Sunday, October 19, 2014

Talladega As Libertarian Metaphor

The GEICO 500 spared us footage of the lizard speaking in Cockney accent by British actor Jake Wood, and we saw some excellent racing, perhaps the best since the Firecracker 400 - hardly shocking given the two plate tracks produce the best racing in NASCAR.   But the Talladega weekend also showcased yet again the absurdity of the rules packages designed specifically for those tracks, and in so doing showcased anew the Libertarian metaphor.

Government meddling is the arch-enemy in the Libertarian analysis, and certainly the history of the world and mythologies constructed in favor of such failures as the New Deal consistently prove correct the mistrust of government that has made the Libertarian movement more popular.   What is witnessed year after year at Talladega and its sister track Daytona in the special rules packages NASCAR has imposed over the last decade and a half merely showcase the Libertarian metaphor at work in a racing context.  

Push-drafting is an old custom in NASCAR, and Richard Petty in the 1970s Dodge Charger days was the art's master.  It went away when the cars changed to "all that plastic" after running chrome bumpers, then NASCAR witnessed the return of push-drafting in the 2000-8 period, then saw the rise of outright two-car superdrafting in 2009 and 2010 - cars now pushed each other literally all the way around, and were passing entire fields of cars in one lap.   It then escalated to an entirely new level in 2011.   Brian France took a personal hatred of the pattern that year, especially after the finish of the 500-miler that October, and his subsequent rules packages were designed to quash it.    That it looked bizarre at first was obvious to all; that there were aspects of it to dislike was also true - specifically that the second-place car would push the leader out into the clear and just stay there instead of pass the leader - but the net result of quashing it cannot by any stretch be considered a better alternative to it.   For the big strength of the superdrafts remains it is the strongest power to pass racing has ever seen.  

Watching the 2014 running of the Diehard 500 and the 250-miler for the Trucks merely illustrated again how the racing at Talladega is very good but where meddling from up top has needlessly suppressed what makes the racing better.   Joe Nemechek and Matt Crafton got blackflagged for push-drafting in the Talladega Truck 250, this after NASCAR got egg on its face over not policing push-drafting in the Busch Series 250 at Daytona in July.   Nemechek salvaged a tenth place in that race and between the penalty and the grossly uneven level of passing in both races, it all showcased the fundamental pitfalls of NASCAR's ideology.

NASCAR for the last two-plus decades has added to its rulebook and the emphasis has had one overriding theme - giving the officiating tower or the inspection station (sometimes both) more control of the racing.   Having tight regulations that make sense is not a negative, the problem is more and more of these regulations don't make sense.   If NASCAR allowed push-drafting then the 38 lead changes in the Diehard 500 would have perhaps doubled, and allowed more drivers to storm back to the lead instead of be trapped out back; incentivizing going for the lead is the ultimate good in sports and the meddlesome nature of the sanctioning body needlessly suppresses that virtue. 

Would Brad Keselowski have still won the Diehard 500 even if push-drafting was not policed?   Perhaps - Keselowski's 2014 season has been strikingly uneven but his competitive fight is legitimate.   The racing as it was was very exciting - yet it should have been substantially more competitive.  


Another striking blow to the race's competitive ferocity was the points-racing strategy used by several drivers, notably Jeff Gordon, who never contended and finished 26th.   While Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne needed to win and overall raced like it, Keselowski was the only other contender who did so.   Talladega being Talladega the points racing ethos was not as prevalent as it is at other tracks, but it existed nonetheless and shows that NASCAR's Chase format, regardless of changes made to ostensibly make winning more important, still cannot work - a points format that artificially eliminates drivers and does not provide the incentive to win that is advertised is a points format that fundamentally doesn't work.

NASCAR's next elimination round begins at Martinsville next week.   Racing being racing, it is competitively enjoyable, yet still needs a lesson in Libertarianism for NASCAR so that it can be a lot better.

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