Chaos, carnage, luck, crapshoot, unpredictable. These are just a few of many words that come to mind in the days leading up to Talladega. The word association has been going on for over 20 years now after NASCAR implemented the use of the restrictor plate, a metal sheet placed over the carburetor to restrict airflow to the engine. The purpose was to reduce speeds, as cars were starting to eclipse the 200 mph barrier. While it has kept the speeds down at a slower pace, fans have become accustomed to seeing one big pack of cars running together, which has created other issues.
When it comes to restrictor plate racing, there are only two opinions: love or hate. Many fans (some drivers even) enjoy how the tight packs produce exciting finishes and unexpected winners. It is easy for television to cover the battles for position because it can all be captured on one screen. It is a nice break from the standard cookie-cutter races that make up most of the schedule, where long green flag runs spread out the field with lots of single file racing.
Then there are the critics. Some believe that having one large pack is boring, as drivers are just riding around for the first 450 miles before actually making a charge. Even when it is time to go to the front, many consider it to not even be racing at all; rather it is just about being in the right spot at the right time. There have been vicious wrecks as well, with it not uncommon to see at least one car land upside down. This has led to a cry for change, claiming this form of racing way too dangerous.
This year we have seen a big change to the way cars run at both Talladega and Daytona. The one large pack has been replaced with numerous two car hookups that spread the field out. This is in large part to the recently repaved surfaces at both venues along with the new front end matching up with the rear bumper almost perfectly. The pods, as they call it, can run numerous laps together before they have to switch positions to cool the engines down. The general reaction for this has been met with mostly hatred, but why? We are still treated to numerous lead changes, thrilling finishes, and surprise winners, while reducing the risk of a massive 20-30 car pileup. Any big wreck that has occurred under this format has come shortly after a restart, when the speeds are still picking up, and even then, the attrition count has been lower.
With that said, this Sunday’s race at Talladega may be one of the most anticipated races in recent memory. Plenty of eyes will be on Jimmie Johnson to see if he can once again rally back into contention along with championship leader Carl Edwards, who has historically struggled at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Then there is the question as to whether any driver will pick up some extra cash on Sunday. Talladega is going to pony up $100,000 to the driver who takes the lead the most – as long as there are 100 lead changes. In addition, NASCAR made some rule changes last month to the restrictor plate, increasing it by a 1/64th of an inch. Along with that, the pressure relief valve setting has been decreased by eight pounds – in other words, the engine can overheat quicker when pushing another car. The hope is to bring back the traditional form of having one large pack, something that has seemingly gone from love or hate it to all love within the past year – when the superspeedway announced the rule changes on their Facebook page last month, an overwhelming amount of fans were thrilled that the two by two racing would be gone.
If you are one of those people that thinks that duel pack racing is gone, think again. There will likely be more of the big packs again, but it will probably occur during the midpoint when the drivers are just riding around. Kurt Busch, who has been one of the best restrictor plate racers over the past decade despite not winning a points paying event, agrees that the big pack will return, but the two by two drafting will still be the deciding factor.
“…I still think with the success and the speed that two cars have together, you’re going to see that come up at the end,” he said. “I think drivers might be more patient throughout the 500 miles so you won’t see the two-car draft all the time. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s going to take to win.”
Whether you love or hate the type of racing restrictor plates have produced, it is important to remember why they are here in the first place. It was in 1987 at Talladega when Bobby Allison launched into the catch fence, injuring several spectators. The unfortunate tragedy that occurred this past weekend at Las Vegas should be an important reminder as well. Racecars, whether they are stock cars or IndyCars, should only go so fast. Danger will always be part of racing, and if there is not, the thrill would be gone. However, there needs to be limitations. The restrictor plate is a necessary limit. For some, it will always leave a bad taste in their mouth as it was the kind of racing that took Dale Earnhardt’s life. Since then, safety has evolved greatly and, as scary as some of the wrecks have looked, drivers have been able to walk for away for 10 years and counting.
Some look at the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski mess in 2009 where Edwards launched into the catch fence — very similar to Allison’s accident 20 years earlier — as a sign to put an end to the restrictor plate madness, but imagine how much worse the outcome could have been if they were going 30-40 mph faster. Regardless of whether the speeds are restricted, drafting will always be a practice at the superspeedways, and I am confident that restrictor plates are the best option NASCAR has. It produces far more lead changes than any other race while becoming much safer in recent years. One thing is for certain – the Talladega fall race always has more questions going in than any other event all season.
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