Commentary

Talladega and Chase need fixing ... fast

Updated: November 3, 2009, 12:48 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Talladega, always one of Sprint Cup's most anticipated events, appears unfixable.

The Chase, at least for 2009, is a complete failure for producing any season-ending drama.

So where does NASCAR go from here?

"I don't know. I really don't," Elliott Sadler told reporters about Talladega after the race Sunday. "I think NASCAR and all the drivers should sit in a private room, lock the doors, and have a discussion and try to fix this together."

For many fans, the Talladega debacle and the snore of a Chase are not minor issues. Both are significant problems that need solutions.

Or are they? Is this an overly critical assessment of both situations?

Maybe it's an overreaction to Jimmie Johnson's dominance (something that deserves praise) and another typical Talladega day of destruction and danger (something drivers have experienced and griped about for years).

One could argue that the best answer is to do nothing.

Enjoying Johnson's historic run to a fourth consecutive title is good enough, even if the Chase playoff doesn't produce a points battle to the end.

[+] EnlargeTalladega
Kevin Liles/US PresswireOne solution being bandied about for fixing the racing at Talladega is to knock down the banking in the turns. But they may just yield worse results than fans and drivers get now.

And Dega is Dega, as the saying goes, restrictor-plate racing with a strategic waiting game followed by out-of-control moments.

Just leave things alone and they'll get better?

Sorry, that's not good enough. It's the easy way out, the lazy response of expecting a different result from the same action or inaction.

NASCAR took action at Talladega. In Sunday's case, too much action. NASCAR officials told the drivers that bump-drafting in the turns would result in a serious penalty.

So the drivers obeyed, basically saying, "If that's what you want, that's what you'll get."

The no-touch policy turned Cup's most exciting venue into cruise-control on the Interstate. An important race in the Chase was reduced to a show in which 90 percent of the event was virtually meaningless.

"I'm as bored as [the fans] are," Denny Hamlin said when the race ended. "It could be 15 laps, and you would have a better show than it was at 188 [laps]."

And bumping on the straights, which wasn't banned, was enough to produce the same horrific crashes at the end.

NASCAR also reduced the opening of the plates, which slowed the cars down a little but accomplished nothing.

"It was just kind of a terrible race today in general,'' David Ragan said after his 17th-place finish Sunday. "There was a lot of single-file racing. I know it's exciting at the end, but when NASCAR slows these cars down, they're too easy to drive and everyone just gets kind of crazy."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said Sunday's race wasn't much different from most Talladega events, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

Through more than two decades of restrictor-plate racing at Talladega, this endless game of minor rule changes has proved futile.

But NASCAR is in a difficult position. Reducing the banking in the turns -- the logical step that could eliminate plate racing and make the races safer -- also could eliminate the excitement and drama at NASCAR's biggest track.

Pack racing is dangerous, but it also is fun to watch at times, especially for the casual fans NASCAR needs to attract. Sunday's race had 58 passes for the lead among 25 drivers within the shifting parallel lines of cars.

And no one wants to turn Talladega into Auto Club Speedway. Officials at ACS in Fontana, Calif., have lobbied for changes to become more like Dega.

But maybe there's a happy medium, forcing the drivers to brake in the turns while retaining the ability to race closely and make passes up front.

Changing the banking at Talladega would cost several million dollars when International Speedway Corp. already is spending $13 million to renovate the grandstand seating at the facility.

Even if money isn't a factor, it's a big gamble. What if the changes don't work? What if it makes NASCAR's bad boy track into a boy scout?

In some ways, this happened Sunday. Drivers, reporters and some fans insisted that changes take place after the April event when Carl Edwards' car flew into the catch fencing and injured some spectators.

So changes came, as they always do at Dega. Higher catch fence, smaller plates and the no-bump-drafting edict.

The result? Many fans, and even some drivers, complaining about how boring most of the race was, blaming NASCAR for over-regulating things.

Now no one is happy, so something has to change. And a band-aid won't cure it. Twenty years of this proves that tweaking things doesn't work.

NASCAR has had only five years to tweak the Chase, but a major overall might be needed there, also.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/Glenn SmithJimmie Johnson should be celebrated for being on track to win a fourth straight Sprint Cup title, and maybe even for proving the Chase needs to be overhauled.

Johnson has a 184-point lead: "I am good with that," Johnson said when reporters told him of his advantage Sunday. "That is a good number."

He could clinch the title in Phoenix, one week before the season ends. In the old system of total points for the year, Johnson would have moved ahead of Tony Stewart on Sunday to hold a 7-point lead with three races to go.

The Chase format was designed to produce a championship battle and bring more attention to NASCAR in the fall months after the NFL season started.

Some have suggested the Chasers have their own points system. The top Chase finisher each race would receive 12 points, and the worst Chase finisher would earn one point.

It's no good. That plan would keep the points closer, but it also would make it harder to gain ground on the leader. Johnson still would be comfortably in front.

No matter what mathematical formula you employ, Johnson would run away with it because his average finish in the Chase is 3.4. The next best is Jeff Gordon at 7.7.

One plan that could help is an elimination system, in which three or four drivers go to the last race with a shot at the championship after the other Chasers were knocked out earlier in the 10-race playoff.

Talladega and the Chase should be two of the biggest and best things in NASCAR. But both are broken and need some smart people with good ideas to fix them.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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