It could have been ugly. We got lucky; but it could have been tragic. The 2007 Daytona 500 was marred with crashes. There was no Big One, just a bunch of Little Ones, but a couple of those looked deceptively bad. Bottom line… there was nothing about those crashes in that race that made it fun to watch.
It was a funny sort of race, in any case. The early crashes were not the product of errant bump-drafting or impatience, but rather a terrible tire/restrictor-plate combination that served as a wake-up call. The message is loud and clear: NASCAR needs to find a way to eliminate restrictor plates, and soon. We only have amazing equipment like the HANS device and SAFER barrier to thank for the fact that we haven’t lost another driver in the last few years. Saturday’s wrecks became a stark reminder that while aerodynamics and technology have changed drastically since the late 1980s, the limitations of racing around the restrictor plate have not.
Out of the incidents on Sunday, only one could be completely blamed on driver error – when Matt Kenseth sent Jamie McMurray spinning – and the rest were attributable to the entity that is plate racing today. The tire combination had former series champions Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson chasing loose cars on the edge of control, unable to catch up to the lead pack for laps on end. Remember in Driver’s Ed, when they told you how to correct a skid? Just steer into it… and use the throttle, not the brake. In a rear-wheel drive vehicle, that can be correctable, and certainly by the best drivers in the world.
But take away that split-second throttle response… you can’t hit the gas because you already have it wide open, and if you back off, even for a split second, you get run over. And even if by some miracle you don’t, the restrictor plate takes away the car’s immediate response to the throttle. Basically, Stewart and Johnson after a certain point were just along for the ride. Stewart’s crash was especially hard, bearing an eerie visual similarity to the crash that took the life of Dale Earnhardt.
Sure, drivers get loose and crash on other tracks. But on the restrictor-plate superspeedways, where the cars are so aerodynamic as to be almost unstable in the air around them, it takes a much smaller bobble to send them out of control. With the cars in such tight packs, there is little chance of avoiding the wreck for those around the spinning car for the same reason that caused the spin in the first place – no immediate throttle response in these cars.
The Car of Tomorrow was supposed to fix this. It was supposed to be boxy and “dirty” enough to not need the plates. However, that focus changed at Daytona testing in January when Kurt Busch topped 190 mph in a CoT. The “answer” to this “excessive speed?” That’s right; restrictor plates. It’s no matter that current Cup cars routinely reach straightaway speeds of 200 on tracks like Atlanta and Michigan; the problem is, 190 with full throttle response is probably safer in the long run than 180 with that response compromised even a little.
Currently, there are two other possible solutions to eliminating restrictor plates. The first would be to build engines for Daytona and Talladega with a smaller compression ratio, restricting horsepower without restricting the engine. NASCAR deems this option “too expensive.” That’s right; safety is suddenly “too expensive.”
Another possible solution that NASCAR has had in the Busch Series for years would give cars throttle response via much bigger restrictor plates, although they are not eliminated altogether. The aerodynamic package that series runs is designed to make the car “dirty” in the air, making them slower and more stable as a result. The roof spoiler, coupled with the wicker bill on the rear spoiler, does slow the speeds of the cars. While the closing rate IS faster, there’s more throttle response, meaning the drivers can control that closure better than they can without. One of NASCAR’s best plate races in the Cup Series (Yes, they once ran it too!) with this package was at Talladega in 2001, resulting in a caution-free plate race. No Big One. Not even a Little One. Just great racing.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt had been killed in Daytona earlier that year, and without someone or something specific to blame, NASCAR blamed the aero package… so it quietly disappeared. (Which, of course, DOES beg the question: Why on Earth would NASCAR use this “more dangerous” package in the Busch Series with the LESS experienced drivers if the Cup guys can’t handle it?) Was this aero package the final solution? No. But it was an improvement over what the series currently has.
Is there an answer, right now, for eliminating the restrictor plate? No. But NASCAR needs to make this a real priority for safety AND the good of the racing itself. The last lap at Daytona, when Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin barely touched, was a perfect illustration of why. Aided by a lack of throttle response, the cars behind them stacked up as the leaders slowed a bit, spinning everywhere; Clint Bowyer got the short end of the stick in that one, going on a wild ride that ended with his car in flames. He almost landed on his roof; luckily, he avoided extreme disaster. At any other track, the hard racing would have been unquestionably exciting to the finish, and almost certainly would not have resulted in the dangerous situation that it put drivers in.
Isn’t that what we should see every week, drivers being able to race unrestricted? The writing is on the wall; NASCAR needs to find a solution for the restrictor-plate tracks that does not include restrictor plates.
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