T he pack was back, just not the real racing
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
May 07, 2012 | 1811 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TALLADEGA — Well, NASCAR, it didn’t work.

The thing that causes overheating in two-car tandems apparently does it in pack racing, too. Who knew?

So, those rules changes designed to discourage two-car tandems and bring the pack back to Talladega racing?

We sure didn’t see the long stretches of two-car-tandem racing in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, and we sure saw more three- and four-wide packs.

But it’s not exactly pack racing when drivers are so worried about overheating that they won’t stay on a bumper and push, is it?

Keep some daylight between you and that dance partner, young man. Otherwise, things might get too, ahem, heated.

Everyone sure talked a pack headed into Sunday’s race on NASCAR’s biggest track, and the race sure looked like a pack.

It didn’t exactly roll like a pack, which might explain why it took 142 laps to see the first accident.

It might explain why the race saw just four such mishaps and none bigger than the two 9-car metal manglers. The other two wrecks involved a total of five cars.

That hardly qualifies as a bona-fide Talladega “Big One,” and about Sunday’s biggest wrecks. The first 9-car accident started because of fuel miscalculations that caused drivers to check up in a pack, not hard racing.

The second happened on Lap 186 of a scheduled 188-lap race. Things always happen then, because that’s when drivers race hard at Talladega.

NASCAR achieved the appearance of the kind of racing Talladega fans know and love, but the new rules package really just achieved another form of not racing for most of the race’s 194 laps.

Or, as Jeff Gordon called it, “a joke.”

Sure, Gordon was hot. He got drawn into that first 9-car mishap, and it ended his day. The pole-sitter finished 33rd in the latest sad chapter of his hard-luck season.

But consider that his car was one of a season-high 19 that didn’t finish Sunday’s race.

That beat the 14 that didn’t finish at Daytona — the last place NASCAR used the same-sized restrictor-plate hole, grill opening and spoiler and release valve setting.

Of the 19 cars that didn’t finish Sunday, nine had some kind of mechanical problem. Regan Smith’s car became the first to overheat, just 17 laps into the race.

Of the 10 cars that DNF’d because of an accident, eight were involved in that strange Lap 142 incident that came as cars mysteriously started running out of gas.

It nearly happened two laps prior, when Jeff Burton ran dry but made a save in traffic to prolong the inevitable.

Again, the wreck didn’t happen because of hard racing in a pack bunched by those speed-regulating restrictor plates that have long impacted racing at Talladega and Daytona.

The drivers were trying not to stay bunched together. Thanks to rules designed to punish long pushes with overheating, they had to keep air on their grills.

They could push, just not for long.

It’s not two-car tandems strewn about Talladega’s 2.66-mile track like last year, but it’s hardly pack racing without sustained pushing.

Meanwhile, drivers like Gordon and Tony Stewart became so concerned with overheating that they dropped to the back of the field. They had to get air on their grills and cool for a while.

Drivers like Gordon warned of this Friday. Stewart bluntly said on Fox’s pre-race show that the first 50-75 laps would be practice, since the drivers didn’t run in packs much during Friday’s official practice.

Could NASCAR not anticipate this? The same thing that would cause overheating in two-car tandems would cause overheating in a pack.

Could NASCAR not at least anticipate that May temperatures in Alabama might well exceed February heat in Daytona, Fla.? Again, the rules package for the two races was exactly the same.

Credit NASCAR for trying to give fans what they want, within due concern for safety. Fans clearly prefer pack racing to the tandem lap running they saw at Talladega last year, and they got the appearance of pack racing Sunday.

Also, trial and error is part of any experiment, and NASCAR is usually good about adjusting when reality pokes holes in theory.

The realities of spring racing at Talladega poked a hole in the latest theory, a hole bigger than the 29 32nds of an inch that rules mandated for restrictor plates.

Now, the same minds that brought the pack back to Talladega should consider ways to bring racing back to pack racing.

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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