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Time to address Talladega issues

OPINION

- Associated Press
Monday, Nov. 02, 2009

NASCAR will point to the 58 lead changes among 26 drivers as proof of a good race at Talladega Superspeedway.

But pushing those stats is much like a used car salesman trying to unload a lemon. You can spit-shine the product all you want, but a dud is still a dud.

Driver after driver griped about their sanitized Sunday drive, even as they turned laps around NASCAR's fastest track. A combination of a pre-race ban on bump-drafting through the turns, the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates that are used to control speeds, and the desire to be racing at the checkered flag led many drivers to utilize a conservative strategy for the first three-quarters of the race.

A track known for electric three- and four-wide racing had been reduced to a single-file parade lap for a large portion of the race.

It was so peculiar, many wondered if it was a unified 43-driver thumbing of the nose at NASCAR, which surprised the participants two hours before the race with a no-bumping edict.

It wasn't anything so contrived.

It was instead the watered-down results of a technology-driven sport that has far surpassed the limitations of the 2.66-mile speedway.

Drivers went into Sunday's race with one of two options: race hard for 500 miles and risk wrecking early in the action, or tick off laps for two-plus hours and turn it up a notch when the checkered flag was in reach.

"People know they shouldn't race yet, there's no need to," said three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who seemed to put his car on cruise control as he puttered around the back of the field until beginning his charge with about 75 miles to go.

"I know it's boring for everybody else, but we breathe better when it's single-file at the top. We know at the end, we'll bunch up and race. For me, it may have been more relieving than others because you can finally just ride around and log some miles. We can run 497 miles around here and it doesn't matter. It's just the last lap that counts."

The last lap mattered most for winner Jamie McMurray, who snapped an 86-race losing streak. Same for Johnson, whose strategy would have backfired if his nearest challengers had not run out of gas late, allowing him to vault to a stunning sixth-place finish.

But still, in the end, all the measures taken by NASCAR to improve safety and reduce the eye-popping accidents that have become a staple of restrictor plate racing were for naught. The final 10 laps were still marred by two frightening accidents in which cars went airborne -- bringing the total to four vehicle rollovers in two Talladega weekends this season.

Wasn't keeping the cars on the track the point of all the safety measures?

That's the dilemma NASCAR finds itself in after yet another emotional day in Alabama. The style of racing, a product of the unpredictability at Talladega, left fans and drivers alike unsatisfied, and the end result was still a garage full of wrecked cars.

It's time, once and for all, for NASCAR to find a solution.

"I don't think anybody wants to be out there and involved in what happens at the end -- dodging cars, seeing people flip upside down," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner. "Obviously there is something else that needs to be thought about. I am sure NASCAR will figure it out.

"But they are pretty hard headed over there, don't like to admit they are wrong sometimes."

Opinions vary wildly on how to fix the issue.

Earnhardt likes the idea of a smaller engine incapable of hitting 200-plus mph, an option that would allow the removal of the restrictor plates and create separation in the field. But in this economy, it would be difficult for NASCAR to ask teams to spend millions on developing specific motors that would be used only at the four annual plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is pressing for aerodynamic modifications to the cars that would prevent them from rapidly closing in on each other. But he doesn't have any actual solutions.

Ryan Newman, who has an engineering degree from Purdue, would love to offer some input. But after spending almost 15 minutes trapped in his car Sunday following his harrowing accident with five laps to go, he was hardly in the mood to offer any concrete solutions.

Johnson has twice this season called on track operator International Speedway Corp. to bring a bulldozer into Talladega and decrease the banking. Elliott Sadler wondered why NASCAR hasn't locked all its participants into a room for a series-wide brainstorming session.

Then there was Denny Hamlin, who had the simplest solution of everyone for NASCAR: Let the drivers race.

"The only rule that we should have is we can't line up and we have to race," he said. "You can't do it. As a driver, these guys are looking out for themselves and their teams; they want to be around at the end.

"We're not necessarily thinking about what the fans want to see at that point. It's just a tough spot because we want to put on a good show, we really do, and I'm more in favor of us going all out, but if you want us to go all out then you need to make this a 50-lap race."

NASCAR has many different directions it can take on fixing the issues at Talladega. The time is now to pick one.

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