Picking Pairs Now Way to Go -- Who's Buying?
Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway seemed to have everything you could want at the end of 500 miles of NASCAR racing: A four-wide finish, sparks and a tie for the closest finish in NASCAR's history of electronic scoring.
The top-finishing competitors were all enthused by an environment that enabled a record-tying 88 lead changes -- and oh yeah, their finishes.
The racing is different. Even after getting through 300 miles in the Gatorade Duels, the Daytona 500 and Saturday's Aaron's 312 Nationwide Series race at Talladega -- it's still hard to accept this brand of racing is really here.
"Here's the thing," runner-up Clint Bowyer said. "It doesn't matter what happened throughout that race or what your thought was. If you didn't like that finish and it didn't make you forget about the race -- you're crazy."
That seems like a reasonable thought. Talladega still has all the strategy and nail-biting, action -- it's just spread out a little bit.
"It comes down to a strategy race to try to get yourself in position with 20, 25 [laps] to go," third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said. "And there's more to it than you think. I mean, when you see me and Mark [Martin] out there riding around -- six, eight seconds back to the lead -- it's not as easy as you think it is to manage that and to figure it out.
"You still are having to watch your temperatures and different things. But let's be honest, in my opinion, Talladega has always been about a 15 , 25 lap race and the rest is just trying to get to the end. And that's basically what we have now."
And that might be a problem, if a cursory look at the Talladega grandstands Sunday is any indicator. They weren't very full.
"If that [finish] doesn't sell some tickets, I don't know what will," Carl Edwards, who came from outside the top 15 in the final 10 laps to finish sixth, said. "I don't know what it looked like from the outside, but from inside it looked like about eight drivers doing some seriously precision driving. That was pretty wild."
"Something about [the finish], it just makes you forget about [the rest of the race] and makes it if it was a problem, it ain't a problem any more," Bowyer said. "You know, it always seems to fix itself at the end of these restrictor plate races, it doesn't matter who is up there."
Who was up there Sunday were some of the most popular drivers in the sport.
"I've got to see this finish on camera because I was scraping against the wall and had it to the floor and said, 'I don't care what happens.' Man, I don't know what it looked like on TV, but it was pretty exciting from my point of view," Greg Biffle said.
To hear that, after a seventh-place finish, you know that winning was all that mattered. But it makes you wonder even more, where the people were.
"You know, whether it's 10 cars or 43 cars left, it's always a hell of a finish at these [restrictor] plate races, and always comes right down to the wire for whatever reason," Bowyer said. "You thought it was going to be a green white-checkered [finish]. But it was still an unbelievable finish.
"Just all hell broke loose is exactly what happened -- but that's what makes this place awesome. I hope the fans enjoyed that finish. That's what Talladega is all about and that's why these people come out by the hundred-thousands to this place [and] I hope they enjoyed it because it was pretty wild from the windshield."
At least that used to be the case. But even with a similar menu of action as Daytona, Talladega was only about two-thirds full. It wasn't from lack of effort by the drivers.
"From my perspective, we were complaining with the old package and riding side by side and not enough passes for the lead, and there was always the big wreck," race-winner Jimmie Johnson said. "Now we have a ton of passes for the lead and statistically you look at the race and it looks pretty awesome.
"From a driver standpoint, we have a lot more control now with what we can do. Yes, it is still plate racing, but you can make stuff happen and there is a technique required to stay together and to work traffic together and to communicate and it puts it back in the driver's hands a lot more than the old combination of racing.
"So I think it's entertaining. And again, I don't remember people excited about the way it was before. So I think we're evolving as teams and drivers, and continuing to put on a better show, and from where I was all day long, I thought there was a lot of racing that took place. I thought it was a great race."
Talladega chairman Grant Lynch blamed the economy for the empty seats. The track blocked-out thousands of seats, based on demand and the cost of maintaining them for a limited number of patrons.
"Our [attendance] numbers have been going down for several years, and people were spread out all over the stadium and it cost a lot of money to clean them every night and open all the restrooms," Lynch said. "But quite frankly, we were tickled with our crowd. I think you're right, that there are a lot of reasons that impact our fans' ability to come to the race right now.
"Certainly the economy and the job picture right now is not good for a lot of folks and with gas approaching four dollars a gallon for a track where a lot of folks bring vehicles that are low mileage per gallon vehicles -- RVs and big pickups towing campers -- and the average distance for people driving [to the track] is probably No. 1 in our company [International Speedway Corporation, which owns 12 tracks on the Cup schedule]."
The track's backstretch Allison Grandstand was virtually full, and coincidentally three of the six cautions came for accidents that occurred right in front of it.
Talladega had priced seats in that section as a $49, two-day package and included for the first time a provision for children 12-and-under to be admitted free with a paid adult. Lynch said there were more than 1,200 children seated back there, and -- given the action, that might be a start to boosting future attendance.
Lynch has other things up his sleeve, which he detailed Sunday evening after the race.
"We did some pretty extensive research with our fans and we heard back that the cost of attending the event -- the cost of tickets and travel is an issue," Lynch said. "So we're going to be coming out next week with some new pricing opportunities for our renewal customers that were with us last October that we're hoping will make them make their decisions faster to come back and be with us this fall.
"There is some apathy among the fans because of the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, but there's never been a track in history that was more of an Earnhardt track than Talladega -- first his dad [Dale Earnhardt, who has 10 Talladega wins] and now Junior [who finished fourth Sunday after pushing Johnson to the win] -- and if Junior picks it up like he has the last few weeks, we're feeling pretty tickled about [attendance in] the fall, for us."
After that, it remains, as it always has, up to the competitors; and everyone in the sport hopes people are watching the brand of racing seen Sunday. It's what they're going to be seeing for a while, as a NASCAR spokesman said after the race no technical changes are planned with the cars.
"This two car draft is here to stay, unless they drastically change the cars," Gordon said. "[Changing] the restrictor plate is not going to change that. It would take a whole new revamping of the car to change that. But you know, I kind of laugh at that because that's kind of what was designed, with this car, was to create that.
"And not necessarily the two car draft, but to be able to get to the bumper and not spin one another out; have a car that's much boxier to blow a bigger hole in the air. That's what we have to deal with now and that's what's created the kind of racing that we have.
"I personally don't have a problem with it, actually. I thought that was pretty fun there at the end, whether I was pushing or being pushed. Those last 10, 15 laps are fun from a driver standpoint -- and I thought there at the end that the fans couldn't ask for a better show than that, with 10-15 to go."
But unless the fans get behind it and think it's just as enjoyable, despite how thrilling the racing and finishes are, filling seats is going to continue to be a challenge.
"It is another era, and what we saw [Sunday] is not like the racing of old," Lynch said. "But 88 lead changes and that finish -- I don't know what kind of racing you want to watch, but most people would say that number of cars that get a chance to lead a lap, close competition and people going to the front, and passing back in the pack -- it's a different Talladega but I don't think the stats are that much different."