The 2012 NASCAR season enters the first of two weekends at its greatest speedway. Daytona, Charlotte, Pocono, and Michigan all have rich competitive history - Ontario Motor Speedway built a very memorable competitive history cut short far too early - but for sheer competitive ferocity nothing compares to Talladega Superspeedway.
But entering this Winston 500 weekend we've gotten reminder that this 2012 season has already been a season of frustration and ineptitude. The Richmond 400 weekend began with a surprising comeback win by Kurt Busch in the Nationwide 250 but it ended with a scoring breakdown and foolish officiating, resulting in a penalty to race contender Carl Edwards and a strikingly anticlimactic win by Kyle Busch. Scoring controversies are not new to NASCAR and officiating controversies are not new, either, yet neither should be happening today between electronic scoring and the far greater sophistication involved in racing in all its aspects.
Making it worse, the sport in a sense returns to the scene of the first crime of the season. Talladega returns the absurd rules package designed to limit tandem drafting at restrictor plate races - an absurdly small spoiler and even more absurdly small radiator, designed to make the drivers breathe the cars instead of race. The package came because Brian France of NASCAR claimed a fan poll showed overwhelming opposition by fans of tandem drafting, yet as Bob Pockrass pointed out earlier this year there never was any evidence of widespread fan distaste for tandem drafting. This package came because Brian France and no one else hated tandem drafting.
Of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. became hypocritically critical of tandem drafting (people forget he brought to the mainstream in 2009 in the Winston 500, though it had been building for years before) and the arguments against it remain insufferable - Junior's talk about drivers not controlling their own destiny is insulting because tandem drafting creates a power to pass unprecedented in racing history - and this is by definition having a measure of control of your own destiny.
Do you want to control your destiny or do you want ability to pass people? Racers are supposed to want ability to pass; it makes Junior's verbiage utterly without credibility. It of course was telling that all the racing before the 500 was decided by tandem drafting - the Busch Clash, both 150s, and the N'wide 300 (which runs the "old" spoiler and radiator package), by far the best race of Speedweeks.
Given that Talladega is different from Daytona, the poor quality of racing seen in the Daytona 500 may not be replicated, but the 500 set in motion a general sense of ennui in the drivers - the infamous non-finish by Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 500 has been replicated in spirit if not in literal sense in the racing in general, a fact that has helped ignite real controversy that has taken Carl Edwards for one by surprise.
The end result remains an indictment of Brian France. His reign as NASCAR president has been abysmal between the mass exodus of sponsors, controversies over exclusivity deals, the draining of life out of the racing not just by the sport's technology arms race but by its ever-growing emphasis on points instead of actual racing, and running rules packages hoisted by France and by his Cup director John Darby that have consistently failed - running battles against downforce, frequent changes to the cars between spoilers and sway bars, and the net result is worsened racing.
Brian France has proven he isn't qualified for his job, and no matter how the Winston 500 weekend turns out it will indict him more - the Alabama 312 for the Nationwide series runs the "old" spoiler/radiator package so tandem drafting will predominate; it resulted in a new Daytona race record for lead changes for the series in February. This will illustrate what Speedweeks illustrated - the fundamental failing of Brian France's war against tandem drafts. If the Winston 500 turns out as mediocre as the Daytona 500 it proves France's rule change is a failure; if Talladega is a great race it will show France's changes didn't take away tandem drafting after all (remember, the Clash and 150s were all decided by tandem drafting) - either way he can't win here.
He can't win, and he keeps proving he can't win in general. Richmond's officiating controversies merely add to his legacy of ineptitude.