Commentary

Better than ever? You bet

Updated: May 10, 2010, 10:02 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- You wanted Talladega back? You got Talladega back. And more. Much more than you would even know to hope for, because the only guidelines any of us had were the good old days.

And Sunday was better than the good old days. It was historic, here and for all of NASCAR.

Records for a competitive race were blown away in the Aaron's 499. In 61 years there'd been nothing like this one.

There were 88 lead changes, eclipsing the record of 75 set here in 1984, before the advent of restrictor plates. There were 29 different leaders, beating the 28 here in 2008.

The end of the day was almost tarnished by another record, for runnings of NASCAR's latest contrivance, the green-white-checkered overtime. The maximum three were run, and the race wound up totaling 200 laps, a Talladega record that made it the Aaron's 532.

But Kevin Harvick plucked the ending from the jaws of absurdity with a superbly timed move coming to the checkered flag that was reminiscent of a Richard Petty-David Pearson finish.

His last-second pass of Jamie McMurray for the win smacked of a return to the classic slingshot pass that had been missing from Talladega racing for more than 30 years.

It turned out to be a 21st-century, higher-tech, improved version of the slingshot, but still, "it's air," Harvick said.

[+] EnlargeWreck
AP Photo/Russell NorrisThe race stayed pretty clean until late, and even then the pileups were nothing like what we had become accustomed to at Talladega.

He meant he utilized the draft in a one-on-one situation rather than relying on a push from a long drafting line behind him.

In Friday's practice, this generation of drivers began to notice the ability for a sort of slingshot-plus. Pulling out suddenly not only catapulted the trailing car forward, but it bogged down the leading car that was being passed.

Running in second place, "as long as you stayed against their [the leading car's] bumper, you were able to shoot past them," Harvick said. "And as soon as you shot past them it slowed them down and you could stay ahead for several hundred feet."

The new twist on the slingshot, Harvick said, was that "as soon as you pull to the left you get the front of your air pushing into their spoiler and it immediately slows that car down. And until you break all the way out, you're not pushing all the air that front car's pushing. So you've got a couple of things working for you."

"I hate to show my age," said Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin, "but that was a tremendous pass just like the old days, like you would have seen Buddy Baker or Cale Yarborough or anybody do here. … I have to applaud the whole deal [NASCAR aero revamp] because the cars were able to slingshot and pass like that."

The post-modern slingshot accounted for not only the winning pass but a lot of lead changes. Occasionally throughout the race, two cars would break out front and the second car could slingshot the first, one on one.

So what accounted most for this wild and record day?

Well, I hate to say I told you so -- no I don't.

I told you as early as January, as soon as NASCAR announced spoilers would be brought back to replace rear wings, and that the first restrictor-plate race with the spoilers back would be Talladega.

You could see it coming -- the boxy COT knocking huge holes in the air, and the spoiler causing closing speeds to be eyeblink fast.

Then in February, even with the wings still on, there were inklings of the return of the slingshot.

You knew this would be the wildest Talladega in recent memory, but not necessarily that it would be the wildest ever.

And the cherry on top was that the Jeff Gordon-Jimmie Johnson "rivalry," as they called it after their issues in Texas last week, boiled over Sunday into something bordering on a feud.

"The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that," Gordon said after being caught up in a wreck Sunday because his momentum had been broken by teammate Johnson a couple of seconds earlier.

"It takes a lot to make me mad," Gordon said, "and I am pissed right now. When a car's going that much faster [he claimed to have been closing on Johnson 10 mph faster when Johnson tried to block] … I don't know what it is with me and him right now. But whatever …"

Next stop on the Cup tour is an excellent track for feuding: Richmond on Saturday night. So we shall see about the 24-48 beef.

Meanwhile, Harvick's car owner, Richard Childress, was celebrating the first win of the season for a team that has been on the brink of winning since February.

"This is about as sweet as it gets," Childress said, and then added something profound for a man who drove in the first race here, in 1969, and has participated as either a driver or an owner ever since.

"It was as good a race as you could see at Talladega," Childress said. "The spoilers and everything on the cars worked great."

The wrecking wasn't so bad for here -- there were a few large ones but no bona fide big one. This was chicken feed of five to 10 cars each, compared to the double-digit melees of recent years here.

And no cars went airborne.

It was a record day, a wild day, but not a scary or deadly day.

All told, it has taken NASCAR 23 years since the advent of the restrictor plate to hit on a package for Talladega that's as good as the old unrestricted races here.

Now it appears they have a package that's better than ever for Talladega.

So not only have you got Talladega back, you've got Talladega-plus.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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