Earnhardt’s emotional victory overshadows final laps at Talladega

Everyone has that complex. You know, where you see the trashcan overflowing and say to yourself, “Oh, someone else will take care of that, so I won’t.” In psychology, it’s referred to as the Bystander Effect (although it’s technically about aiding victims of crimes).

And if you doubted that racing was psychological, Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway proved otherwise.

The 2.666-mile track is one of two restrictor plate layouts, and a specific standard is in place when NASCAR heads to these venues. Fans expect to see pack racing, where the cars are three-wide and the tension is tangible. That’s what makes Talladega and Daytona International Speedway special.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s event was only special for one reason. I’ll get to that later on.

The fact that weather didn’t threaten the action got the day off to a good start. Hendrick Motorsports claimed the front row, with Jeff Gordon on the pole and Kasey Kahne in second. Intensity mounted as the race began, cars going three wide to make up for bad qualifying efforts. Various drivers were in the mix, including Tony Stewart and rookie Ryan Blaney.

Around 15 drivers fell victim to “The Big One” and ended their afternoon early. Trevor Bayne got loose, and that’s all she wrote. A red flag allowed crews to clean up the damage. Drivers regrouped and refocused.

The rest of the race shifted between pack racing and single-file, and the latter prevailed in the last 15 laps. Twitter was alive, fans ranting about how drivers needed to make their moves. Everyone—fans, commentators, and drivers alike—began feeling antsy and waited for the big breakaway.

Laps dwindled down. Ten, nine, eight…nothing. The cars raced next to the outside wall, a long train just chugging along. Nobody went for it, they didn’t want to be first. Drivers figured someone would stick their neck out, and everyone would follow.

The white flag flew, and Denny Hamlin was that someone. The field immediately fanned out. Chaos swallowed up the back half, wrecking on the backstretch. As the race kept green, the fan favorite led like he did the majority of the event. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag and claimed his first victory of 2015.

Now, there are a few things that made this race disappointing. The lack of breakaway and caution for wreckage are the big two. However, that all washed away as Earnhardt emerged from his car in victory lane.

Overcome with emotion, the HMS driver could barely speak. His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, would’ve celebrated his 64th birthday a few days ago, yet that wasn’t the only reason he was nearly crying.

“I’m in such a good place right now, with my personal life…I’m so blessed, I really am.”

When NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” is overwhelmed and humbled, it’s a great day.

Genuine emotion is hard to come by today, and it’s refreshing to see one of the most famous and richest athletes let his guard down. On a day that lacked the “true racing” that’s expected at restrictor plate tracks, his interview and humility were needed.

There’s no real explanation as to why drivers kept to themselves the final 15 laps. Maybe it’s the Bystander Effect. Maybe everyone simply wanted to play it safe. Either way, it was everything Talladega is not.

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