“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” We hear it several times a weekend, a statement most drivers believe to its core. Winning is everything, simple as that, and you will never hear drivers, fans, or media say otherwise. It’s what these teams live for.
But NASCAR? Well … they can’t seem to win for losing, especially when it comes to these restrictor plate races. Just think back to last season, when Tony Stewart flipped over during the green-white-checkered finish in last Fall’s wild Talladega ending. Even though Stewart walked away from the wreck completely unharmed thanks, in part, to NASCAR’s safety innovations, there were still fans screaming for the heads of those who thought this type of format was a good idea. It’s unsafe, they said, and we shouldn’t be risking the lives of drivers for entertainment.
Perhaps another relevant example is the outrage that occurred over the so-called “tandem drafting,” which was basically just an exaggeration of a concept that had existed within plate racing for years. However, with some designs on the cars and new aero packages, two cars were able to break away from other drivers much more dramatically than before which made “hooking up” more than just a euphemism for a high school dance.
So what’s the latest outcry from NASCAR fans regarding those troublesome restrictor plate races? Simply put, there’s not enough. Not enough drafting, not enough passing, and not enough excitement. Though we’re only one race into the season — one unofficial, non-points paying, and ultimately meaningless event in relation to the rest of the year — social media, Internet message boards, and comment sections were abuzz with fans wondering, “What happened?”
After much hype and mostly positive reviews from drivers about the new Gen-6 racecars, fans were excited about the newly named Sprint Unlimited to see how they performed at such a storied racetrack. The cars were sporty, the drivers were happy, and the night was electric with the anticipation released on a new season. Yet as the race wound on, past the big wreck in the first segment, the event was rather … underwhelming. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth even exclaimed, after the race, “No one wanted to pass!”
Perhaps that’s because it was more difficult to do so. While single cars were able to make moves without the help of another racecar, for the first time in awhile the overall effect was limited. Additionally, the noses and rear ends of the cars no longer lined up, so drafting was difficult and many drivers said that the pack even _slowed them down._ At a racetrack that has emphasized drafting to a point where some fans were aggravated, that’s certainly a completely new concept to most.
To be fair, however, there were many fans who genuinely loved the competition, especially those who had been watching for decades. It was a throwback race, if you will, to the ’90s where the “draft” was a much different concept than the dramatic duos that we’ve seen in more recent years.
However, for others, including myself, it was a little dull. As the race wound down, the action was less than intensifying. With even two laps to go, there was no jostling, moving around, or even attempt to make a pass except for Kenseth. Thankfully, Kenseth’s former teammate Greg Biffle made things exciting by putting quite a daring move on Kevin Harvick with about half-a-lap remaining; however, a simple block was all that was needed to keep things single file until the checkers.
But my point there is _not_ that drivers weren’t trying to win or that they didn’t care. Quite the contrary! Points or no points, winning is in their blood, and that’s not going to change because of a new package. My point is that it’s just different now. The draft, whether tandem or big pack, was what made Daytona (and Talladega) special. Drivers were forced to team up with each other four times a year and we saw some different styles. It shouldn’t make up a majority of the schedule, but forcing the drivers to change their strategy a few times wasn’t unfair or less of a race because of it.
Based on what I observed on Saturday night, however, that’s now gone. The race is really not much different than a mile-and-a-half racetrack with higher speeds. I found myself missing the tandem of recent years simply because we saw more passing and had more potential for a photo finish. Where were the team communications and a pair of drivers up on the high side flying through the field up towards the front while hooked together? Now _that_ was fun to watch!
Look, I know fans liked it because it felt like a throwback race, but that sort of “old school” competition had its time. Just because it used to be that way doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way; innovation is not always a negative. Restrictor plate racing offered something different than any other track on the schedule. It was fun, unique, fast, and exciting. Now? It offers very little in terms of ingenuity other than its history. No longer did the Unlimited feel like a wild card. It was just … a race.
I will add, however, that I’m aware that this boredom could all turn out to be an exaggeration after the Daytona 500. Perhaps spooked by the early crash in the first segment, drivers mid-pack (if you can call 19 cars “mid-pack”) decided it wasn’t worth moving around for position and wrecking the racecar when no points were awarded. Maybe more cars will give drivers more opportunity to attempt to draft, and maybe they’ll learn something new in the process. I’m not ruling that out. But even with all of that said, it doesn’t quite change the aerodynamics. If cars weren’t able to draft well through testing, practice, or the Unlimited itself, I doubt much will change just because there are 43 cars on the track. I hope I’m wrong.
I do feel for NASCAR. It’s hard to please everyone, and restrictor plate racing is an area where it seems no fans will ever agree. The longtime fans want to see the competition their heroes did, and the newer ones mostly seem to enjoy the type of racing we’ve had more recently. It’s hard to balance that out and there really is no middle ground. Regardless, I hope, for NASCAR’s sake and our own, that the Daytona 500 continues to be a great event while still maintaining its unique style. More than anything, I hope this is a Speedweeks we won’t soon forget for anything other than a very positive and heart-pounding storyline.
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