Like the sudden death of an old friend, pack racing is gone from Talladega Superspeedway.
And it isn't coming back.
For years, NASCAR fans knew they could turn on their TV sets four times per season to see huge packs drafting around Talladega and Daytona – a form of racing completely unique to NASCAR.
Within a year, though, it's abruptly disappeared. Drivers figured out they didn't have to just bump-draft to succeed at the restrictor-plate tracks; the way the bumpers line up on the new car, they could literally push each other all the way around the track.
And thus we have a new form of racing – also completely unique to NASCAR, but not as compelling as the packs for many fans.
The two-car drafts, as Jeff Gordon put it, are "here to stay."
RIP, pack racing. We never really had a chance to say goodbye.
So the question is this: What, if anything, should NASCAR do about it?
Some of the old-school NASCAR fans already believe their beloved Bristol races have been "ruined" by a recent repaving that allows for side-by-side racing. There's no doubt some of those same fans will now say Daytona and Talladega have been "ruined," too.
But unless NASCAR "drastically changes the car," Gordon said, the two-car drafts aren't going anywhere. And NASCAR isn't going to do that, because a major selling point of the new car was that the bumpers lined up.
In some ways, this was all by design. It's just that no one anticipated what two cars would be able to do together.
Taking the restrictor plates off isn't a viable solution. Letting the cars run at full speed would only make things worse, spreading the cars out like a giant Fontana.
Technically, there's little that can be done.
So if we're all stuck with the two-car drafts, here's an idea that would help Talladega maintain its place as a must-watch, must-attend event in the years going forward – and not just for the last lap.
Proposal: Twin Talladega races
One thing everyone can agree on – whether they like the two-car drafts or not – is the tandem racing creates unbelievable, spectacular finishes like the one we saw on Sunday.
The problem is, knowing there will be a great finish decreases the importance of the first 495 miles.
So what if Talladega and NASCAR decided to implement twin 200-mile Talladega races? Each race would be worth half the money and half the points of the current purse structure.
Think about it:
• Fans would be virtually guaranteed to see two great finishes instead of one – thus getting more value for their dollar (or their time invested watching at home).
• The races would have more of an urgency rather than a "ride-around" factor.
• If a popular driver wrecked early in the first race, he could pull out a backup car with a fresh start for the second race – thus keeping people tuned in to the event.
• There would be a "halftime break" of sorts that would allow the TV networks to maintain their desired broadcast window (and commercials) while supplementing their coverage with driver interviews despite the shorter race distance.
And, if Talladega and sponsor Aaron's really wanted to get wild, they could even implement four 99-mile races – thus keeping the "499" theme in effect.
OK, so maybe that last idea is a little much. And maybe it's just impossible to fill the void left by the sudden departure of our old friend, the pack racing.
But in a constantly evolving world where shorter attention spans are king, NASCAR must make sure to keep giving fans a reason to stay tuned – and not just for the finish.