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Tuesday, April 24
Talladega run went without caution
By Cary Estes
Scripps Howard News Service

Dale Earnhardt is gone, and he has been replaced by Miss Manners.

The death of Earnhardt in February at the Daytona 500 left the rest of the drivers on the Winston Cup circuit shaking in their HANS devices as they contemplated Sunday's return to Talladega Superspeedway.

For weeks, drivers talked about how much they dread coming to Talladega. They hate the pack racing, the wild passing, the inevitable big wreck.

All they wanted to do Sunday was turn in a nice, quiet 500 miles, park their cars in one piece, hop on their private planes and go home.

Well, they did exactly that. There was no give-and-take during most of the Talladega 500. Only give. The drivers seemed to go out of their way to make sure they did not beat, bang or even nudge each other on the track.

The result was a caution-free, excitement-free race. Sure, things picked up a little near the end, when drivers actually began racing each other for the victory. But for the most part, this was nothing more than cars going around in a circle.

"This is not racing the way we were taught to race," Jimmy Spencer said. "We were taught to beat one another and not be lifting off the throttle all day long.

"There's no strategy, really. Just give. You let them go, you let them go and keep lifting off the gas."

Or, as Matt Kenseth said, "The only strategy was not to wreck."

Race-winner Bobby Hamilton admitted that his plan was to put his car on cruise control for 460 miles, then begin racing near the end. Tony Stewart, who finished second, actually said he enjoyed being at the back of the pack.

"It's a lot more pleasant back there," Stewart said. "When we got shuffled back, I was like, 'All right. I'm going all the way back and I'm going to ride for awhile."'

Hello. Does anybody else have a problem with this? These guys are racers. Their job is to race. Their job is to try to pass the car in front of them and get to the lead. Always.

If they want to race for only 15 laps, then make it a 15-lap race. Let's just have one big IROC event. We can run the whole thing in a half-hour and call it a day.

This has nothing to do with the lack of a major accident Sunday. The race in October at Talladega did not produce the dreaded big wreck, only a couple of minor ones. Yet that was a thrilling race, one of the best NASCAR ever has produced.

Because in that race, the drivers were not afraid to do what they are paid to do. Race.

Yes, there was plenty of passing in Sunday's race, a total of 37 lead changes among 26 drivers.

But most of those passes took place because the guy in front did nothing to try to hold onto the lead. The idea seemed to be for drivers to lead a lap and pick up five bonus points, then get out of the way of anybody else who wanted to lead.

There is nothing exciting about watching cars pass each other that way. A driver should have to battle for the lead. It should be like taking a bone away from a dog. The lead is something a driver never should give up easily.

That was not the case Sunday at Talladega. The only surprise was that 60-year-old Dave Marcis did not manage to lead at some point.

This was not survival of the fastest. This merely was survive and move on. Probably to a track where some real racing will take place.

NASCAR is in an extremely difficult situation. The sport's governing body had been under increased scrutiny and criticism since Earnhardt's death. The last thing they needed was a another death or even a serious injury at Talladega.

So NASCAR President Mike Helton gave a wrath-of-God speech to the drivers before the race. Drivers were penalized if there tires dipped even slightly below the yellow line at the bottom of the track.

NASCAR wanted to make sure there was no major incident in Sunday's race. In the process, the race became almost boring.

"It's pretty ridiculous racing," Sterling Marlin said. "It's stupid racing. They have to do something to fix it."

After all, if Earnhardt were still alive, does anybody truly believe he would have a spent a Sunday afternoon at Talladega being Mr. Nice Guy?

Cary Estes writes for the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama.

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