TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s on to Talladega Superspeedway, where the focus Friday was on engine temperatures and tandem racing and everything that factors into the fast Alabama track.
But as everyone turned their attention to Sunday’s race, there was still a slight hangover from the dramatic decisions that altered NASCAR’s last outing.
A late penalty took Carl Edwards out of contention for the win Saturday night at Richmond, and a caution for debris gave Kyle Busch the opening to take the victory away from Tony Stewart. After finishing third, Stewart complained the debris was nothing more than a plastic bottle that provided zero threat to anyone on the track.
Both drivers left Richmond unhappy with NASCAR, but both had cooled by the time they got to Talladega.
“There is nothing else that I can do,” said Edwards, who was penalized for jumping a restart. “I am satisfied with that personally, that I did everything I could do and that is that.”
Stewart also seemed resigned to simply accepting the final outcome.
“It looked like a bottle to me, but the end result is the same thing: it still cost us an opportunity. It still cost us a win,” Stewart said. “Yes, they did what they needed to do, but you just hate the timing of it. And, you hate that it even happened in the first place.”
Either way, the late-race theatrics had people talking, and that’s what NASCAR needed after a stretch of ho-hom racing. The last month has featured unusually clean, caution-free racing, and the long green-flag runs have stretched the field and eliminated accidents. The last multi-car accident in the Sprint Cup Series was at Martinsville Speedway, three races ago.
On Friday, NASCAR president Mike Helton defended both the penalty against Edwards, “it was never in doubt he jumped the restart,” and the need for the caution debris that spoiled Stewart’s race, “it was a good bit more significant than a water bottle. We know the difference from a water bottle.”
But he didn’t discount the affect both incidents had on the perception of the overall product, which usually spikes whenever NASCAR is shrouded in controversy and drama. Helton remains confident there’s plenty of action ahead for NASCAR.
“I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen stretches where we’ve got more drama than we can handle, and I’ve seen stretches where the focus should be on the race track,” he said. “So just sit tight. In my opinion, there’s going to be drama, and there was a little last weekend between them and us.
“Tony didn’t like our call, Carl didn’t like our call, and those are the two guys that tied for the championship last year. And they were both mad at us. Mad at us because of the intensity of them wanting to win races, and that’s what drives the sport. I think (intensity) is alive and well. When that turns into drama — just stay tuned.”
Now comes Sunday at Talladega, where it’s unclear what kind of racing fans will see.
The 2.66-mile superspeedway has traditionally been one of the most exciting venues on the NASCAR schedule, in part because of the constant threat of a massive accident that can collect a large portion of the field. The mandated use of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega forever kept the entire 43-car field bunched in a pack, and one wrong move by one driver could trigger “The Big One.”
That changed over the last few years as drivers figured out the fastest way around the track was in a two-car tandem with one driver pushing another. Fans hated the tandem racing, and NASCAR worked tirelessly over the winter to create a rules package that would end the practice. It worked in breaking up the two-car tandems in the Daytona 500, and Sunday might also be void of that style.
In addition to NASCAR setting limits meant to overheat an engine if a car pushes another car for too long, temperatures in the 90s all weekend have drivers unable to test just how long they can push.
“We all know how big of an issue it was to keep the engines cool or the water temp cool (at Daytona),” said Jeff Gordon. “It’s going to be a major issue here. I think that is the first thing that we are going to be working on — really not even pushing, just being in a regular draft. Just trying to see in these temperatures how we are going to be able to manage the water and oil temperature. I think it is going to be a real challenge.”
There’s been a steady speculation — hope, maybe? — that Sunday will mark the end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nearly four-year winless drought. He comes into Talladega, where he’s a five-time winner, ranked second in the standings and with seven top-10 finishes in nine races this season.
But Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson isn’t betting on Earnhardt for Sunday.
“I think that his best chance to win is on non-plate tracks to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “Here there are so many circumstances to deal with. We don’t know if you are going to overheat, get the push at the right time, whatever it may be. What I have seen out of him, if you just look at this year alone and where he is in points and how fast his cars have been and how great he has been driving. I put this lower on the list of where I would expect him to win.”
A year ago, Earnhardt pushed Johnson to the win. Asked Friday if he’s got to return the favor this time around, Johnson didn’t agree and said the situation isn’t the same because it’s unclear if Sunday will be tandem racing or pack racing.
“I don’t feel like I owe him,” he said. “If the situation was a little different and he had room to pull out and pass me he would have. We have made an agreement in our situation that, especially when the pushing was around, that we will do anything to help each other out. Now the racing has changed, we are in the packs now. The race unfolded in a certain way last time, partly because my car was faster leading than his was.
“I’m happy and glad to work with a teammate out there on the race track and will continue to do everything I can to help him, but I’m here to win races too.”