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Kenseth's win at Talladega reopens NASCAR restrictor plate debate


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The actor Kevin James, star of the new movie Here Comes the Boom, gave the start-your-engines command for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. It was an appropriate choice, because at Talladega you know the boom inevitably is going to come in the form of the chaotic multi-car crash called "The Big One."

This time, after several close calls throughout the race, "The Big One" took place on the final lap, sending Tony Stewart's car airborne and leaving countless vehicles crumpled up like discarded candy wrappers the day after Halloween. Matt Kenseth pulled away from the carnage that unfolded behind him to pick up his second victory of the year and his first since the season-opening Daytona 500.

But Kenseth's victory wound up being secondary to the utter destruction that was unleashed at the end of the 188-lap race. Following a green-white-checkered restart, much of the field roared four-wide around the 2.66-mile trioval, an accident that was not waiting for long to happen. It finally occurred when Tony Stewart -- a three-time series champion -- made a rookie mistake and cut into Michael Waltrip, triggering the havoc that ended the race.

"You've got to believe that it's coming," said Jeff Gordon, who finished second. "With the green-white-checkered (finish), you wonder if you'll make it to the white and you know you're not going to make it back to the checkered without there being a wreck."

Here are five things we learned at Talladega:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer likes restrictor-plate racing. The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a 10-time Cup winner at Talladega, and he had no respect for drivers who complained about the close-quarter style of racing at the track. There is a quote from him displayed in the Talladega media center that states, "If you're not a race driver, stay the hell home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. used to feel the same way, especially back when he was winning four consecutive Cup races at the track from 2001 to 2003. But Junior is winless at the track since 2004 and has managed only five top-10s in his last 16 starts here, including a 20th-place finish Sunday. So his perception of restrictor-plate racing at both Talladega and Daytona has changed somewhat.

"If this is what we did every week I wouldn't be doing it. I'd find another job," Earnhardt said. "It's not safe. Wrecking like that, it's ridiculous. It's bloodthirsty if that's what people want. ... I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year, but I ain't got much choice."

2. Even the winning car owner has an issue with restrictor-plate racing. Jack Roush now has a total of 10 career victories at Daytona and Talladega, including two this season with Kenseth. But he admitted after Sunday's race that he has mixed emotions about the style of racing at restrictor plate tracks that often results in wrecked race cars.

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"I'm really conflicted about restrictor plate racing," Roush said. "It's NASCAR's marquee, the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. They have built the foundation under a lot of their promotions and a lot of fans relate particularly to these race tracks.

"But to the driver and the crew and the strategies you can organize yourself for, they have less to do with keeping you out of harm's way than they do at a short track or intermediate-sized track. So I just figure this car's a write-off whenever I load it up in the truck to bring it to one of these restrictor-plate races."

3. Oh yeah, there also is a points race going on. Lost in all this talk of wrecks is the fact that several drivers are still competing for the Sprint Cup championship, and Brad Keselowski extended his lead over second-place Jimmie Johnson to 14 points. Denny Hamlin is in third place, 23 points behind. No other driver is within 35 points of the lead, furthering the impression that this is already a three-driver battle even though there are still six races remaining in the season.

"There's still a lot of racing left, but at least we're not fighting from a hole," said Keselowski, who finished seventh in the race. "I just feel luck to survive Talladega."

4. Kurt Busch isn't a bad guy, he's just misunderstood. At least, that's the story according to Busch, who found himself in trouble on the race track yet again Sunday. This time it happened after a mid-race wreck along the backstretch. He was still in his car being attended to by the safety crew when, for some bizarre reason, Busch suddenly pulled away, causing a bag that had been placed on top of his car by a member of the safety crew to topple to the track. Busch's team got on the radio and told him that NASCAR wanted him to stop his car immediately, but Busch did not hear this instruction because he had removed his helmet (which is a curious thing to do while you're driving a car on a superspeedway).

Afterward, of course, Busch proclaimed his innocence and whined about how all the world seems to be aligned against him. "This is the way my life works. Today is a perfect example," said Busch, who was driving for the final time for Phoenix Racing before taking over the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car next week at Charlotte. "I'm leading the race, run out of gas and wreck, I try to get back in the race with that competitive desire, get yelled at by NASCAR, and now I have a storm of media around me. It's like I don't know what to even say or what to do next. I thanked the guys for a great year. It's just the way it turned out. I'm sorry that it did.

"This is my life. I'm not complaining. I put myself in a lot of these situations. But it's on to good things now moving forward. I got all the bad luck out of the way. This year has been a great year to test me in every way."

5. Regan Smith won't be sitting on the couch next week. Even though Smith is being booted out of the No. 78 Furniture Row car with six races to go this season in favor of Busch, he plans to keep racing next weekend and beyond. Smith has reached an agreement to replace Busch in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing car next weekend at Charlotte. But there are no definite plans beyond next week for Phoenix Racing, which has struggled all season to find sponsorship and might return to fielding Cup cars on a part-time basis.

As for Smith, after spending most of the past four seasons at Furniture Row without much success, he expressed confidence this weekend that he will still be driving in NASCAR next year. The problem is, most of Cup rides for 2013 are already taken. So unless Phoenix Racing decides to continue with a full-time schedule next season and keep Smith as the driver, it is possible that Smith will have to take a step back to the Nationwide Series.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions right now," said Smith, who had a season-best fifth-place finish on Sunday. "I'm excited about the future and the things that I have going on. But at the same time it's disappointing to leave someplace where you've been as long as I've been here, especially to leave it early before the year is over. I'm definitely going to miss the guys on this team. It's been my home for the better part of four years now. But it's on to whatever chapter is next for me. I think based on some conversations that I've had that it's going to be something good."