Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, May 4, 2015, 11:02 a.m.
It’s okay to like restrictor-plate racing.
Really. It is.
In this age, it’s popular to say fans don’t go to the races to see the wrecks. It’s popular and also untrue. It’s laudable. It’s the same way people claim they want more local news in their paper but wouldn’t read a story about the school board if they were standing in front of a firing squad.
Or the school board.
As I’ve written many times, and as recently as last week, fans don’t come to see death. They come to see death defied. No track is more defiant than Talladega Superspeedway.
Plus, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won. All it cost fans was the price of admission. Over the weekend, a few bones cracked, lots of metal crumpled, and everyone got what they came for, which was, in many cases, the No. 88 winning and a chance, several times, to say, “God Almighty! I hope everybody’s all right.”
The Geico 500 was survival of the fittest. The fittest was Earnhardt Jr. What could be better than that?
Undoubtedly, these words are going to produce several who will say they absolutely do not want to see wrecks, just a good, clean race, but yet the grandstands were mostly filled, unusual these days, and I’m guessing the television ratings will see a nice, healthy boost. (As it turns out, I was guessing wrong.)
Most sports produce cringes of excitement. It’s not much different from football. Few of those fans claim they hate bone-jarring hits. They hate it when people get hurt, but it’s a distinct possibility.
People were disappointed in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Why? Not enough hits, as best I can gather. I haven’t had much interest in boxing since it left Muhammad Ali punch-drunk, but I liked it up until then.
I guess there are hockey fans who don’t like fights. Watch the background on replay, though, and observe them. Not many are shrinking in revulsion. More are watering at the mouth, and a few are foaming.
If anything bewildered me, watching the Geico 500, it was how the racing seemed reversed or, at least, premature. For the first three quarters of the race, the action was two, three, and four wide, and I was wondering, do these drivers know the race has 100 more laps to run?
Then, at the end, they all got in one line, and anyone who didn’t conform to this rather moribund sense of order all seemed to get punished for it, and I was wondering, do these drivers know it’s almost over?
What happened to, well, if you can’t win the race, at least tear up the car?
Oh, they tore up some cars on the last lap, anyway, perhaps as a result of some of those who had taken a chance trying so hard not to be punished for it that … they got punished for it.
Talladega is a great center of the very barbarism that lingers in society and somehow inspires it to advance in the 20-car Draft of Life.
Life is hard, no matter where you go. It’s a tortured path. Tough roe to hoe. Yes. It’s from one of my songs, “The Paved Road,” which has little to do with NASCAR, or at least I wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote it.
The notion that anyone can win at Talladega and, to a slightly lesser extent, Daytona, is true but not overly enlightening. Inexperienced drivers think it, but, over time, the good ones get a special knack for nuance at a place that seems about as nuanced as an artillery barrage. Some are better than others. Some develop patience at a place that seems about as patient as flailing at a baseball that’s bouncing in the dirt.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is such a driver. His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, was such a driver. Junior once finished first or second in seven consecutive Talladega races, winning five of them, but, then, for slightly over a decade, playing Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi didn’t seem to work … until Sunday, when the Force was essentially a teammate, Jimmie Johnson, covering him in another Starfighter.
Return of the Jedi?
That metaphor wears a little thin. The race fell more like a poker game. They dealt and redealt the cards all afternoon, and, at the end, Earnhardt Jr. got a great hand and could stand pat while everyone else was rummaging through their pockets, discarding cards and drawing others, trying and ultimately failing to stay in the game. It didn’t hurt Earnhardt that most of them mainly bluffed.
The father was coy while performing at his best track. He left a lot unsaid. About the best he’d reveal was a knowing glance.
Earnhardt Jr. summed up his victory perfectly.
“I certainly hope [the victory] was a little bit of me,” he said, “but I know it was a lot race car.
“The car gives you the confidence to make the moves that make you look good. It’s the car really making it happen, but you’ve got to know what to do with it. You’ve got to put [the car] in those situations where it can excel, you know, and it can do the things it’s capable of doing. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart had the boldness, not the help. What happened to them happened on its own, or, rather, their own.
The surprise of the race, rookie Ryan Blaney, didn’t have the help, either. Some will criticize him for just staying in line and behaving, but there was no way drivers who wouldn’t help Stewart or Gordon were going to take a dive of faith with Blaney, who had to be aware that other drivers were treating his Wood Brothers Ford as if it were radioactive all day.
Had the rookie gotten crazy, he likely would have wound up in the mass of spewing smoke and crumpling metal.
Blaney played it right, and the right guy, Earnhardt won, and now everyone can sigh and thank the Lord for a good, safe race.
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