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Talladega delivers another vicious wreck, pitting driver safety vs. fans' wants

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – If you or I had been involved in a wreck like the one that claimed the cars of Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and more than two dozen other NASCAR drivers on Sunday afternoon, we'd curl up in a fetal position at the thought of going near a car ever again. This was the kind of high-speed, full-throttle, nowhere-to-hide carnage that allows real life to edge its way into your sporting Sunday, forcing you to think, just for a second, that something really bad might just have happened

Fortunately for all concerned, the catastrophic wreck on the last lap of the Good Sam 500 destroyed only acres of sheet metal (and the championship hopes of several drivers). The maelstrom that unfolded behind winner Matt Kenseth was terrifying to observe, yes, but ultimately nothing more than one hell of a show.

In short, it was the perfect NASCAR wreck.

View photo


Tony Stewart (14) flips over a host of cars on the final lap at Talladega. (AP)

Of course, you'll forgive the drivers if they're not quite as thrilled about all this. As they climbed from their cars, in various states of agitation and disbelief, they expressed a common sentiment: This isn't how racing should be.

With his car in neon-green shards just a few feet away, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked visibly shaken as he sat on the back bumper of his car hauler talking with crew chief Steve Letarte. When he did speak to the media, he left no doubt about his feelings on a track where he's had more success than any other: "It's not safe wrecking like that," he said. "It's ridiculous, man. It's bloodthirsty if that's what people want."

Earnhardt even went so far as to say if he had his way, he wouldn't run the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega next year. "If this was how we raced every week," he said, "I'd find another job."

Here's the question, though: Do NASCAR fans want danger, or just the illusion of danger? Real danger, taking chances and overextending your equipment, is what leads to serious injuries and worse. The illusion of danger? It's a performance, and everyone knows it.

[Related: Keselowski escapes unscathed]

Jeff Gordon, despite having the good fortune of darting through the wreckage to notch a second-place finish, has few fond thoughts for Talladega: "I don't like coming here," he said after the race. "I don't like the type of racing that I have to do. But if I'm a fan, I would love that. I think it is incredibly intense. It's wild, it's crazy."

The problem that NASCAR faces is that two of its crown jewels, the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, are the races at which the interests of the fans and the interests of the drivers diverge. NASCAR does hold all the cards here – it's not like a driver can refuse to drive these races – but how does it manage the interests of two of its most important constituencies?

"I know that these are NASCAR's marquee races, the high banks of Daytona and Talladega," winning team owner Jack Roush said after the race. "I just figure the car's a writeoff when I load it up to bring it to one of these tracks."

In the end, showmanship be damned: The drivers are just happy to put the Alabama foothills in their rear-view mirror. "It's good to get [Talladega] all over with and go on to real race tracks, where we can control our destiny and fast cars matter," Denny Hamlin said as the sound of hammers and saws on sheet metal echoed throughout the Talladega garage. "Just listen around you. It's a junkyard."

Brad Keselowski, who remains the points leader, put it even more directly: "I just feel lucky to survive Talladega."

Just a guess: that won't be going into next year's marketing campaign.

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