Sports

Talladega: a tame, lame Sunday drive

TALLADEGA, Ala.

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

But pushing those stats is like a used-car salesman trying to unload a lemon. You can spit-shine the product all you want, but a dud is 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 use a conservative strategy for the first three-quarters of the race.

A track known for electric three- and four-wide racing was 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 the 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 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 result was still a garage full of wrecked cars.

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

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