Friday, October 06, 2006

It's Talladega, Baby!

This is arguably the NASCAR Nextel Cup's most important weekend. Now, NASCAR is unique among the spectator sports in that it holds its Superbowl (in terms of prestige) as its first event of the season, rather than the last. That would be the Daytona 500, held in February. That was so long ago that next year's Daytona 500 is closer than this year's.

This weekend is the fourth race of the ten race "chase" playoff system that ends NASCAR's season (arggh, what'll I do?) and determines its champion.

However, it's not just any race. It's Talladega!

For those one or two readers interested I wrote about what makes Talladega so special here.

For others, I'll just summarize. At most tracks things spread out, so that a pack of, say, six closely packed cars, which will usually occur, if it occurs at all, away from the leaders, would be so noteworthy that the announcers will point it out and say something like: "Now there's a crash just waiting to happen!"

The peculiarities of Talladega result in huge groups of cars, as many as thirty or more, closely packed and going at very high speed, and it includes the leaders. The slightest mistake and bada bing, what's known affectionately as the "big one," a massive crash that will almost certainly involve some of the drivers going for the championship. (Wikipedia includes this type of crash among the list of events in its entry for "The Big One.")

Now it comes as no surprise that NASCAR fans enjoy crashes. But that is only because we fully expect that nobody will get hurt. Football fans like bone-crunching hits--even though on occasion those hits cause serious injury. Same sort of thing.

Why do we like the crashes? It is not because of cars being crunched or flipping over--although that is pretty cool. It's because of an intense second between when you know there was a crash and when you find out who was involved. It's the who was involved that makes crashes an exciting part of a race.

If you're at a race, this is how you are made aware of a crash, assuming you didn't just happen to be watching the right spot of the track. All of a sudden you'll sense the crowd turning their heads en masse, with many of them pointing. You follow their eyes or hands to locate the wreck.

On television what will happen is this: The cameras will probably be on the leaders. Suddenly the announcer will say something like: "trouble in turn two!" An instant later a camera will find the crash.

In either case you're thinking "who wrecked?" What a rush! Obviously you don't want it to be the car you're rooting for, but you kinda want it to be one its competitors. If you are a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, you're probably thinking "oh, let it be Jeff Gordon!" It's mildly disappointing when (as is most often the case) it involves a car that was no threat to win anyway.

But Talladega is a whole different dynamic. A crash there could take out five or six of the ten cars racing for a championship with a huge effect on the championship point standings. That's what makes this NASCAR's most important weekend.

The ten championship contenders, when interviewed ad nauseum over the next couple days, will say over and over: "I just want to survive Talladega."

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