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Bob Pockrass, NASCAR Scene

SPECTACULAR CRASH LEAVES MANY WONDERING ‘WHAT IF?’

Let’s be real clear here. NASCAR cheated death in the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Carl Edwards’ car nearly flew into the grandstands. The fence did its job, but that gives little comfort. Kind of like your car having airbags – it has them but it’s not like you plan on using them.

What if that car had risen a little higher? Hit a little harder? Is it really worth all those SportsCenter highlights?

No one died at Talladega Super-speedway, and for that we can be thankful after Brad Keselowski and Edwards collided, sending Edwards’ car soaring through the air.

Edwards, in an incredibly calm and matter-of-fact way, said that someone will have to get killed for NASCAR to change its rules on restrictor plates and yellow lines. He seemed most shaken when asked if he thought his car might end up in the grandstands. He said he didn’t know if he could live with himself if his car had sailed over the fence.

“I know it’s a spectacle for everybody and that’s great and all, but it’s not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this,” he said. “What if the car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people? You know what I mean? At some point, they’ve got to say, ‘Look, we’ve got to change this around a little bit.’”

Watching Edwards’ car soar through the air, there were two thoughts that came to mind: “This is awesome,” and “This could be deadly.”

It’s impossible to watch that finish and not be excited. It’s impossible to watch that finish and not feel guilty about being excited.

Is that much excitement, that much thrill worth it if one person dies in the grandstands? The answer to that can be “Yes,” with the philosophy that life is meant to be lived, and watching a NASCAR race is about accepting danger and living life to the fullest.

If the answer is “No,” then NASCAR needs to make some changes.

The worst thing is that there’s no solution to this other than to tear up these race tracks. NASCAR can’t get rid of this style of driving because the restrictor plates are a necessary evil to keep the cars from launching into the air more often. And if NASCAR got rid of the yellow-line rule, blocking would just continue into the grass, which could also lead to a spectacular crash.

Keselowski had two choices on the final lap: Lift and finish second behind Edwards or hold his line and see what happens. He held his line and celebrated his first Sprint
Cup victory, one that was great because no one suffered life-threatening injuries, but terrifyingly close to being shallow.

Keselowski stressed his concern for the injured fans but couldn’t hide his giddiness with his first career Cup victory. That’s the way he’s supposed to react. His family has been around racing for so long that it’s just accepted the dangers. Fans come to see drivers beat and bang and it’s up to NASCAR to do its best to prevent tragic consequences.

As Keselowski said, he competes with a bunch of crazy race-car drivers and fans come for the show. He wasn’t being callous. He was right.

The reality is that while a handful of fans might not want to go back after being injured, thousands of people saw that finish and probably are ready to buy tickets for the race in November. Television ratings for the remaining restrictor-plate races should increase. The sport, which has had little drama through eight races, got some much-needed drama in a 10-second clip. It might be the shot in the arm that the sport desperately needs.

The finish will be debated for years to come. Among the debates will be where this finish ranks in NASCAR history.

But another debate will haunt those who saw this race. It was a great finish to see. But do we really want to see it again?

Despite all the safety innovations in the cars and the fencing, it’s hard not to leave Talladega and think NASCAR used up its luck for a long, long time.

EXCITEMENT ABOUNDS AT RICHMOND – EVEN WITHOUT A DEATH-DEFYING WRECK

We apologize for not having a crash photo on the front of our magazine this week. We’re sorry that we can’t show a car almost flying into the grandstands and a driver defying death.

But a strange thing happened under the lights at Richmond International Raceway. NASCAR had an exciting race, and it didn’t need a terrifying crash at the end to pull it off.

Granted, Kyle Busch isn’t going to be going on “Ellen” to talk about winning on his 24th birthday. Hometown favorite Denny Hamlin isn’t going to be interviewed by Larry King about his gut-wrenching disappointment. In fact, when they talked horsepower on sports telecasts late Saturday night and Sunday, it was more about the Kentucky Derby than it was about the Richmond race.

Still, the Crown Royal 400 was exciting, and it shows that NASCAR still has the recipe to get things right. The 0.75-mile Richmond track lends itself to close racing but occasionally one driver can run away with it, as Hamlin nearly did a year ago and Busch essentially did this time over the final 30 laps.

There was additional intrigue prior to the finish based on pit and fuel strategy. When Jeff Gordon stayed out with 92 laps remaining and he had seven cars between him and those with four fresh tires, there was a possibility he could hold everyone off.

And if he couldn’t, who would catch him? Would it be Ryan Newman gunning for Stewart-Haas Racing’s first victory? Would it be Denny Hamlin, who had led 148 laps and had the Richmond crowd craving a win for him? Or would it be Busch, who along with Gordon, appears a prime candidate to win the Sprint Cup title?

This shows just how important tires are to the quality of racing. When Goodyear finds a tire that will wear off during a run but not so quickly that it makes it a no-brainer for drivers to pit, it forces crew chiefs to make judgments on whether to pit or play the track-position game. It also adds a great element to the race as other drivers weave through traffic. It makes fans watch the front of the field and not say, “Hey, there’s a great battle for 10th going on.”

There also were plenty of wrecks at Richmond to keep the crash-craving fan happy. There was Brian Vickers tapping Busch; Dale Earnhardt Jr. tapping Jeff Burton; and Joey Logano tapping Greg Biffle. Although no one retaliated, the potential for retaliation was there.

And the weather also added an element of suspense. Although the clouds had broken up so that the race nearly started on time, the threat of rain loomed as showers popped up throughout the area. Crew chiefs were never certain if the rain would come, and ultimately, it didn’t.

All of this, plus a crowd that wasn’t a sellout but certainly was near capacity, made this race one of the most electric of the season. The fans didn’t go home disappointed – unless, of course, they were fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Then, they might well have gone home and had their 88 tattoos removed.

The moral of the race was that NASCAR doesn’t need flying cars to make for an exciting show. It doesn’t need to flirt with tragedy and put its fans in danger. While this race won’t make every TV sports highlight reel, that shouldn’t be the goal.

What is then? To have an entertaining three to four hours of action where fans can enjoy an afternoon of partying and a night of racing while competitors actually feel they’re in a competition and not just passengers or pawns. NASCAR got it right at Richmond. This might not go down as the best race of 2009, but count it as one critical in the quest to sustain the sport’s success.

NASCAR MADE RIGHT CALLS IN POSTPONING POCONO, GLEN RACES

NASCAR had no choice but to race Monday at Watkins Glen, the second consecutive week it had to postpone a Sprint Cup race a day because of rain. And for the second consecutive Sunday, people left the track with a sour taste in their mouths when, in the late afternoon and early evening, the racing surface was dry.

But at both tracks, the call to postpone the race was the right call. The fans who were able to stay for the Monday race at Watkins Glen (officials estimated attendance at 85,000) certainly got their money’s worth, just as those did at Pocono. They got to see good races. Pocono was highlighted by a wild final 30 laps and Watkins Glen featured dicing throughout the field, with drivers on different pit sequences making passes on every lap.

But it’s a shame these races were run on Monday, causing some fans to miss the race entirely while others no doubt had to pretend to be at work while watching the race on computers or office TVs.

What can be done? Should races start earlier? Should all tracks have lights? Should Sprint Cup cars have rain tires?

No, no and no.

It would be easy to say the races should start at noon or 1 p.m. as they did in the old days. But there are more fans on the West Coast today, and also more fans attend races than in the 1990s. West Coast fans shouldn’t be forced to get up at 9 or 10 a.m. to watch a Cup race. And with the current economic conditions, more fans are coming to the track the day of the race, and they need more time to get there.

An earlier start time probably would have resulted in the race at Watkins Glen starting on Sunday, but it would have been stopped and delayed by rain, making it a stretch to run the full 90 laps before darkness. Instead of a complete race, the event would have been shortened and the winner likely would have been determined by pit strategy involving the weather forecast, which already has happened twice this year.

The quality of racing needs to be taken into account, and that’s where NASCAR’s decision not to use rain tires in Sprint Cup races also is the right call. Putting Cup drivers on a road course already takes many of them out of their element. Adding the wrinkle of racing in the rain would dilute the product tremendously. Fans deserve to see the drivers at their best.

People don’t camp for days and pay high ticket prices to see Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart run side by side in the rain when those drivers can’t see. They pay to see them do what they did on Monday. This isn’t football, where fans with season tickets can see most of the games played in good conditions and can handle occasionally seeing one played in a downpour.

And there are other factors NASCAR officials take into account when deciding not to run a race late on Sunday after a weather delay.

The access roads in both the Watkins Glen and Pocono areas are mostly two-lane, winding roads. Putting tens of thousands of fans, who have been sitting outside all day, onto those roads, in the dark, after a late Sunday race is cause for concern.

When it comes time for the Chase For The Sprint Cup, events should be held at facilities that can handle that type of situation and at tracks that have lights so a race doesn’t have to be halted by darkness.

But for the last two weeks, having lights for a Sunday night race would not have been a good experience for the fans in attendance. While it was a shame the races were postponed – and some fans obviously couldn’t take Monday off to see them – they were good experiences.

And that’s better for fans than trying to race with little daylight, on a wet surface or deep into the night under the lights.

NOTHING BACKWARD ABOUT KURT BUSCH

On a day that was about moving forward and distancing himself from the rest of the field, Kurt Busch decided to celebrate his win at Atlanta Motor Speedway by going backward.

It was a strange way to celebrate, putting his Penske Racing car in reverse and taking a victory lap around the track.

But it was pure Kurt. Remember, this is the guy who tried to celebrate a win at Bristol by doing snow angels when there wasn’t any snow on the Bristol concrete.

Busch's celebration at Atlanta was different, borderline bizarre and borderline dorky. And whether it catches on and engages the fans, well, that remains to be seen.

The same could be said about Busch himself. He is an enigma. Sitting in his hauler, he can be polite and charming. At an appearance, he is among the best in the business at interacting with sponsors. On stage at a news conference, he is more reserved, and if he tells a joke, it can be a little forced. On the track, he can be venomous to his team on the radio – and knows he owes them lunch to make up for it. And if he’s still sour by the time he gets out of the car, you better give him room or be prepared for a sharp tongue.

And Busch has been sour quite often the last few years. That isn’t surprising. After all, he won 14 times in his first five years in the Sprint Cup Series but has struggled with only five wins in the last three-plus seasons. In two of the last three years, he has failed to make the Chase. While Busch’s fiery attitude in the car makes for performances such as the one at Atlanta, it also might not create the best atmosphere when trying to channel frustration into progress.

There never has been any doubt, though, about his talent. As Roger Penske said after the victory, he wasn’t sure Busch has been given the equipment to perform.

Perform he did at Atlanta where he led 234 of the 325 laps. As he screamed around the track, he scraped the wall a few times. He didn’t worry, though, even joking to his team that he “put some ppg Envirobase on there” – referring to a news conference earlier in the day announcing that Penske was using a new water-based, more environmentally friendly paint.

Busch kept his car away from the wall often enough. He was fearless and he was on his game.

“I can tell you one thing, there’s not many people that can hold a candle to Kurt,” Penske said. “That’s why we hired him.”

That’s not just an owner boasting.

Consider this: Busch won a race where neither of his teammates finished in the top 20 and only one other Dodge, driven by the talented Kasey Kahne, finished in the top 15. Busch is third in points this year – his teammates are 26th and 31st. And again, Kahne is the only other Dodge in the top 15.

This indicates that while Busch had a strong car, he didn’t have a package that was so far superior to the rest of the field. Instead, the package complemented his talent, and his talent made a great car a dominant one.

NASCAR has a rating system for drivers, that few bother to understand. But all one needs to know is that Busch had a perfect score at Atlanta.

What does it mean? It doesn’t mean that he was perfect, but just for comparison: It marked the fourth time he has achieved that score and no other driver has had it more than once. So however it’s figured out, it says that Busch is damn good. And after that performance at Atlanta, no one can argue with that.

Is this the start of a revival for the driver who first made the Busch name famous in racing circles? Is this the start of another championship run?

That remains to be seen. We’ll either see the driver that smoked the field at Atlanta, or we’ll see a driver who gets it stuck in reverse before heading back to victory lane again.