The looming threat of the Big One made the last quarter of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega both exciting and entertaining. But when the actual crash finally arrived, it ruined the race.
There's a delicate balance to what makes restrictor-plate racing enjoyable to watch and what makes it sickening. Sunday's race would have been a heck of a lot more thrilling if the Big One never happened, and if that gigantic pack of cars had all come to the finish line in a crazy, four-wide scramble for position.
Think about how awesome it would have been if Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears hadn't gotten blocked by Tony Stewart, and if they'd been able to streak past everyone in a tandem draft heading to the finish line with 30 cars chasing them down.
It would have been epic. NASCAR was one corner away from all those cars making it cleanly and having all the drivers get out and start talking about how much fun they had, high-fiving and smiling.
Instead, all the mangled cars made the garage look like a disaster movie and most of the drivers expressed their displeasure for plate racing after taking a hard hit or two.
Part of the allure at Talladega is seeing the Big One. That's just how it is. But there are different degrees of major wrecks. Specifically, it's thrilling to watch a bunch of cars spin and crash into one another but not enjoyable to see a car go airborne.
The moment a driver flips into the air, the sensation as a viewer goes from "Wow!" to "Oh no!" And then the horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach arrives until cameras provide evidence the driver is OK.
It's obvious why some drivers don't like restrictor-plate racing: Not only is the result out of their control, but the threat to their personal safety is doubled or tripled compared to that of a normal race.
So what's the solution to plate racing? There may not be one. This may sound callous, but that's why those drivers make the big bucks. That's why there's a difference between a weekend warrior at a local short track and a professional athlete who puts it all on the line.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked disgusted after Sunday's race and said he wouldn't race Talladega and Daytona if he didn't have to. But the harsh reality is if he stepped out of the car, there'd be another driver eager to step in and collect part of his $28.2 million in annual earnings.
There's a reason why not everyone can be a NASCAR driver: Because it takes a special breed of human to do it, a person who possesses both exceptional talent and bravery. Talladega requires more of the latter than perhaps any other track.
Talladega needs twin races, not 500 miles
All that said, there's no reason Talladega should be 500 miles. It's pointless. Everyone is just waiting for the finish, so the first 400 miles are basically a waste of time. The championship contenders drop to the back to stay out of trouble, and it's not interesting for the fans to watch that strategy.
Here's a solution: Turn Talladega into a Sunday doubleheader with a pair of 150-mile races. Cut the points in half for each race (instead of getting 20 points, a driver would get 10) and allow drivers to pull out a backup car for the second event if they choose.
The Twin Talladega races would fit neatly into a three-hour broadcast window, and there'd be a halftime break to get reaction from drivers. Race No. 2's starting lineup would be the reverse finishing order of the first race.
Why not? Fans would get more value for their money (they'd have a chance to see two crazy finishes instead of one), and it would make for one of the most interesting days of the NASCAR season.
Will Kurt Busch be suspended?
Don't be surprised if NASCAR decides to suspend Kurt Busch after he drove away from safety workers tending to his wrecked car and essentially disobeyed a NASCAR command.
Busch was suspended in June after he made a veiled threat to a reporter, and you'd think NASCAR would place a higher priority on protecting safety workers than the media (rightfully so, since it's a dangerous job to be on track with cars going by – even under caution).
In this case, a NASCAR official and a safety worker were leaning into the window openings – and a bag was on top of the car – when Busch drove away. That's not a good situation. NASCAR warns the drivers every week to use extra care when they're near safety workers; Busch did not do so.
When Busch got suspended, his probation was also extended through the end of the year. If NASCAR believes he violated his probation, his debut with Furniture Row Racing could be delayed by a week or more.
On the other hand, NASCAR could decide it has already taken action by parking him for the day. We should know the answer by Tuesday.
Championship race now down to three
Before Talladega, drivers insisted the Chase was still wide open because anything could happen to take a number of competitors out and shake up the standings.
That didn't happen to any of the top three drivers, and so now the championship battle is down to points leader Brad Keselowski, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson (-14 points) and Denny Hamlin (-23 points).
Despite Keselowski's increased lead, the favorite is still Johnson. He has no weak spots at any of the remaining tracks, while Keselowski has one top-10 finish in 18 career races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
Hamlin is certainly further back than he would prefer, but is still very much in it. However, he's now one bad race away from completely losing touch with the leaders.