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Pedley: A Debate Club Meeting, NASCAR Style

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 21 2011

Jimmie Johnson moves in on Clint Bowyer during Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Sharon Ellman)

We’ve all seen replays of the finish of the Sprint Cup race at Talladega like, what, 23 times now. And a great finish it is.

Eight top drivers and eight great storylines running four-wide across wonderful old Talladega flogging their cars and the cars next to them as they head for the finish line Ben-Hur style.

Then, that milli second of: Who won?

Then, three days of debate about what took place over the three-plus hours at Talladega last Sunday.

Here are some highlights of the debate and some thoughts on each:

Pairs racing – Is it good stuff, bad stuff or just stuff?

A friend of mine in Colorado, a Formula One/road racing guy who from time to time takes a whirl at NASCAR because “it’s the only racing on TV these days”, texted me during practice on Friday. His message was: “The 2-car thing sucks”. Ain’t real racing, he contends.

A couple of my colleagues, on the other hand, love it. It features, what for them, is the best part of racing: Passing, lead changes and bumping.

After Talladega, as after Daytona, I spent a couple days trying to figure out what I had watched. No, it

Twos were wild at Talladega over the weekend. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

was not real racing and had an element of trash sport to it. Cutting deals before the race and in-race radio communication between rivals? And, jeez, 88 passes for the lead pretty much obviates the term “important pass”.

But there is no denying the constant action and great finishes “the 2-car thing” has produced.

Other thing going for it: It lightens up the dark horse situation. Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers won Daytona and lower-tier teams like those of drivers like Dave Blaney, David Gilliland and Regan Smith can actually compete for victory.

And I like the fact that a whole new set of strategies is introduced. Strategies for drivers, of course, but also for crews, crew chiefs and even engineers. That is, I think, it injects a key element in racing that has been downgraded in recent years – creative, ad hoc thinking.

So, bottom line, I can accept and enjoy tag-team racing four times a season. Kind of like the Four-Wide Nationals the NHRA held over the weekend. Plus, my guess is, changes to rules and equipment will relegate it to the status of “phase” or, perhaps “era” at some point.

End justify the mean?

The finish at Talladega was an all-timer. No debate there. But, does a great finish push the entire event into the category of greatness? Does Sunday’s finish escort the 2011 Aaron’s 499 into the land of lore? Is the ending to any race or any sporting event the prime determent of overall greatness?

Or, should Sunday’s race be described by historians as just a great finish?

The two things are not synonymous. The Leonard vs. Duran “No Mas” fight, for example was pretty good fight (especially if you like Sugar Ray Leonard and/or did not like Roberto Duran). But in the end, Duran refused to keep fighting and uttered his famous two-word surrender in his native Spanish.

But for the most part, a great finish is required for an event to be considered great overall. And, yes, I think a great finish can push a so-so event into the realm of being great overall.

And, Sunday’s race was far from a stinker when separated from the finish.

So, bottomline, a great finish is enough to make an individual race greatm and, yes, Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 was a great race.

Was race ruined by not wrecking?

I saw a printed opinion or two that because the Aaron’s did not feature the type of big, tumbling,

The wrecks at Talladega Sunday were smallish and infrequent. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

smoking, field-destroying conflagrations that have become so associated with plate racing at Talladega, that Sunday’s event sucked.

I have spent a large portion of my life explaining to race-haters that fans do not follow the sport just to see wrecks. It has been exasperating.

I’ve turned blue trying to explain the beauty and grace which accompanies auto racing. I’ve come close to collapse explaining to stick-and-ball snobs that racing is the most complicated and intellectual sport in the world as it involves not only human athleticism but also physics and mechanical engineering.

Yes, a part of the lure of auto racing has been Hemingway-esque fascination of watching humans cheat death. But watch just to see wrecks? If there are people out there who do that, then they, by definition, are not fans.

So, bottom line, the absence of big wrecks Sunday went without notice and certainly did not spoil the show.

Yellow line fever

This debate, which blew through Twitter like Charlie Sheen through is drug stash, centers on the contention that Jimmie Johnson should not have been invited to Victory Lane after the race: That he violated the rule which forbids passing by going under the yellow line.

Replays do show that Johnson’s tires made contact with the yellow lines and probably go below it

The yellow line at the bottom of Talladega Superspeedway again came into play during post-race debate. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

about 1,200 feet from the finish line. The guy pushing him, Dale Earnhardt Jr., gets well below the line.

But did Johnson break the rule? Tough to say because nobody really knows the rule. The yellow line thing seems to be a guideline more than a rule. And whatever it is, it seems to be open to interpretation in a sport which so highly values clear victors.

The did-not-win public defenders cited the fall of 2008 race at Talladega precedent. In that one, Regan Smith took the checkered flag but the victory was given to Tony Stewart. NASCAR said that was because Smith, yes, went below the yellow line to get past Stewart for the lead as they headed the finish line.

The cases are not identical, however. Smith went way below the yellow line, as in onto the apron with all four tires. Also, he was on the apron when he was actually completing the pass.

Of course in the absence of a clear rule defining what constitutes a pass, let alone a pass for the lead, moves the matter into the realm of unanswerable. In 2008, the TV know-it-all guys spent the first 20 seconds after the finish wondering who won.

For me, bottom line, Johnson won. When he was below the line, he was not advancing his position. Cars were bobbing below the line all day long.

Finishing statement…

Great move putting the starting line at the place up toward Turn 1. Adds another several seconds of drama to the end of races. Talk about altering strategy.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 21 2011
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