (which is dangerous enough, by the way). But even if you take away the safety factor, there's really nothing to like about plate racin’ – not from a competitive standpoint, anyway.

I mean, come on, Geoff Bodine was sniffing the lead in the closing laps. Nothing against Geoff, but aside from Daytona and Talladega (and occasionally a road course), where else can a part-timer threaten to win a Cup race? A Ward Burton can go from 25th to third in a matter of three laps, and announcers act as if he’s the next Junior Johnson. But when he goes back to 20th on the next lap, it’s like he forgot how to drive. There’s plenty of strategy, a certain amount of know-how in the draft, and the usual reliance on equipment, but by and large, nothing matters in plate racin’ like good old-fashioned luck.

Sure, expectations of the unexpected keep you riveted to your seat, but then again so does a big-money game of Bingo.

I don’t know the answer to the plates, and neither do you, though you (and so many others) think you do. Someone, sooner or later, will find an answer. But since this is more and more about show business every year, and since nothing provides the theater of an unpredictable Daytona/Talladega race, I’m not so sure those in charge really want to find a solution. I’d bet on later, not sooner.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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