The Winston 500 - this year debuting Geico sponsorship after thirteen seasons under the aegis of the Aarons lease-to-own retailer store chain - opened with the promise of some of the best racing of the 2015 season. It ended with a popular win by Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it also ended with some oblique criticism of NASCAR's rules package - as old a story as one can find, yet one that remains relevant given that it seemingly doesn't end.
The weekend began with two off-track stories - the announcement that the GoDaddy internet registrar company will withdraw its longtime sponsorship of Danica Patrick, another disturbing sign that NASCAR sponsorship's expense and return are not working to the sport's benefit (and also a subtle indictment of Patrick's value as a sponsor symbol), and then comments from Kevin Harvick advocating a shakeup of the NASCAR schedule - basically yet another forum to advocate adding the Iowa Speedway to the Winston Cup schedule.
That NASCAR has been in need of shaking things up has been true for a long time, and it showed again in the Winston 500. The schedule, though, is the least in need of shaking things up - the only changes that are needed for the schedule are dropping the All Star Race (with Atlanta's 500 being moved into its stead in mid-May), going back to 500-mile distances because they remain fundamentally superior tests of racers and cars, putting start times back to just after 12 PM Eastern/area time instead of 1:30 PM - late start times are a myth pushed by TV networks, mostly ESPN, claiming later start times mean larger audiences; on the contrary what experience has proven is later start times have hurt attendances - and dropping night races, which have accomplished nothing.
Real shaking up for the sport lays in competition areas. For the larger issue of NASCAR, the most immediate change that remains needed is to drop the exclusivity deal with Goodyear and allow Firestone and Hoosier to supply raceteams with tires and engineering help. The objection that "tire wars" are unsafe ignores the lack of improved safety with Goodyear's monopoly and oversells the risk factor when tire competition occurred; the real legacy of tire wars has been upsurges in new and different winning drivers and teams.
There are of course other issues long debated, such as the Chase format and a points system that obstinately refuses to reward what warrant the largest reward - winning and most laps led. They relate to Talladega as well, where the immediate shakeup in need remains tackling the rules myopia of the sanctioning body. Rusty Wallace's oblique on-air criticism of the rules package for the plate tracks to discourage push-drafting rang screamingly true in the weakest Talladega race in ten-plus years, and even rang true in the Xfinity Series Winn Dixie 300 on Saturday; there was noticeable tandem drafting at the end - something noted after July 2014's Firecracker 250 at Daytona - and it produced excellent racing highlighted by the Logano-Almirola-Sadler-Yeley-Dillion push-draft showdown over the race's final quarter, even amid the frequent spoiling of momentum due to numerous yellows - and yet there simply wasn't enough push-drafting. The contrast with the 500 was too graphic to ignore, and it showcased anew that NASCAR really has no business policing against push-drafting, the strongest power to pass that racing can ever see.
For a race just four years removed from blasting past 80 official lead changes to be stuck at 27, and no one able to make any move at the end because the draft simply wasn't going to work, remains an indictment of NASCAR's rules myopia.
The 500's winners were limited to just one team - Hendrick Motorsports. The Junior/Johnson Chevrolets finished 1-2 and Dale Junior thus grabbed his sixth Talladega win and first since 2004, this after Hendrick's cars led nearly 170 laps. It was so one-sided that even excellent finishes by Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers, Martin Truex, Sam Hornish Jr., and the completely unnoticed top-ten of Josh Wise and the Curb Motorsports team registered nothing.
The losers were aplenty, led by Ford. While Sam Hornish finished good, his Richard Petty teammate Aric Almirola had to settle for fifteenth despite a good rally from the early Turn Two melee; it nonetheless was a huge improvement for the #43 after a totally forgettable Speedweeks. That Petty, the Woods, and Curb all had respectable finishes made the dismal finishes of Penske Racing all the more surprising, and made the abysmal runs of the Roush bunch all the worse.
The Toyotas didn't acquit themselves much better. Denny Hamlin led five laps and finished ninth, and his JGR teammates were almost in Witness Protection during the day other than a brief run to the top five by Matt Kenseth and a surprising effort by Carl Edwards that got thrown away at the finish and has produced just one top ten for the #19; one has to wonder again whether signing on Carl Edwards was a good idea to begin with.
RCR, despite two cars in the top ten, didn't have much to write home about with several engine failures, with a pit fire for Ryan Newman tossed in for good measure.
It all added up to the most disappointing weekend of the season so far, coming at the place that's supposed to be better than that.