Will Richmond bring the noise?
RICHMOND, Va. -- It's way too quiet. Almost deafening for a sport where you need earplugs to muffle the noise.
We haven't had a good feud strictly in Cup since Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch called each other out during the September Richmond race. There hasn't been even a hint of the feud that began between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch last May at Darlington Raceway.
The storylines we anticipated have been quiet, too. Kyle Busch has gone winless in his past 20 starts. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s losing streak is at 137 races. Rick Hendrick has been waiting since Kansas last season for his 200th win.
Yes, it's way too quiet out there.
But all hell could break loose this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, which produced 13 multicar accidents in September and 19 between its two 2011 races. Since 1990, Richmond ranks second among all tracks in accidents over the last 25 percent of the race with 66.
Or will it remain quiet until next week at Talladega? Or the following week at Darlington?
"No, I don't think all hell is going to break loose anywhere," Earnhardt said on Friday at RIR. "You might see an update in cautions being it is short-track racing. You might not.
"I don't know when we might all start getting more aggressive. I still feel like it's pretty early in the season. Everybody is just trying to get as many points as they can get and try to put themselves in position to make the Chase."
And that may have more to do with the quiet than tires that don't wear like they used to, cars that go so close to the same speed that it's almost impossible to pass and drivers who are more equal in talent than ever.
Remember when they introduced the new simplified points structure? Remember how some of us said it rewards consistency more than ever, that it penalizes for a bad finish more than ever?
Don't think drivers weren't paying attention. They know, particularly after a year under the system, more than ever what it takes to make the Chase.
That doesn't mean they want to win any less, understanding wins will come in handy for playoff seeding and the two wild-card spots. It just means they're more cautious early in the season while trying to stockpile as many points as possible.
"If you go out there running over each other, damaging your car, costing yourself 10 points here, 10 points there, you can lose an opportunity to make the Chase pretty quickly," said Earnhardt, who is fourth in points, 21 behind leader Greg Biffle. "So you have to be pretty smart in the way you drive your car."
Think about it. Yes, Tony Stewart won the Chase last season in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards because he had more wins -- five to none. But Edwards was in a tie because he had the best average finish (4.9) in Chase history.
The Chase has changed the way drivers race, particularly early in the season when there isn't the sense of urgency to take chances.
"It's all about the almighty point," said Elliott Sadler, who went into Friday night's Nationwide Series race as the points leader. "You can't take as many chances now as you could seven or eight years ago. If you finish 30th or worse it's going to take three or four races to get back into Chase contention.
Kyle Busch is going for another Sprint Cup win at Richmond as Travis Pastrana prepares for his Nationwide debut. Plus, Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
"And if you're 13th to 20th now in points, you don't want to drop below 20th because there could be a track coming up like a Talladega or a Daytona where it opens up for the whole field to win."
This quiet is an unintended consequence of the points system, of the Chase, which was supposed to be all about going for wins and taking the pressure off of being the most consistent for 36 races.
If you don't think drivers think that way, listen to Edwards. He is ninth in points. He understands he doesn't have the fastest car right now. He understands the engineers are working on things to make the car faster in the Chase, but he's not willing to risk the blown engine that could come with using those things now.
He's also not willing to risk a daring move that could win the race -- or cause a big pileup -- on a green-white-checkered finish.
"I would be a moron if we gave [making the Chase] up here at Richmond," Edwards said.
Biffle doesn't necessarily buy that. He's tired of hearing it. He argues that one point here and there won't matter once you make the Chase because the points are reset.
But what he doesn't take into account is one point here and there could cost somebody a shot at the Chase, which is how Edwards and many others think.
"That's the way the feeling is," Edwards said. "That wasn't intended by NASCAR, but that's the way it is."
And Edwards, to his credit, isn't ready for NASCAR to look for ways to create more wrecks to appease fans.
"I will not go down that path," he said. "I will not say we need wrecks. That's a messed-up thing to say."
I will not go down that path. I will not say we need wrecks. That's a messed-up thing to say.” -- Carl Edwards
Johnson suggests the venues may be the problem. He says that with everything being created equal, track operators need to look for ways to make their tracks racier and create more side-by-side racing, which often creates more wrecks. He suggested eliminating a few of the 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the schedule.
You won't get an argument from fans and those who cover the sport that more short tracks such as Richmond are needed. When two colleagues and I drew up our dream Chase on a bar napkin last weekend, we reduced the 1.5-mile tracks from five to three.
We added a road course and a second superspeedway. We also eliminated three races at intermediate tracks in the regular season, and wanted to eliminate more.
Everybody loves short-track racing better, right?
But not even short tracks guarantee better racing, more beating and banging, more wrecks. As we saw on Thursday night, Denny Hamlin's charity late model race at RIR was, in Harvick's words, "boring."
"The K&N race was awesome," he added.
Hopefully, we'll say that about the Cup race late Saturday night. Hopefully, Richmond restores some chaos into the sunny weather we've been having. Hopefully, we'll see moments like in 2008, when Busch wrecked Earnhardt going for the lead late here in May, and Earnhardt wrecked Busch going for the lead here in September.
"It was really difficult to stomach, but it sure was exciting," Earnhardt said of the first incident.
It was loud.
The sport needs some loud. It's way too quiet.
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