Chasers put Talladega in the rearview
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We return to your regularly scheduled Sprint Cup Chase programming.
Yes, that interruption in NASCAR's 10-race playoff lineup -- otherwise known as Talladega Superspeedway -- has used up its time slot. It's time to get back to racing as it should be.
It's time for Martinsville Speedway.
Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) on this half-mile gem in the heart of the Virginia foothills you won't hear Jeff Gordon complaining that Trevor Bayne abandoned him in the final laps or Bayne feeling guilty for helping a fellow Ford driver.[+] EnlargeChris Graythen/Getty ImagesWe've seen the last of the Talladega two-step, also known as high-speed pairs racing, in 2011.
You won't hear anything about tandem racing, team orders, the "big one" or anything that defined this past weekend in Alabama.
We're back to pure racing, where drivers don't depend on each other to race to the front, where there's beatin' and bangin', and all the things that have made the sport popular are in play.
"You have to remember where your roots come from, and Martinsville is a good example of that," Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick said. "We all grew up on short tracks, and Martinsville keeps that in our sport. All of us drivers like the short-track feel that we grew up racing on, so we're looking forward to it."
How can they not be? Talladega was more about not racing than racing. Points leader Carl Edwards spent most of his day hanging around the back hoping to avoid disaster rather than trying win. So did defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That's not what fans pay to see.
Look at how the competitors described that racing. Earnhardt said he was bored. Edwards called it a "spiritual event." Marcos Ambrose got out of his car and said, "I am alive, so that is good."
"The best I can describe it is we were stuck without a date to the prom, so I was just hitting on everyone's mom," Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin said as he described the tandem racing.
Funny, but true.
The term "racing" at Talladega should be used loosely. Whenever you have to rely on another driver to compete, it becomes a bit artificial, even more so than with pack racing, where you depended on a train of cars.
You won't have that at Martinsville. You won't have drivers lucking into wins or good finishes. Look at the track's all-time winners; the best of the best dominate the list. You have Richard Petty with 15 wins, Darrell Waltrip with 11, Rusty Wallace and Gordon with seven each, and Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Fred Lorenzen with six each.
That's a Hall of Fame list, a combined 30 championships.
At Talladega, Sunday's top three finishers and seven of the top 10 aren't even contenders for this year's title.
"It's a great snapshot of NASCAR in the old days, where you're right on top of the action whether you're on pit road or in the grandstands," Johnson said of Martinsville before this race a year ago. "I just personally enjoy the challenge that track brings, and I think it's a cool venue."
Martinsville comes at the perfect time for NASCAR; as team owner Jack Roush said, "one of the things that makes you feel good about Martinsville is to go to Talladega before that."
Sunday's race gives fans frustrated by the non-racing at Talladega a chance to see the type of competition they yearn for.
And there were plenty of frustrated fans. My mailbox is full of frustration, such as these words from Rich Phillip of Delaware: "Is it just me or was the race at Talladega a complete bore? In qualifying the cars couldn't reach 185 mph and the race was another 'couples only deal.' ... I have just about decided that I am not a NASCAR fan anymore. This is a very sad situation I think."
Comments on my blog about Bayne's soap opera echoed the same. Wrote donbejohnson: "I don't like tandem racing and cooked dinner while the race was on. That my friend was a first. I am usually glued to the set for Talladega."
NASCAR must fix the problem with the two-car dancing at Talladega and Daytona. Officials tried to by opening the size of the restrictor-plate hole to create higher speeds. They also made an adjustment on the pop-off valve in the cooling system that was supposed to increase the threat of overheating, and thus reduce the length of push time.
Perhaps Kyle Busch is right. Perhaps the only way to fix the problem is to change the bumpers so they don't match up.
You have to remember where your roots come from, and Martinsville is a good example of that. We all grew up on short tracks, and Martinsville keeps that in our sport. All of us drivers like the short-track feel that we grew up racing on, so we're looking forward to it.” -- Kevin Harvick
But if NASCAR does that, as Roush said, you're back to the old set of problems of pack racing where catastrophe lurks around every corner.
"I don't think there is a fix for it," said Roush, who should have spent this past week relishing in having Edwards and Matt Kenseth 1-2 in points instead of defending whether he gave Bayne team orders.
Roush insists, by the way, that he didn't.
Martinsville doesn't need fixing. It's as close to perfect a track that NASCAR has, although a change in the bumpers would bring back a few more spinouts when drivers get underneath each other trying to pass.
"This is something we all look forward to coming up, just for the fact we all grew up on racetracks like this," Harvick said.
Martinsville comes at the perfect time for Harvick. He won the spring race there with a late pass of Earnhardt and needs another such performance after he and two other Chase drivers -- Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch -- were caught up in typical Dega mayhem.
As Kurt Busch said afterward, "Our championship hopes are done, just because of this two-car Talladega draft."
Harvick isn't done despite being 26 points behind Edwards in fifth place. He isn't done because he returns to a track where it doesn't take luck to win, where his talent as a driver and adjustments made by his crew chief matter, where racing is like it should be again.
Yes, it's time for Martinsville Speedway.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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