Let’s just say it, loud and clear.
The final laps of yesterday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega were not what we have come to expect over the years.
In marked contrast to the track’s well-deserved reputation for heart-stopping, three-wide, hold-your-breath finishes, yesterday’s event ended with a whimper, rather than a bang. Leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr. rode the high line to Victory Lane virtually unchallenged, as the vast majority of the field rode passively in single-file behind him, seemingly content to accept an outcome that did not involve a trip to Victory Lane.
Denny Hamlin made a bit of a move coming to the white flag, ducking to the inside with drafting support from defending series champion Kevin Harvick. Surprisingly, though, no one else chose to throw-in, remaining glued to the outside line and making no attempt to advance their position. Paul Menard made a similar bid in the race’s final turn, but by then it was too little, too late, as Earnhardt easily blocked the charge en route to the Winner’s Circle.
After the race, some observers mistakenly questioned whether the lukewarm finish was due to offseason rule changes mandated by NASCAR. Clearly, it was not.
|If they can do it early...|
The first 140 laps of Sunday’s race featured lengthy interludes of two and three-wide racing, with lead changes aplenty. If they can run three-wide, 10 rows deep in the beginning and middle of the race, they can do it at the end, as well.
Yesterday’s finish was not a rules issue. Horsepower and aerodynamics had nothing to do with the lack of passing in the final laps of yesterday’s race. It was simply a lack of “wanna.” In the waning laps of the event, Tony Stewart tried numerous times to get something going and advance the middle of the running order. Amazingly, less than a handful of drivers – Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick among them – showed any interest in joining the effort.
The rest appeared content to accept a middling, 18th-place finish, rather than take a chance on losing ground and finishing 28th. At last glance, 18th-place doesn’t pay all that well. It also does not award much in the way of championship points. Why, then, were so many drivers content to be mediocre Sunday?
Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering.
|..why not late?|
“I don’t know what creates that in the drivers’ minds to say, `We’re all going to ride at the top,’” said Johnson afterward. “It doesn’t happen every time, (but) it does happen every now and then, and today was one of those days.”
A year ago, Earnhardt elected to “ride out” the final laps at Talladega, accepting a 26th-place finish rather than jeopardize his car with a final push through the pack.
I criticized Junior at the time, saying he shortchanged his fans, sponsors and team by quitting before the race was over. My opinion probably doesn’t matter to Junior – nor should it – but I was happy to see him come out in the days that followed and apologize to fans for giving less than 100%.
Earnhardt commented on that race yesterday, saying, “I was real ashamed of that choice. I felt like I wasted my team's time and everybody's hard work. So I got up in there (today). If I wreck, we're in the middle of it. We're going to be racing for the lead, or trying to anyway. That's my mentality until I don't race anymore.”
I was especially happy to hear those comments, and proud to hear NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver vow to never, ever give a halfhearted effort on the race track again.
I hope that today, a number of Earnhardt’s colleagues are looking back on their personal effort in yesterday’s final laps and realizing that it was not their finest hour as racers. I hope that they – like Earnhardt before them – will re-examine whatever thought processes and motivations were in play, then vowing to never again accept that sort of mediocrity.