Even a day after the NASCAR race at Talladega I hear the echoes of the chortle of the Emperor in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi.
But wait, it’s a hooded, ghostly white Brian France (BZF), not Ian McDiarmid.
"I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!”
Right about here fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, want to throw BZF down the abyss of the Death Star throne room in a Darth Vader-like fashion.
Sorry. Not gonna happen. BZF is free to chortle and count his cash, content to see, hear, and feeeeel the hatred/love/buzz/discussion in the wake of the usual Talladega Festival of Random.
In case you are catching up, NASCAR had its “Eliminator” round at Talladega where the field of championship hopefuls was cut from 12 to 8. Earnhardt, Johnson, Kahne and Busch didn’t make it. Brad Keselowski won. He was pushed to the front by Matt Kenseth, ironically, who put Keselowski in a headlock after the previous race (Charlotte) for bashing cars on the cool-down laps. BUT, Kenseth had to push Keselowski, because if he didn’t he would have lost a shit-load of places and endangered his own ability to continue in the Chase.It was one of them strange bedfellows racing deals.
Earnhardt got biffed late in another one of them racing deals. Talladega essentially a giant One of Them Racing Deals, and Talladega just don't give a shit if you're the greatest driver ever, in the Chase, out of the chase, an under-funded unknown or anything else. It just don't care.
Plate racing means most cars are about equal in speed. High banks and a wide track mean cars spend all race going two, three or even four wide in a massive pack around the place creating a massive draft. Sooooo, when you get 30 cars in a knot going 200-ish, if someone has a twitch about 12 cars get trashed. It’s known as The Big One and Talladega is famous for it.
The drivers are pretty cocooned in their cars so many (but by no means all) fans have become inured to the possibility of their injury and therefore lust after The Big One. Cars in the air! Pretty! Exciting! Unfortunately (for those fans), there were only a few medium ones at Talladega.
What Talladega did have is what Talladega always has -- lots of random. The draft at Talladega is so critical, because you go so much faster as a pack than you can by yourself, that racing there becomes a question of 1) staying in the draft and 2) picking the right line to get into, 3) getting lucky. So, most of the race the spotters are telling the driver who’s with them (in their line).
Actually knowing who is in your line helps the driver decide if they are going to go forward, I guess. Like if you have a bunch of traditionally fast, aggressive drivers in your line, odds are it’s going forward. If you don’t, it might not. Then again it might. Plus drivers say you drive Talladega mostly with your rear-view mirror so you can tell who’s back there, how far they are back, etc. You don’t want to get too far ahead of your drafting people or you’ll get punted or the line behind will form and just go around your ass, shuffling you out of line and therefore subjecting you to the dreaded "freight-trained."
That’s not to say it doesn’t take skill to race at Talladega, just a different kind of skill. Lot of decisions on which group to be with, a LOT of car control since if you get squirrelly you take yourself and 29 others out. A LOT of strategy on when to go and when to hang back. Long story short, some people love the edge-of-your-seat pack with its Festival of Random and some don’t.
I like it for a change of pace. I wouldn’t want every race to be a plate race like Talladega, but the few that they have are fine with me. Plus, my fave Danica Patrick seems to do well at plate tracks. She guessed right, got a great push from Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr., inhaled leader Jimmie Johnson and led late at Talladega. So that was very cool and heart-rate-elevating. But leading anything before lap five isn’t actually that important at Talladega. Danica eventually got hung out (nobody followed her so she lost the draft and dropped back big time) and finished P19.
As is my custom, I watched the race (flipping back and forth between that and football) and listened to Danica on Race View Audio and monitored The Twitter. Which brings us to Emperor France chortling. Post-race there was a lot of UMBRAGE, especially from Junior Nation, decrying the alleged bullshit-ness of the whole Chase, NASCAR in general, having an elimination race at Randomland (Talladega) and probably the United States and Planet Earth for good measure. Cue about 192 media stories about everything. Who was eliminated and why -- stories about the collective group, stories about each individual -- stories about the Extreme Irony of Kenseth pushing Keselowski to the win. Stories about UMBRAGE!!! Stories about how the new Chase is going (pro, con, indifferent). Stories stories stories.
So, what to make of it all? First, it’s quintessential NASCAR.
Emperor France knows the truth of this: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” (Elie Wiesel). People watching and reacting negatively is way better than people not watching at all.
Related: “I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.” (Samuel Johnson). That applies to race car drivers and NASCAR in general as well as authors like Sammy. Publicity = money (with a few exceptions, as in pub created by criminal activity, etc.).
If the goal of the new Chase format is to get people talking and engaged (positive or negative) then it’s working. There was also umbrage over a late yellow for “debris” at Talladega causing some to call the integrity of the contest into question. Did NASCAR just make it up to create 10-lap mayhem? Was this a made-for-TV caution for “debris?”
TV seemed to show something that seemed to be identified as the debris. NASCAR has made its own cynical bed here with yellows for “debris” throughout the season, the causes of which fans at home are rarely shown, and the debris yellows often just happen to fall just before pit stops are due (coincidence??), which leads us to think they could very well be phantom yellows just to aid the show. If all the debris yellows are justified, NASCAR could help its credibility by making a point to show the debris it picks up (allegedly) on TV. Throw it in the truck, bring it back to the pit, have the cameras and a pit reporter come look at it, done.
Of course there could still be allegations that all of that is pretend, as in NASCAR keeps a bunch of plausible debris ready to show cameras even when there isn’t any real debris, but it would cut down some of the aspersions.
And of course there’s always the debate as to whether NASCAR is sport (think Olympic games) or entertainment (think World Wrestling Federation) or some of each. It’s an interesting academic exercise. I don’t get too knotted about it, honestly, primarily because I don’t order my life around NASCAR. I watch it. I chortle or yell “bullshit!!!” It was fun and thrilling to see Danica out front at Talladega, but she didn’t win, so I was glad I saw her moment, but by Sunday night I’d moved on. That’s pretty much my approach to virtually all sports these days. I’m not saying I don’t care at all, I’m saying my level of care is pretty low relative to other stuff like family, friends, making a living, taking a walk on a great fall day, etc.
I do give NASCAR credit for being consistent. These sport/entertainment debates have been going on consistently for years now. The (allegedly) Phantom Yellows have been consistent, at least. I also give NASCAR as a business big big respect for adapting and evolving and modifying itself. Again, whether or not those modifications move NASCAR away from sport and more toward entertainment is a subject of debate. But staying the same and not evolving as a business that relies on mass audience seems like a prescription for withering away to me.
NASCAR also understands that debate is good. Umbrage is good. People talking about the race is good. They get that what’s lethal is not hate, it’s indifference. (Insert Emperor chortle here.)