The problems with restrictor-plate racing evident at Talladega
There's a stench left from Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway and it has nothing to do with the trash yet to be hauled away.
Restrictor-plate racing is messy. It is NASCAR's high-wire act that thrills, yet also disgusts with its hint of seedy backroom deals among drivers, teams and manufacturers. As long as NASCAR uses the carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars -- and series officials haven't found a better way in more than 20 years -- this type of racing will titillate and infuriate fans.
Sunday's race angered them more, causing them to overlook Clint Bowyer's last-lap pass of teammate Jeff Burton for the victory, Jimmie Johnson's hopes for a sixth consecutive title fade and Carl Edwards extend his points lead.
The style of racing with two-car drafts, which is increasingly grating to fans, didn't raise the rancor as much as the final restart, when Trevor Bayne left Jeff Gordon as his drafting partner and worked with Matt Kenseth. The move ended Gordon's hopes of winning, as he lost more than 20 spots and finished 27th.
Some fans were incensed that Bayne would agree to help Gordon before the final restart and then abandon him. Yet, it's not that simple. It never is in restrictor-plate racing. That's part of the problem.
On Friday, Tony Stewart said he wouldn't be able to again work with David Gilliland as his drafting partner because he heard that "the Ford guys are kind of being told they have to stay with Ford guys.''
Gilliland didn't deny it, stating the day before the race: "When you lay out your initial plans you have to think of the big picture, and Ford does a lot for us, and we would really like to see a Ford win this championship."
Twelve Fords were in the field but one was a start-and-park car, meaning one Ford would have to draft with another manufacturer. That was Bayne. He spent much of the race paired with Robby Gordon, who drives a Dodge. When Gordon fell out late in the race, Bayne was alone.
So was Jeff Gordon. He had worked all day with teammate Mark Martin, who was involved in a late accident. Thus, on the final restart, Gordon and Bayne were together. Gordon restarted sixth and Bayne was behind him. They both needed a drafting partner and even with the edict that Fords stick together, Gordon figured he'd ask Bayne on the radio what his plans were.
"I didn't expect him to agree,'' Gordon said afterward. "I came on his radio and asked him and he said, "Yeah man, I'm pushing you. We're good. Let's go. Let's go.' We talked about it, so I thought we were good. Definitely apprehensive in the back of my mind, but all he had to say was, "No, I can't,' or the team could have come on and said, "No, I'm sorry you can't do it.' ''
When the green flag waved with two laps to go, Bayne tucked up on the rear bumper of Gordon's car and they charged. Gordon climbed to third with Bayne pushing him on the backstretch.
Things were not all as they seemed, though.
Behind Bayne was fellow Ford driver Kenseth, who was alone. He had been separated from his drafting partner, David Ragan. Kenseth ran to the back of Bayne's rear bumper, latching on to his fellow quasi teammate at Roush Fenway Racing (Bayne's Wood Brothers team is closely aligned with Roush and Bayne drives for Roush in the Nationwide Series).
Suddenly, Bayne went low, Kenseth followed and Gordon, without a drafting partner helplessly fell back like a lead dropping off a tree.
Afterward, Bayne talked to Gordon in the garage about what happened. "He feels terrible about it,'' Gordon said.
Bayne expressed his frustrations on Twitter, stating: "I'm not happy about what this has become ... it's too premeditate. We should be able to go with whoever is around [us].''
Bayne also stated on Twitter -- in a comment that had been removed by Monday morning -- "I would have rather pulled over and finished last than tell [Gordon] I would work with him and then be strong-armed into bailing.''
It is that sense of orders that fouls this race for fans. Sports, they'll say, is supposed to be about what naturally happens, not what is ordered. Yet, that's not always the case. While this smacks of Formula 1 with its team orders and what drivers are supposed to win, this has been a part of NASCAR. It was always understood that if one had a choice he would help a teammate win rather than someone else. Sometimes that extended to helping a driver with the same car manufacturer.
So what was done in the Ford camp this weekend was nothing new, and it has the right to do so. It might not play well with fans, but as long as a driver has to have friends to race, then alliances will be formed. And in some cases broken.
What happened between Bayne and Gordon also is nothing new. It's just that Gordon is the latest to suffer from it. Deals have been made for years between drivers and then broken once the green flag falls.
Among the most well-known cases was the 2000 Daytona 500, when passing was so difficult that it took two or more cars in a line to get by another one. Late in that race, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin agreed to draft together to pass Johnny Benson for the lead. The move didn't work. On the next lap, Martin went high but Jarrett went low, defending his position against another car. Jarrett used that other car to push him past Benson and won the race.
Afterward, a frustrated Martin said, "I was lied to.''
Jarrett apologized in Victory Lane, defended his move and later privately spoke to Martin about the situation. While those feelings soothed, it's hard to think fans will be as forgiving with what they see at Talladega and Daytona. The two-car draft is losing favor.
"Most of them will say to us, "It was kind of neat at first, but I'd really like to see what I used to see, which is the big packs,' '' said Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch of what he hears from fans. "I like that probably better myself.''
What the fans want carries weight. If they don't like what they see, they won't buy tickets or watch on TV. Talladega had more than two dozen upper-deck sections covered to hide the unsold seats.
Fans are upset, in part, because many of their favorite drivers often ride at the back of the field much of the race to avoid any accidents. Edwards used that strategy and finished 11th to remain the points leader. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson also rode back there much of the day, along with many others.
"It's just really boring sitting back there,'' Earnhardt said. "We were around at the end of the race, so I don't disagree with the strategy. But if the racing weren't like it is, we'd feel more comfortable all getting up there racing.''
NASCAR officials have stated that they're looking at changes to try to limit or eliminate the two-car draft but also concede it won't be easy. After the race, Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, wrote on Twitter: "Know we have work to do on Superspeedway [racing] and we'll certainly stay after it.''
They need to do so because for some fans, restrictor-plate racing has become as rotten as trash.