This month marks the 10th-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.'s final masterpiece. Cutting through the Talladega field like a knife, he moved from 18th to first in five laps to take a thrilling victory in what's considered one of the most frenetic NASCAR finishes of all time. His 76th career win highlighted a race with 49 lead changes -- the most in a Cup race in 11 years -- as the restrictor-plate rules package in effect at the time trumpeted parity and passing to spice up competition.
Still, the Intimidator wasn't exactly thrilled at the finish, even though three-quarters of the drivers that day used the words "fun" and "exciting" to describe the event, and the 100,000 fans in attendance showed their approval with a standing ovation.
"It was good, hard racing, but I still don't like restrictor plates," said the man who once called drivers "chicken" for being afraid of possible 230-mile-per-hour speeds down the straightaway without them. "The rules they did with the spoilers and tops made the race more competitive, [but] I still don't like it."
One plate race later, Earnhardt was dead, the victim of a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
As we head toward the final plate race of 2010, NASCAR has reached this type of rules vs. reason crossroad again, with the dichotomy of fans' thirst for excitement paired against driver discomfort more than ever before.
Fans overwhelmingly like the product, considering the recent sets of rules keep all 43 cars together like super glue with the type of "restricted" racing the Intimidator despised. It doesn't matter who you are: the poorest underdog or the richest millionaire has the same chance of winning. Starting with the Fall of 2005, every race at 'Dega has had at least 42 lead changes, more than any other event at any other track on the circuit sans this year's Daytona 500. That's an eye-popping 173 events. While engineers fiddle with an "aero push" that hampers side-by-side racing at other tracks, the wide-open throttle and reduced speeds here make driving so easy, four or five-abreast isn't just a possibility, but also an expected occurrence late in the race.
It's enough to make one wonder, why shouldn't NASCAR use restrictor-plate racing everywhere. Indeed, it's a dreamlike scenario bordering on heaven for fans looking to cling onto a type of excitement that was once a weekly occurrence in the sport. But by cutting off a driver's ability to pull away from the pack, what you also get is a three-hour, 200 mile-per-hour dangerous duel in which drivers are put in the position of trying not to wreck each other out. One small mistake, an untimely bump could lead to a crash that eliminates half the field, causing drivers to spin out at a place where the risk of injury is highest due to raw speed and other factors.
Even in a best-case scenario, when the racing is good, the result is a constant barrage of highway traffic you can't pull away from. The reason the lead changes so often at Talladega is because the law of physics dictates you can't hold onto it, the drafting so intense that a burst of five, six, seven miles per hour from cars lined up behind you can put a driver from first to 21st in a single circuit. So with your final running position determined by a sudden burst of speed, why bother leading when you're in the same position on Lap 77 as you are with five to go?
"You think you're going to pass them because you're running five mph faster when you get to them," said Sterling Marlin back in 2000, a telling quote of how little this type of competition has changed over the past decade. "You pull out [without drafting help] and just stop."
That's led to several scenarios in recent years where drivers have run single-file, patiently biding their time, much to the dismay of fans in the stands who want white-knuckle excitement the entire time. But drivers are getting smarter on the plate game, hardened by the potential risks of one minor bump that wrecks half the field and puts them in danger of physical harm.
That friction has only increased due to the action we've seen as of late. In just the past three Cup dates at 'Dega alone, we've seen:
• April '09: Carl Edwards flipping into the fence on the last lap, scattering debris into the stands and injuring seven spectators in the worst NASCAR wreck since Earnhardt's death in 2001. Rookie Brad Keselowski shocks the world with a victory after a dozen drivers are eliminated by wrecks.
"NASCAR just puts us in this box," Edwards said immediately afterward. "We'll race like this until we kill somebody and then they'll change it."
• October '09: NASCAR decides to police "bumpdrafting," a dangerous practice where cars slam into each other inside the pack to increase drafting speed. The crackdown results in all 43 cars running single-file, nose-to-tail for much of the race's first half in the equivalent to a protest. (The yawn-fest would force officials to drop the practice immediately following the race.) Later in the race, an accident involving Ryan Newman sends his winged Chevy flipping, end-over-end, in a scary wreck on the backstretch. The accident reportedly pushed in the roll cage to within inches of Newman's head, causing the driver to lash out against a style of competition that nearly killed him:
"It's just a product of this racing and what NASCAR has put us into with these restrictor plates with these types of cars," he said. "You know with the yellow line, no bumpdrafting, no passing. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other. Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison and all those guys have always done that. I guess they don't think much of us anymore."
• April '10: With the "bumpdrafting police" on permanent hiatus, the field goes wild, leading to three green-white-checkered finishes after 16 of the 37 cars remaining get involved in wrecks over the final few circuits. But at the same time, Kevin Harvick produces a thrilling ending by passing Jamie McMurray in the final corner of the final lap, capping a race with a record-88 lead changes over just 200 circuits.
That last race had fans again on their feet, producing a long, hard ovation for a style of competition that could have easily ended with one of their drivers killed. But on the heels of this spring's run, many drivers were praising the rules package -- just like the one 10 years ago that sparked what's been a long, fruitful decade of hard racing at Talladega.
"I think the package NASCAR brought here worked out great," said Harvick. "It is very forgiving. You can let out of the gas. You just don't want to be the very last car in the pack. While you are in the middle of the pack, you can do what you need to do and push and shove. It is more fun when they let us race the way we want to."
"I will say this; that was one heck of a race!," added Jeff Gordon, made all the more meaningful considering his car wound up wrecked. "I thought all day the racing was amazing. Yeah, there were times it got a little wild. We all knew it was going to go wild at the end, but I don't think you could have asked for a better race. I applaud that rear spoiler!"
Even with this record-setting day, though, not everyone who drove in that 43-car field had forgotten the risks. "I was thinking about when I was out there, these shouldn't be points races," Newman said, words that wound up costing him a $50,000 fine. "If they want to have these races for the fans, just let us come here and do this, but don't let it affect our championship, because it's not racing. If this is NASCAR racing, we should be here for the Talladega Event Marketing or something like that. Something different besides racing."
So the sport presses on, the confusion over what to do leaving the rules package stuck in neutral as fans pack the stands this weekend in what's likely to be one of the highest-attended races of the year and the most-watched NASCAR event of the Chase. In a series struggling to stay competitive throughout its 43-car field, even the single-car, underfunded ones will run the whole race, knowing this 500-miler gives them their lone remaining chance to wind up in Victory Lane -- even if it does sometimes feel like a version of Russian roulette.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. wasn't the only one worried about the dangers of plate racing back in 2000. Mark Martin was short and sweet when interviewed after finishing the race that day:
"Nobody got hurt," he said bluntly. "That wasn't racing, but I sure was proud to see those drivers. Every one of 'em deserves a gold medal."
With the type of racing mixed with danger we'll see, let's hope the gamble continues to pay off with the most basic gift for all 43 starters: survival.