CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two weeks, two races and two very contrasting versions of NASCAR.
The response to NASCAR’s last two races, at Talladega and Martinsville, couldn’t be more contradictory.
Talladega, fans screamed, was horrible! The two-car tandem racing stunk up one of the most anticipated races of the year, and seasoned superspeedway fans blamed a clunker of a car and a no-good rules package for ruining their beloved race.
All was right in the NASCAR world a week later, though. Why? Because Martinsville was mayhem from the drop of the green flag.
Sunday’s race was marred by a season-high 18 cautions for a season-high 108 caution laps, making for a sloppy, choppy race that struggled to find any rhythm. Hey, look, there’s Brian Vickers causing a wreck! Oh, no, Carl Edwards is a lap down! Wait, now he’s back on the lead lap! Was that Vickers, again?
On and on it went, almost four hours, until, finally, Tony Stewart used a powerful pass on the outside of Jimmie Johnson to win his third race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Great finish, popular winner and a topsy-turvy championship race.
But was it a good race?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was.
“I think this was a great day for NASCAR, and I think this kind of racing is exciting and people really yearn to see that style of racing,” he said. “Please, build some more short tracks, we need some more short tracks. All these 1.5-mile tracks. I know you can get more seats or whatever but they just don’t really turn everybody on, you know? So I think this was a good day for NASCAR.”
It’s a totally different tone than the one NASCAR’s most popular driver had a week earlier, after riding around at the back of the Talladega field with teammate Johnson until it was too late to make a charge to the front.
“Bored,” was how Earnhardt summarized Talladega in a sentiment shared by many.
So what’s the difference?
Both races had exciting finishes — Clint Bowyer used a last-lap pass of teammate Jeff Burton at Talladega to win his first race of the year — and both races wreaked havoc on the championship battle.
But Talladega lacked that spark everyone expects from NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track. Fans are used to 500 miles of hold-your-breath racing, where cars run in a 43-car pack and one small mistake can create the celebrated “big one” accident that wipes out half the field.
What they got, though, was a real life game of leap frog, where drivers worked in two-car tandems and took turns pushing one another. Some teams strategized and hung around the back of the pack all day, others made vows to work only with certain people on the track.
In the end, it just felt kind of flat.
Not Martinsville, though.
The paperclip-shaped track was the setting for Sunday’s demolition derby. Drivers used their cars as battering rams and left behind a long trail of broken parts and boiling tempers.
“People just have no regard,” said Denny Hamlin, a four-time Martinsville winner who presumably knows how to get around the track.
“I would get into guys and then I know it’s coming — I’m going to get slammed in the next corner. It’s just one of those things where it’s frustrating to watch because you see some of these cars getting torn up in accidents. Accidents happen and some of these drivers need to realize that.”
But taking a level-headed approach isn’t very fun! Just ask the many fans who will chalk the Martinsville wreck-fest up as one of the best races of the year.
So it’s the wrecking, then, and all the drama that goes with it, that fans really like, right?
NASCAR wasn’t pleased with how Talladega unfolded, and series officials will use the four months between now and the 2012 season opener at Daytona to examine ways to break up the two-car tandems. Although a Nov. 15 test at Daytona is for electronic fuel injection, there’s no doubt NASCAR will look at anything under the sun that might revert racing to the way it used to be at Daytona and Talladega.
It’s more than likely, though, that NASCAR wasn’t all that thrilled with how Martinsville unfolded, either. When Bobby Labonte and Kasey Kahne wrecked during that final three-lap period, the yellow never came, which Kahne took as a clear sign of exasperation from the NASCAR scoring tower.
“I think NASCAR was ticked off,” he said. “There was five cautions in, like, five laps. So they were like, ‘The heck with it, we’re not throwing a caution for this one.’ Even though we hit pretty hard. That was the hardest wreck I’ve ever been in where there wasn’t a caution.”