The Frontstretch: Restrictor Plates Still Restricting Racing by Kurt Smith -- Thursday April 22, 2010

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Restrictor Plates Still Restricting Racing

Kurt Smith · Thursday April 22, 2010


Last season Joe Menzer of took Chase opponents to task for still bleating about a playoff system that has been in place for several years now, as if somehow a rotten idea becomes better over time. Despite having little real basis for defending NASCAR’s unpopular playoff, he took some unfriendly shots at people who rightfully dispute the legitimacy of NASCAR handing out unearned points rather than letting drivers fight their way back into contention.

No matter how long any controversial rule is in place in any sport, there will be debate about it. The era of the designated hitter is now entering into its 37th season. College football still today has sportswriters determine a champion. And people who publicly oppose these affronts to sportsmanship are still right.

Much like these issues, the debate about the use of restrictor plates gone on since their implementation at Daytona and Talladega in 1988. But, the plate opponents—who generally win the argument anyway—now have 22 years of frightening incidents, odd rulings, and discombobulated results to point to as reasons to find an alternative to the restrictor plate. It’s doubtful that fans would complain about plates being a semi-sanctified “tradition” if the banking was lowered at superspeedways and the one thing that makes an auto race an auto race—horsepower—was restored.

For all the decrying of the “Big One” and the danger it poses, FOX has continued to show no aversion to exploiting these wrecks for marketing purposes.

Yet the folly continues. Already television is gearing up for the surely imminent carnage at Talladega this weekend. While the Texas race was in a rain delay Sunday, Fox re-ran their 10 best crashes (!) since the beginning of their coverage in 2001. Most of them (seven, I think) were at Daytona or Talladega. Number one was Carl Edwards going into the fence last year, with no mention of the broken jaw a fan suffered from flying debris. With the sport still directionless following the death of Dale Earnhardt (in a wreck that didn’t make Fox’s top 10), the restrictor plate wrecks are celebrated.

Following the Brad Keselowski upside down show in Atlanta, much criticism was directed at Carl Edwards for settling a score on a 190-mph straightaway at Atlanta rather than in a corner or at Martinsville. Being turned 180 degrees at that speed will often cause a racecar to go airborne, whether a wing is attached or not. We know, because we’ve seen it happen frequently at Talladega—Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Carl himself have all been upside down in recent Dega races, and it took Edwards going into the fence for networks to finally stop showing Elliott Sadler’s crash four or five times each Talladega pre-race show. And chances are good we’ll see someone go bottom up this weekend.

It stings enough for a driver to know that he had a great car—well, great for Talladega anyway, which means about .5 MPH faster than 30 or so others—and ended up with 40 points because someone ahead of him tapped another car. But it can’t be fun to go upside down and into the wall on top of all that, wondering if your luck might run out on this one.

So NASCAR attempts to control the uncontrollable. Their latest edict that drivers may bump draft and police themselves came after dozens of races with similarly knotty gray area regulation when it came to racing at Talladega. Drivers were put into a clearly dangerous situation and then told not to make it worse: don’t try to improve your position under the yellow line; don’t bump someone in the corner; don’t drive too aggressively. In other words, stop doing everything that got you to this level. For years NASCAR has been twisting itself into pretzels trying to enforce safety at plate tracks. We love the ratings big wrecks bring, guys, but try not to cause any.

After the fall 2008 Talladega race, where Regan Smith passed Tony Stewart below the yellow line on the last lap and was penalized as a result, a heated debate ensued whether Smith had been unfairly robbed of a victory. The debate was worth having, but a key point was often missed, that being that the necessity of a yellow line rule is asinine to begin with. That race especially should have been an argument against plates. NASCAR enforced the rule properly, but Smith didn’t violate the spirit of the rule. There shouldn’t be a need for it.

That a relative unknown like Regan Smith was even contending for a win should have been a surprise, except it happens fairly frequently at plate races, where catching a draft at the right time can elevate a driver from 21st to third in two laps.

Conversely, often times making the Chase is a matter of lucking out of DNFs at the superspeedways. Mark Martin and Kyle Busch last season had to fight to the death to make the playoffs, even with four wins apiece, largely because both drivers were caught up in plate race wrecks not of their own making (although Busch could take some of the blame for his Daytona night race wreck). Kyle in particular ran strong enough to win in both Daytona races, with a 41st and a 14th to show for it.

Mark Martin (shown here just after landing) knows full well the impact plate races have on the points race.

If you could say one nice thing about the Chase, at least it enabled Mark Martin to contend for a title after plates nearly took him out of it. Except Martin was then nearly knocked out of it in the Talladega fall race, getting turned on his roof in a big one for a 28th place finish. Which effectively negates that argument—or makes the case that there should be no plate races in the Chase. (Or no Chase.)

The skewing of points at plate races is easily illustrated by the results of any one of them. I selected four Talladega races at random to show the effect of plates on finishes and points. Take a look at some of the names in the top and bottom ten in these Talladega events—and note that they were all in Chase seasons:

Fall 2005:
In the top 10: Dale Jarrett (one of just three top-5s that year), Sterling Marlin (one of five top-10s that season, another came at Daytona), Joe Nemechek.
In the bottom 10: Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin.

Fall 2006:
In the top 10: Brian Vickers (his only win with Hendrick Motorsports), Jeff Green, Bobby Labonte (at the time 25th in the standings).
In the bottom 10: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle.

Spring 2007:
In the top 10: David Gilliland, David Stremme. (Scott Riggs finished 11th.)
In the bottom 10: Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards.

Spring 2008:
In the top 10: David Ragan, Travis Kvapil, Casey Mears.
In the bottom 10: Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth.

If anything, this sample fairly well demonstrates that there really is no rhyme or reason to who runs strong and who runs weak at Talladega. For a time DEI owned the place; shortly afterward it was Hendrick who dominated. With the current car design limiting innovation, no team has really stepped out front. If no one has the slight edge, it all becomes “putting yourself in position to win”. In other words, it’s a complete and total crapshoot.

So why go 500 miles? Why not just race 20? You could even still have the three green-white-checkereds. It’s not like having pitstops will make a difference; losing 10 spots means close to nothing in a joint where you can lose 10 spots in a lap.

You won’t get an argument here that plate racing is exciting in a morbid way. It does keep one on the edge of their seat waiting for the big one. Then the big one happens and takes out a fan’s favorite driver, and there they are grumbling about $*#!#^%@$ plate racing again. Usually the victimized driver agrees. Sometimes the driver agrees even after a thrilling win.

There are people who defend plate racing on the grounds that removing the plates and lowering the banking at Dega would turn it into Pocono. What’s wrong with that? At least you know there that it’s a lot less likely a driver you’re pulling for will end up on his roof, or that your fantasy team won’t take a huge points hit in a huge wreck from a tiny bumper tap, and we know that there generally won’t be four or five stars finishing near last while journeyman drivers try to stay above the yellow line on the last lap. For my money, a less than stellar race at Pocono beats a wreck fest at Talladega any week of the year.

NASCAR is addressing some of its problems if not necessarily all of the ones some of us would like. But it’s doubtful that the end results of restrictor plate racing—scary crashes, confounding rules, and perverted results—are going to be addressed, even if the Fan Council suggests it.

But if you hate restrictor plates, don’t give up. Baseball mostly did away with artificial turf. Anything is possible.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • The driver of the No. 14 claimed full responsibility for the big wreck at Texas and didn’t accuse any of its victims of whining. OK, who is this guy and where is he hiding Tony Stewart?
  • David Yeazell at Bleacher Report wrote an article calling Jimmie Johnson spoiled and decrying his driving style after the incident with Gordon at Texas, suggesting that he expects everyone to get out of his way. Huh? Hey, I’m as tired as everyone else of his beating my drivers all of the time, but I’ve never suspected Johnson as a driver who acts entitled. Certainly not as much as some out there.
  • Texas and Martinsville got rained out, and the forecast for this weekend in Talladega is not good. What’s with all of the rain these days? Was God denied membership in the Fan Council? All the same, if you can’t watch a race on a Monday but still have Internet access, check out the Frontstretch live blog. Our guys do a great job keeping everyone posted.
  • First there were a slew of articles suggesting that Kasey Kahne would win at least 20 races a year at Hendrick Motorsports, and a week later there were quite a few saying “not so fast.” So the Official Columnist of NASCAR will examine the topic of drivers changing teams next week. Tune in for another fun-filled Happy Hour next Friday!

Contact Kurt Smith

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Swan Racing Announces Restructuring, No. 26 & No. 30 ‘Sold’ Off
Tech Talk with Tony Gibson: Taking Stock Of Danica Patrick In Year Two
Vexing Vito: Three Drivers In Need of a Role Reversal
Going By the Numbers: Top-10 NASCAR Variety Hard To Come By In…
Truckin’ Thursdays: Lessons Learned Just Two Races In
Fantasy Insider: Team Revelations For NASCAR’s Short Tracks



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04/23/2010 07:11 AM

4th paragraph:

Fan’s watch because of wrecks. Anyone who claims they do not find the wrecks intruiging is either lieing or bandwagoning on the general opinion of bloggers, columnists, and nay-sayer fans the week of and the week after a restrictor plate race. This past Monday on the FS live blog, columnists and fans alike were commenting on how exciting it lookes when a car like Reutimann’s burst into flames, and how “the big one” at Texas changed the complexion of the race. Here we are 5 days later and the tide of public opinion has shifted to the PC notion that wrecks in NASCAR are bad. Like the people who say big hits in football, or fiting in hockey is bad. Those are some of the sports biggest draws.

And to accuse the sport as “directionless following the death of Dale Earnhardt” is nieve at best, a low-blow at it’s core. The safety mandates and innovaitons since 2001 include the HANS Device, SAFER Barriers, the COT, eliminating racing back to the yellow, and attempted “bump drafting regulations.” How effective have they been? Well, no one has died in NASCAR since 2001.

04/23/2010 07:29 AM

Pocono, June 2009

Top 10: David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, Sam Hornish Jr.

Bottom 10: Kurt Busch,
Denny Hamlin

Shall we stop racing at Charlotte and Pocono as well?
Charlotte, June 2007

Top 10: JJ Yealy, Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Casey Mears

Bottom 10: Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman

04/23/2010 07:42 AM

no, DansMom, no. Not all fans watch for the wrecks. And it’s insulting to say they do. Nothing warms my heart more than to see absolutely no one taken out by a severe wreck all race long—as happens very often at your local short track, or in dirt track races where drivers have respect for each other.

I’ve been a saturday night stockcar racer since I was 14, and I’ve said it a hundred times right to fans faces—if you come to this track with the specific intent to watch me injure or kill myself, I have no time for you.

Plate racing continues to be the worst form of motorsport on the planet—yes it’s “exciting” at times, but in a contrived, “jesus christ I can’t believe they’re doing this” sort of way. It’s awful, and when it finally kills another driver or spectator, NASCAR might make a change—then again, it’ll probably just be a smaller restrictor plate, to slow them down and make the racing even worse.

The plain and simple reason the plate races still exist is so asshole fans like you can keep cheering for someone else to die.

04/23/2010 07:53 AM

Why shouldn’t FOX use footage of the wrecks for marketing?

Historically significant events aren’t always asthetically appealing “feel good” pictures: the NASA shuttle explosion, back and to-the-left JFK assasination, shoot even Nancy Kerrigan v. Tanya Harding are all major events that have been relived through the media for years.

Let’s not overreact over a few wrecked race cars. Besides the cars are designed to wreck more “horrifically” because the explosion of sheet metal of the cars absorbs impact.

04/23/2010 08:28 AM

In no way am I cheering for someone to die. In fact, when I stated that no one had died since 2001, I meant that as a good thing. I apologize if I was unclear.

I also don’t wish for drivers to go to a racetrack with the intent of injuring or killing someone. I was not aware that was the case in NASCAR today. I thought drivers went to the racetrack to race.

But the fact remains, if you race at 200 mph you will wreck at 200 mph. And wrecking at 200 mph will put on a tremendous show. It is human nature to be interested in watching this, and I do not believe it requires malicious intent to watch wrecks.

Just as traffic slows to see the after affects of a a wreck on the side of the interstate, so will fans tune in to watch races with wrecks, and highlights of wrecks on sportscenter.

04/23/2010 08:44 AM

WOW!!! Kurt Smith, I have to ask you a question. Did you watch NASCAR before the COT and wing came into play? The spoiler and roof flaps did a reasonable job of minimizing rollovers. They happened, but not with the certainty that the wing allowed. Don’t be surprised if nobody rolls over this weekend. Don’t be surprised if somebody does, driving at 200mph is unpredictable at best.

I agree with you (and most fans and drivers) when you say the restrictor plates should go. But you are DEAD WRONG when you say to lower the banking. Pocono is a fairly boring race, always. The exciting moments at Pocono: Steve Parks roll-over; DW’s wild flip; Davey Allison’s head actually coming out of the car in a horrifying roll-over. The point is, the banking of the corners does not eliminate airborne cars. Don’t think that I am just loving the wrecks. I don’t care who wins ANY race, I just care that all the drivers, crew members, officials, and fans get home safe. Pocono is a boring follow the leader snooze-fest settled by fuel mileage nearly 100% of the time.

Nobody will ever convince me that running 200 mph 3 wide nose to tail in a pack is safer that running 230 mph all by yourself. Before restrictor plates, 3 cars finishing on the lead lap was a lot. But NASCAR won’t allow that because it would cost ISC hundreds of millions of dollars to make the necessary changes to the track, i.e. moving the fans farther away from the racing surface. And $1000.00 worth of restrictor plates makes sure they don’t need to.

The only consistent rule to motorsports is this: Anything can happen at any time on any track. Every race is a gamble and a crap shoot.

Finally Kurt, NASCAR is all about having equal cars so ANY driver has a chance to find the front of the field. If you want to cover a motorsport where only the drivers that are supposed to finish up front do, then F1 is where you should probably go. As for me, I seriously like to see an underfunded underdog team come in and give the powerhouses a run for their money.

04/23/2010 09:09 AM

I completely agree with Dansmom (and kinda hope that she is hot).

Fans dont watch Nascar JUST for the wrecks, but they definitely watch because it is a part of the race. Martinsville is one of my favorite tracks and I think it is so popular because of the high probability of wrecks and spin-outs. No one ever says “man did you see that caution-free, clean race last weekend? That was awesome!”

Wrecks are a part of racing and anyone that says they aren’t excited when someone hits the wall is lying.

Bill B
04/23/2010 09:33 AM

If you had a scale that measured the degree to which the rules insured that the team with the fastest car won a race (or championship) versus how randomness or luck should determine the winner, tell me to which side the following rules would tip the scale…. Green White Checker
The Chase
Restrictor Plates
Double File Restarts
COT (common car)
Wave Around Drivers
Lucky Dog

I guess it all depends what you want when you watch a sport – a contest where the most deserving wins or a crapshoot.

04/23/2010 09:55 AM

Now where would the circus and the County Fair be without thrills , spills , and excitement . That’s what brings in the spectators . Auto racing promoters know that now , they knew that in the late 1800s when racing began . If you can keep the fans on the edge of their seat with contrived close racing , and the inevitable big one , why wouldn’t you ? It’s a question of marketing . Ask DansMom , she gets the memos from Brian and Ramsey just like all of the NASCAR Marketing employees do .
No matter how dangerous for the drivers and spectators , plate racing does create excitement , and crashes , and thats what the fans want according to NASCAR .

04/23/2010 11:36 AM

Dansmom… can you get me tickets to races since you work for Nascar? I also want to meet Max Papis so bad it HURTS!

04/23/2010 11:53 AM

Ok. NO ONE wants to meet Max Papis…

04/23/2010 11:58 AM

have a look at sportscenter, what do you see HIGHLIGHTS! big hits in NFL, broken Glass in hockey etc… sports fans love action, that is reality. Fox is well within their rights to show cousin carl upside down in an ad.

04/23/2010 12:21 PM

If Fox wants to show the “good” wrecks where everyone walks away, also show the “bad” where they don’t. There are new fans out there who do not know that this sport can serious injury (B. Allison, Irwin, Nadeau) or kill you.

Richard in N.C.
04/23/2010 01:41 PM

As Robert Yates said years ago, Cup cars have far more horsepower than is needed – and reducing horsepower needs to be done not just for Talledega. In today’s economy, with attendance down for NASCAR (as well as most other pro sports) I find it amazing that I haven’t read where any of the giant brains in the media has written that now is the time to pull out some of the lower rows of seats to increase fan safety.

04/23/2010 01:42 PM

Glenn has a good point. It’s nice for people to not make things so black and white, some issues can be viewed from the GRAY area.

Once again, WC, no one has died since 2001. When we report on H1N1 should we also show clips of the plauge? or polio?

04/23/2010 01:57 PM

Isn’t this a non issue when we go Fuel Injection next year? Well, maybe it’s a new issue!

04/23/2010 02:27 PM

Amen, brother.

The fall 2000 Talladega race had no wrecks through the whole race (although there was one after the checkers). That may be the greatest race I’ve ever seen.

04/23/2010 03:10 PM

There has been more then once I worried about the driver after one of these wrecks. Before Adam Petty died I believe it had been around 15 yrs since I believe J.D. Mcduffie was killed, did that mean nascar did not need to improve safety? Remember there were quite a few drivers that were seriously injuried (could no longer race) but as you say they were not KILLED.

04/25/2010 08:18 AM

@Dan’s mom: J.D. McDuffie was killed in the 1991 “Bud at the Glen,” less than 9 years before Adam Petty lost his life. Clifford Allison was killed in 1992. Neil Bonnett was killed in practice for the 1995 Daytona 500. The very next day a NASCAR Goody’s Dash driver was killed. (Sadly, I forget his name.) John Nemecheck was killed in a Craftsman truck racing crash in 1998.

Along the way, we saw many driver nearly killed. Including Michael Waltrip at Bristol. Bobby Allison at Pocono. Ernie Irvan at Michigan (TWICE). Loy Allen at Rockingham. And others the list goes on and on.

NASCAR needs to improve their safety standards. We saw the 2000 season claim Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper. Then 2001 opened with the death of Dale Earnhardt. Only THEN did NASCAR become proactive about safety. That is laughable. In the English language, a governing body that waits for the death of 9 drivers over the space of TEN YEARS could best be described as REACTIVE!

To use another analogy, and I am not attempting to make a political statement here: NASCAR has not had a death since 2001. So the safety problem has been solved. America has not had a single successful terrorist attack since 2001. So that problem is clearly solved as well.

Contact Kurt Smith