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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Restrictor Plates Still Restricting Racing

Last season Joe Menzer of NASCAR.com 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.

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 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 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.

If you could say one nice thing about the Chase, at least it enabled 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 10 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 fives 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., 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, Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle

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

Spring 2008
In the top 10: David Ragan, Travis Kvapil, Casey Mears
In the bottom 10: Stewart, Kurt Busch, Edwards, 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 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!

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