TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The pack is apparently here to stay and NASCAR drivers don’t like it one bit.
That includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., who earned seven of his 19 career victories slicing and dicing his way through traffic in restrictor-plate races. NASCAR’s most popular driver called pack racing "bloodthirsty" and unsafe after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, which was marred by a last-lap 25-car accident.
"I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice," Earnhardt grumbled.
Tony Stewart, who so abhors blocking he has threatened on multiple occasions to wreck any driver who does it to him, threw the biggest block of them all Sunday while trying to hold on to a victory at Talladega. His defensive driving sent his car sailing up and over the field, triggering the accident that collected 10 of the 12 Chase championship contenders.
He immediately took responsibility for causing the wreck. But at least one rival believed the defending NASCAR champion wasn’t entirely culpable for an accident everyone knew was going to happen.
The bigger picture is the overall danger that’s created by the current NASCAR rule package used in restrictor-plate racing. The plates are needed to throttle horsepower at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR’s two biggest and fastest tracks, but they keep the cars bunched together in huge packs where the slightest slip can wipe out most of the field.
The result? Four ridiculous races this season.
A jet-dryer explosion in the season-opening Daytona 500 overshadowed the fact that there were three multi-car accidents, including one that knocked out Jimmie Johnson on the second lap of the race and an eight-car wreck that sent the race into overtime. And, after an 11-car last-lap accident took out all the leaders in the Nationwide race, drivers warned of the danger going into the Daytona 500.
Drivers can either run out front all race and hope for the best or hang back and then go for it late -- in packs.
There was a nine-car accident with four laps to go at Talladega in May, and that was a day after Eric McClure was hospitalized following a late wreck in the Nationwide Series race. The race to the checkered flag at Daytona in July led to a 15-car accident on the final lap, and then came Sunday’s demolition derby.
The introduction of the 2013 car has given NASCAR an opportunity to address several racing concerns, but most of it seems centered on improving the product at intermediate tracks. There’s been little to no public discussion about plate racing beyond the grumbling of drivers tired of wrecking.
It was Stewart, remember, who assailed the racing in May with a four-minute, tongue-in-cheek Q&A that dripped in sarcasm directed at the perceived notion that fans want to see wrecks, not racing.
NASCAR’s estimated crowd of 88,000 was the smallest since figures have been provided, and was down by 20,000 from the previous low of 108,000 in May, and coming at a track that used to pull in more than 300,000 people for its two annual events.