Commentary

No-bump rule frustrates fans, drivers

Updated: November 2, 2009, 1:43 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Mr. Newton, I've been a NASCAR fan for more than 30 years and I must say after watching the start of today's race, NASCAR has virtually lost me as a fan. This is not racing and this is not what racing is about. NASCAR better do something soon or the attendance at all of the tracks will start looking like California Speedway.

Please feel free to forward this to anyone [who] will listen!!! I gotta get back to the TV … at least there is a good football game on! Come on, NASCAR, let them race or make them race … that's what they get paid to do!!

Sincerely,

Former NASCAR Fan
Jon Little

Jon, you're not alone.

That was the reaction many of us who attended the prerace drivers' meeting feared when NASCAR president Mike Helton warned that aggressiveness, particularly bump drafting and pushing in the corners with a two-car breakaway, wouldn't be tolerated.

As soon as he said the bumper-to-bumper action that creates some of the most intense drama of the season -- and at times the most horrific crashes -- would be policed to the point a win could be taken away, the single-file racing we had for much of the 188 laps was predictable.

You the fans let us know your dissatisfaction early, flooding the ESPN.com RaceCast chat with complaints about how the governing body has ruined the sport.

Hinton: As good as a win

Jamie McMurray won the race Sunday at Talladega, and Jimmie Johnson won the title. Oh, not officially for Johnson, not yet. But it will take a miracle to catch him now. Column

Let 'em race, you screamed.

Loudly!

Wrote "hot rod" from Las Vegas: "36 cars on the lead lap and all in single file … yeah, that's really racing."

Wrote Jon from Chicago: "You know what, I convinced a couple of friends who don't like NASCAR because they think it's just cars driving in a circle for 500 miles to watch this weekend and give it a chance, and this is the show they get. Even if the last 30 laps are awesome, there is no way they will be watching. Pass that on to NASCAR."

Many of the comments contained words that couldn't be posted.

The drivers were equally frustrated. Tony Stewart, who laid back with Jimmie Johnson much of the afternoon, radioed, "Someone tell me something interesting so I don't fall asleep out here."

Kyle Busch smugly said this is what's called a drivers' union. He also said it was B.S. and suggested that if this is what NASCAR wants, then the race should be shortened to 75 laps.

Some argued 50.

Perhaps the single-file train that seemingly lasted forever was the drivers' way of showing NASCAR their displeasure for the league not letting them race like they're accustomed to here.

"Let us race," said Denny Hamlin, whose day ended early with a blown engine. "They gave us the car to race. Now let the drivers handle it."

[+] EnlargeRyan Newman
AP Photo/Mark YoungThe "big one" didn't rear its ugly head until five laps remained Sunday at Talladega. That's when Ryan Newman (39) went for the ride of his life.

Ryan Newman was equally outspoken after being cut out of his car, which came to a rest upside down following a hard bump on the backstretch. He called the race boring, "ridiculous, actually." He blamed NASCAR for creating it.

"They created a lot of the boredom," Newman said. "We couldn't race. It was survival. The race could have been a hundred laps long and we would have had a great race. It's unfortunate. I just hate it for the fans."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. compared it to a lottery. Pick a number at start of the race and see where you finish.

"Obviously, there is something else that needs to be thought about," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "I am sure NASCAR will figure it out. They are pretty hard-headed over there. Don't like to admit they're wrong sometimes."

They didn't admit they made a mistake this time. I tried to talk to Helton, who deferred to vice president of competition Robin Pemberton and public relations spokesman Kerry Tharp.

Asked if he didn't want to speak about the race, Helton said, "I'd love to talk about today, but Kerry and Robin are going to handle it."

So Pemberton spoke. He said the race was a product of restrictor-plate racing, reminding there are moments in every race where drivers simply log laps. He's right. But usually at Talladega they log laps two- and three-wide.

Until the final laps or the beginning of a double-file restart, this was a single-file caravan on the high side. Drivers were afraid to go low because they couldn't get enough momentum to keep up with the pack without bump drafting.

"It might have been a little different," Pemberton said of the racing because of the no-bump rule.

He also reminded that the changes were made because a few well-respected drivers complained about the bump drafting and two-car breakaways. He didn't mention names, but Jeff Gordon was among those who addressed it during Friday interviews.

Gordon, after being involved in the last-lap 13-car crash that left him 20th and virtually out of contention for a fifth championship, stood by his words afterward.

He didn't outright deny the race was boring, but he said the only way to prevent the boredom is to reduce the race to 200 miles.

"That's why the truck races when we come here are so exciting," he said.

The truck races also are exciting because they allow pushing. Busch came out of nowhere to win Saturday's race because teammate Aric Almirola pushed him past the leaders at the end.

Hamlin tried to push the no-push rule at about the 116-lap mark by getting on Jeff Burton's bumper. He was warned and backed off.

"If you want to make a rule let's just [say] we can't all line up," Hamlin said. "That's the only rule we can have [it], that we can't line up. We have to race."

Hamlin said he's never been so bored behind the wheel. He can understand how the fans would feel the same from their couch or the grandstands, which were far from full.

"We want to put on a good show," Hamlin said. "We really do. I'm more in favor of us going all out. If you want us to go all out, you're going to have to make this a 50-lap race. No more."

Hamlin predicted the rule would force drivers to bump each other harder in the straighaways and cause a "big one" at the end. Newman found that out when his car landed upside down on the hood of Kevin Harvick's car with five laps remaining.

"The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the race cars, the less we can race and the less we can put on a show for the fans," Newman said.

I'm sure he'll get to talk to Helton after that.

"I am not going to talk to them," Newman said. "It just doesn't matter."

So even with smaller restrictor plates to slow the cars and the threat of being DQ'd for pushing in the corner, there were two huge wrecks, with Newman and Mark Martin going upside down.

You simply can't make rules to prevent that.

"Pushing each other in the corners and all the way around, that is the safest drivers can do because you are linked together," Hamlin said.

I get it that officials want to promote safety, that they want to avoid the last-lap crashes like we had here in April, when seven fans were injured when Carl Edwards' car flew into the catch fence.

At the same time, they can't discourage the hard, aggressive racing that the sport was born on. And they can't suggest that the finishing order, even for the driver who crosses the line first, could be altered if they deem an advantage was gained from pushing in the turns.

One of the reasons Dale Earnhardt was so beloved -- and hated -- was because of the way he roughed up fellow drivers, the way he played mind games with them.

You can't do either when you're keeping 4 and 5 feet between cars in a single line because you fear a penalty if you get much closer.

NASCAR has to take some responsibility here. The problem was created by the new car that creates some aerodynamic advantage when two cars lock up bumper-to-bumper. It's a phenomenon we never saw with the old car.

And if they're so safe now, why not let them show the same aggression here that we've seen at other tracks in previous weeks? Aggression brings in viewers. It's why the NFL promotes the big hits and the NBA promotes the slam dunks.

"We should be able to race the race cars how we need to race them as drivers," Newman said. "If drivers can't respect each other then we'll go … out in the back parking lot and talk about it.

"NASCAR doesn't let us do that anymore, either."

See, Jon, you're not alone.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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