TALLADEGA, Ala. --Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat alongside crew chief Steve Letarte on the top step of his transporter, his head in his hands. His crumpled No. 88 car was on the back of a wrecker, his Sprint Cup championship hopes were effectively smashed to pieces and his frustration over how it all happened was evident in the tone of his voice.
"If this was what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it, let me put it to you like that," NASCAR's most popular driver said after being involved in a 25-car crash on the final lap Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. "If this was how we raced every week, I'd find another job."
The debate over restrictor-plate racing at the sport's biggest track exploded once again, and in typical fashion, whenTony Stewart drifted down the track just enough to ignite automotive calamity. Suddenly he was being turned from behind by the car ofMichael Waltrip, who in turn was being pushed byCasey Mears, and suddenly the reigning series champion was lifting off and flipping over onto the hood ofKasey Kahne. With only one corner left until the finish, and with vehicles packed together five abreast and only inches apart, attempts at evasive maneuver were fruitless. They gripped the wheel; they floored the accelerator; they hung on and tried to make it through.
Some did. Many more didn't.
"Unbelievable," Greg Biffle said. "I was probably 20th and five-wide up against the wall, and then cars started wrecking. A car flew over the top of my car as I turned to the bottom and missed guys by three inches. It was like Days of Thunder coming through the smoke and the grass, and [I] just kept it going straight. That's all I did, and once I was clear of all the stuff, I kept going to the start-finish line. But it was the craziest thing I've ever been involved in -- in my life."
You knew it was coming, just as sure as there would be vendors out on Speedway Boulevard selling firewood and Mardi Gras beads, as much a certainly as the crowd rising as one whenever Earnhardt Jr. took the lead. The Big One is as much a part of Talladega as the catfish farms and the Indian legends and the Allison brothers shaking hands in the garage area, and Sunday they had held it at bay for too long. Too many times cars had wobbled or slid down to the apron without hitting anything, causing spectators to hold their breath and radio broadcasters to launch into hyperactive screams, yet leaving the field otherwise intact. But it was always there, waiting, and on the final lap it was finally unleashed.
Stewart put the fault all on himself. "I just screwed up," he said. "I turned down across, I think it was Michael, and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was at. So I take 100 percent of the blame." And yet, it says something about Talladega that one of the most seasoned and decorated drivers in the event is capable of igniting such a thing. Here, no one is immune. This place has been infamous like that from its very first race, over time giving rise to restrictor plates and other mechanisms that have attempted to rein it in -- but that speed and those aerodynamics and those high banks have produced a combination humans can harness only to a point.
So, yes, you knew it was coming. There had been too many signs -- eventual winnerMatt Kenseth slipping down to the apron and falling back,Jamie McMurray spinning without hitting anyone, Kenseth givingClint Bowyer a healthy shove on a restart -- that in retrospect seemed like tremors before the big quake. After that final restart, cars were so tightly packed that they were generating tire smoke off one another. "We all knew,"Jimmie Johnson said. With every lap, with every corner, the intensity rose and the inevitability sucked more air out of what became a vacuum 2.66 miles around.
There was only one turn remaining, but on this big track with the start-finish line pushed so far toward the end of the tri-oval, which was plenty room enough. The little ripples in traffic, so evident all day, became a flood. Some drivers grew stubborn, others impatient -- all of them eager to get whatever they could with so little real estate remaining. Stewart had been the leader at the white flag, and was in contention for the victory when he drifted to the bottom at the wrong time. Waltrip made contact with Stewart, and then shot up the track and hitKevin Harvick, whose vehicle went sideways and effectively dammed up all the oncoming traffic behind him.
The result was a salvage yard on the frontstretch, which included a glimpse of the underside of Stewart's No. 14 car as it rolled over in traffic. Those that made it through were fortunate enough to be at the bottom, where they found a narrow avenue to escape Talladega's wrath.
"It's just part of racing here at Talladega. You have to accept it," saidJeff Gordon, who finished second. "You have to know that you're going to be going through [anxiety] at certain times during the race, but at the end, for sure, especially with a green-white-checkered. You put a lot of faith in your safety equipment and you kind of white knuckle, hold on tight. I can't even describe to you. ... I don't know how we made it to the white flag. Coming through that tri oval, being hit from behind, hitting the guy in front of me, you're sandwiched in between, basically, cars. There are cars doing the same thing on that side of you, cars on that side of them doing the same thing. I really don't know how we made it to the white flag. It was just insane."
Even more so than Daytona, whose narrower straights prevent cars from being bunched quite as wide and deep, Talladega frustrates drivers who feel like their fate is to a large degree out of their hands. "You just roll the dice," Johnson said. Winning car owner Jack Roush said that whenever he loads up a vehicle to take it to a restrictor-plate event, he feels like he's writing it off. Here, the Big One looms larger than Bear Bryant's legacy over in Tuscaloosa. "I knew somebody was going to wreck," Earnhardt said. "There's been a last-lap wreck in like 90 percent of these things for the last four years with this car."
Especially on the last lap. Especially after a caution. Especially in a green-white-checkered finish.
"The last lap, everybody's going to push, and you can't push," added Earnhardt, who finished 20th and fell to 11th place in the Chase. "But the last lap, if you can get the guy, you're going to shove him, try to go. But if he's got a guy in front of him, he can't. He's going to get spun out. I don't think the caution had anything to do with it. I can't believe nobody's sensible enough to realize how ridiculous that was. That is ridiculous that all those cars got tore up. But everybody's just, ho-hum. No big deal. That's not all right."
Perhaps things will be different next season, when car manufacturers in NASCAR's top series introduce new models with bumpers that don't match up nearly as well, and might make it tougher for drivers to push one another in traffic. But Sunday, in the wake of another Talladega race beset by another Big One, it was difficult for one of the sport's most accomplished restrictor-plate racers to look forward to the next restrictor-plate event.
"I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year," Earnhardt said sullenly. "But I ain't got much choice."
The views expressed are solely those of the writer.