Denny Hamlin: likes the idea of 60 minutes of wide-open drafting qualifying for 2014 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
"Gee, Richard, I don't want to take my Talladega car out for practice. I might dent the fenders."
That was the excuse so many drivers gave last weekend for sitting out most of Friday's practice sessions. Afraid to ding up their pretty cars.
Aerodynamics can be finicky, yes, and a banged up fender may require some work.
But, heck, this isn't golf or tennis, this is stock car racing. The late Earnhardt would use those Talladega-Daytona practice sessions to do his best to put the 'fear of Earnhardt' into his rivals, with ruthlessly aggressive runs that had car owner Richard Childress cringing atop the hauler.
Mesmerizing to watch.
Last weekend at Talladega there was probably better action out on I-20, across the campgrounds most of the time.
And these guys are earning millions of dollars a year. One NASCAR driver even just sold a New York City condo for $25 million (as bad as that might be 'optically' for this sport's many, struggling blue-collar fans).
Someone might want to ask 'Where's the beef?'
Whether or not it was that no-practice Friday at Talladega, but Sunday's Talladega 500 finish didn't earn much praise.
Maybe Sunday's curious finish to Round Seven of NASCAR's championship chase ought to be chalked up to 'it's just Talladega.' However, it was somewhat less than satisfying to some, that single-file ride to the finish.
A replay of the Daytona 500 eight months ago.
Jimmie Johnson, who won both Daytona's this season and who had the fastest car at Talladega but struggled in 13th, said he's still surprised at how the Talladega 500 played out.
"Any team member or driver I've seen this week, they all ask the same question: 'Why wasn't everybody racing?'
"I don't know.
"We had more side-by-side action on lap one, lap 100 on, than we did in the last few laps.
"I think everybody, especially in the first five to 10 positions, was waiting for their opportunity....waiting for someone to pull out... and in anticipation.
"No one made a move. I can't quite explain it. I'm a little puzzled by it as well.
"It falls within that 'strategy' mindset. Guys were trying to get their best finish.
"At Daytona you might make a run down the backstretch (the last lap).
"At Talladega the finish line is out of the tri-oval a lot further away (down in turn one).....so if we made it to turn three and turn four, there would have been a lot going on at that point.
"But we crashed (Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) down the back and didn't get that chance.
"For my sake, I wish we would have started racing earlier. I tried a couple of times to get the bottom line going, and nobody wanted to.
"But then this weekend it's a short track so all the cautious driving is going to go out the window."
But Talladega with virtually no action late? Talladega closing out with nearly 300 miles of green flag racing?
Jamie McMurray riding the high line to victory, his first in three years, was fun to watch. But after Saturday's Talladega Truck race, with its three-wide racing, Sunday's 500 was, well, uneventful.
So, okay, riddle me this -- Saturday's truck race here was thrilling, almost a three-wide finish, two car drafting worked great. Heck, even Saturday night's Indycar race at California's AutoClub Speedway, on those 14-degree banks, was thrilling.
Now it looks like some changes are in the wind.
-- NASCAR executives, maybe after noticing dwindling crowds in the grandstands, particularly on qualifying Fridays, are suddenly interested in trying something new for qualifying next season, something other than the deathly boring single-lap runs that have turned qual days at the track into meaningless, fan-less episodes.
Nowhere is that more vividly evident than qualifying at Daytona in February, where some Sundays the huge track can seem virtually deserted....with nearby DisneyWorld an enticing alternative.
"You want to see something exciting -- give us an hour on a superspeedway and tell us to run the fastest lap we can," Denny Hamlin said. "That would be fun."
-- Engine builders say they now expect NASCAR finally to try to cut speeds in 2014, after record runs nearly everywhere this season with these new 2013s. One top engine man says NASCAR could try to cut engines by nearly 100 horsepower. But it's not clear exactly how that might play out on the track itself.
-- And out here in the NASCAR garage, Brad Daugherty's long-time Toyota team, which has Bobby Labonte at the wheel this year and will have AJ Allmendinger next season, may be changing to Chevrolets for 2014.
If the Bobby Hutchens' run team does make the move, it will almost certainly become a satellite of the Richard Childress operation.
What NASCAR might actually do for qualifying in 2014 isn't clear. Some ideas are just being thrown around...pretty much like ideas for sprucing up the Sprint Cup schedule were tossed around for consideration while NBC was in line to take over next season.
One interesting suggestion: that NASCAR look to the Formula 1 'knockout' style of mass qualifying. That would require drivers to get out on the track and post fast practice times, during, say, a 30-minute or 60-minute session. Add a second session and 'knockout' the guys not that fast in the first session, for example. Anything like that would seem preferable to what this sport has now.
Jimmie Johnson has a lot of practice spraying Martinsville champagne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)