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NASCAR fans crave close, thrilling racing, not blood, at Talladega


TALLADEGA, Ala -- In the aftermath of the last-lap destruction at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came right out and said he no longer wants to race on the restrictor-plate tracks of Talladega and Daytona. And to top it off, he said that fans who enjoyed the wreckfest of the final lap were "bloodthirsty."

Jeff Gordon also has no desire to return to a restrictor-plate track. While he claims he used to have fun racing at Talladega, on Sunday he said, "I haven't experienced that in a long, long time." Yet Gordon maintained that he understands exactly why fans enjoy the spectacle that was on display, declaring that "from an entertainment standpoint, they should be lined up to the highway" waiting to get in.

So which is it? Are fans who like the style of racing at Talladega bloodthirsty, or are they just seeking some exciting entertainment?

It's easy to understand why Earnhardt and countless other Sprint Cup drivers were frustrated and angry following Sunday's 25-car pile-up. Obviously it's no fun to wreck at nearly 200 miles per hour, especially when two dozen other cars are skidding and, in the case of Tony Stewart, flying all around you.

But it is wrong to say that fans who like the close-quarter racing -- and the occasional big wreck, provided by Talladega and Daytona -- are bloodthirsty. You can enjoy the mayhem without wanting to see somebody get hurt. Football and hockey fans often cheer the big hit, but if the player doesn't get up right away, the stadium or arena becomes quiet. It is the same with racing fans. The element of danger and the potential for a spectacular crash has long been one of auto racing's primary attractions, but are any fans out there actually hoping that a driver is injured? Cheering the show -- and yes, wrecks are part of the show in auto racing -- is not the same as cheering for blood.

What fans appreciate the most about Talladega and Daytona -- and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, short tracks such as Bristol and Martinsville -- is that they get to see some close racing and thrilling passes. The biggest problem with too many Sprint Cup races these days is the field quickly becomes spread out all over the track and the so-called race transforms into little more than a bunch of cars going around in a circle. And when a pass does occur, there is usually plenty of space between the two cars. You will see tighter passing on the interstate than you will find at most of NASCAR's 1.5-mile ovals.

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That is definitely not the case at Talladega, hence why the track traditionally has been one of the most popular on the circuit. Gordon, to his credit, understands that. On Sunday he admitted, "If I'm a race fan, I want to see [cars lined up] two- and three-wide racing all day long, passing back and forth. I want to see guys shoving one another. I want to see [an accident] at the end of the race because guys are being so aggressive, and knowing that is not something that, as a fan, you could ever imagine putting yourself into and sort of defying danger."

Exactly. There is a reason people don't sit around watching cars on the interstate. Driving down the highway is something we can all do. And the reality is, if you could build up the courage, most of us could drive around a NASCAR track at 150 mph. What we can't do -- what we have no desire to do -- is drive that fast with other cars tightly packed all around, trying to make a pass. We can't do it, so we enjoy seeing racecar drivers do it. That is why we like to watch basketball players dunk and baseball players blast 450-foot home runs. It's something most of us can't do, and we marvel at those who can.

A common refrain about Talladega is that a major multi-car accident -- "The Big One," as they like to call it -- is inevitable, especially near the end of the race when everybody is driving hard for the victory. Gordon, referring to the fact that Sunday's race concluded with a green-white-checkered restart, said, "You wonder if you'll make it to the white (flag), and you know you're not going to make it back to the checkered without there being a wreck."

But is that necessarily true? On Sunday, the pack amazingly made it all the way around Talladega's 2.66-mile trioval for almost the entire green-white-checkered finish. The sight of nearly 40 cars running three- and even four-wide for an entire lap had to be one of the most amazing scenes of the racing season. And the fact is, if Stewart of all people -- a three-time series champion who is widely considered to be one of the best pure drivers of all time -- hadn't attempted a clumsy blocking move on Michael Waltrip, it is possible that "The Big One" never would have happened. If that pack had roared across the finish line intact, everybody would have been talking about how incredible the race was, rather than how dangerous.

Indeed, it seems there is a direct correlation every race at Talladega between whether a driver wrecks and what the drivers say afterwards about the track. Earnhardt certainly didn't act like he had a problem with Talladega 10 years ago when he was winning four consecutive races at the track. In fact, during his session with the media just two days before Sunday's race, Earnhardt actually stated, "I love running here." One accident later, and suddenly he wants to quit racing at Talladega entirely. Meanwhile, after Greg Biffle avoided the final-lap carnage on Sunday and emerged with a sixth-place finish, he giddily compared the finish to the action in the racing movie Days of Thunder and said it was "the craziest thing I've ever been involved in in my life."

One would think it was the type of finish that would thrill the fans and keep them coming back for more. However, Sunday's attendance was announced at 88,000, making it the smallest crowd at Talladega not just in years but in decades. In the post-race news conference, Gordon was asked whether "the attendance is being hurt by this style of racing?"

Not likely. Attendance is down at almost all NASCAR tracks because of a variety of reasons, many of them involving the national economy. It's also possible that fans are staying away from Talladega because the drivers have been so critical of the track in recent years, to the point that many of them openly state that they are just going to ride around in the back and wait until the end to actually try to race. Why should fans pay full price to see a 500-mile race if they are only going to get 50 miles of action?

The bottom line is, driver complaints at Talladega are similar to the way golfers always grumble about the rough at the U.S. Open. They whine and moan about the rough every year, and every year it stays just as thick and unforgiving as ever. Nothing changes. It is the same with racing at Talladega. Drivers have been complaining about the track ever since the introduction of restrictor plates in the late 1980s, and every year the show goes on as scheduled. Neither is likely to change anytime soon.