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Matt Kenseth wins at Talladega after last-lap crash

An attempt by race leader Tony Stewart to block a charge by Michael Waltrip sends Stewart airborne and sets off a 25-car crash. Drivers express disgust with restrictor-plate racing format.

October 08, 2012|By George Diaz
  • Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint… (Sean Gardner / Getty Images )

TALLADEGA, Ala. — The big bang theory seemed to be fool's folly going into the final lap Sunday afternoon. Talladega was more tame than treacherous, belying its marketing plan of mayhem.

And then:

BOOM!

Race leader Tony Stewart went airborne trying to block the charge of Michael Waltrip, setting off the smoke and the carnage of 25 bumper cars spinning out of control.

It led to a pertinent question in the hazy aftermath:

What's the point of it all?

"It's not safe," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's bloodthirsty. If that's what people want, it's ridiculous."

"There is no safe place," said Matt Kenseth, who happened to win this thing, followed by Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

But that's just because they were fortunate sons, not because of their exceptional driving skills. The random madness of Talladega struck again, and after all the smoke cleared in the garage, the case against this type of restrictor-plate racing morphed into a chorus of boos from stars disgusted by it all.

"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it," Earnhardt said. "I'd find another job. ... You can't get away from each other. It's obvious. How many cars were in that wreck? And that's OK with everybody?

"I don't even want to go to Talladega or Daytona next year, but I got no choice."

Echoed Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate:

"That literally is bumper cars almost at 200 miles an hour, and I don't know anybody who likes that."

Maybe Kenseth does today, simply because he needed a victory to have any semblance of winning the title as a lame-duck driver at Roush Racing. He still is 62 points behind leader Brad Keselowski with six races to go, but it could have been far worse had he been caught up in the carnage.

Stewart was leading on the first lap of a two-lap "green-white-checkered" finish but got away from the lead pack, leaving him vulnerable to one last charge. It came from Kenseth on the outside and Waltrip on the inside.

Stewart tried blocking Waltrip, made contact and went airborne.

Chaos ensued, for which Stewart took full responsibility.

"I just screwed up," he said.

His car was totaled, reflecting a familiar look in the post-race garage area.

"It's a junk yard," Denny Hamlin said.

Beyond the mangled mess of cars, eight drivers needed to be cleared and released from the infield care center. No one was hurt seriously except maybe NASCAR's in-house reputation. It can't seem to quite get it right in the four plate races of the season — two here, two at Daytona.

The big pack once gave way to tandem (two cars locked together for aerodynamic purposes), which has now given way to the big pack again after rule changes this season. But the huge difference from the old days is that the homogenous nature of these cars makes it very difficult for anyone to break away from the pack, setting up the inevitable crash because too many drivers are chasing a victory — as they should — while zooming at crazy speeds just inches from one another.

"I remember when coming to Talladega was fun," Gordon said. "And I haven't experienced that in a long, long time. I don't like coming here. I don't like the type of racing I have to do, but if I'm a fan, I would love that. It is incredibly intense. It's wild. It's crazy. Sometimes that's the balance that NASCAR has to deal with."

Sure, quite a number of fans root for the "big one," but looking at the empty seats in the stands, Talladega isn't the beast it once was in terms of fanatical support. The economy has pinched everybody a little tighter.

That includes race teams, which come here with cars knowing there is little chance they will leave with only a few scratches.

"I figure the car's a write-off when I load it up on the truck," Jack Roush said.

And his guy won.

At least the discontent doesn't seem random.

It appears very consistent, and it echoes one common theme:

The restrictor-plate business model stinks.

gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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