Talladega: Just the name is enough to send shivers up the spine of any race fan. For some, it’s shivers of anticipation of a favorite race. But for many, it’s more a feeling of dread. It’s not a question of if a multi-car crash will happen, it’s a question of when.
Current rules have created the kind of racing you see at Talladega and Daytona — huge, tight packs of two and sometimes three-wide racecars, racing inches apart. That leads to a couple of things: some drivers hanging in the back, satisfied with avoiding trouble over racing for better position, and a good bit of single-file racing. Coupled with the restricted air intake to the engines, it also means it’s difficult to get away from trouble because throttle response is sluggish at best. It’s a far cry from superspeedway racing before dangerously high speeds necessitated the use of restrictor plates and even from past plate races.
Which gives pause: is there a place in today’s NASCAR for this breed of racing?
It’s a complex question, the waters muddied by NASCAR’s rules and their enforcement.
For the viewers who liked to see lots of passing, recent rules changes have created a difference of opinion. Some like the racing the way it is right now, with the huge packs of cars running side-by-side. There are a lot of lead changes, in part because the racing is so close, the cars up front can swap the lead several times in a single lap. If two or three lines of cars can get going, it can produce an exciting finish.
On the other hand, there was also something to be said for the two-car drafting that was popular a couple of years ago. It allowed drivers, working with just one other, to avoid trouble because there was somewhere to go when trouble started. The pairs could move around on track to find a preferred groove, and there was lots of action. The downside was that drivers had to depend on someone else and not having a dance partner was a death knell.
The yellow-line rule also affects the action. Originally implemented after several crashes and near-misses when drivers would drop onto the apron on the straights and then try to shove their way back into traffic driving into the corners, it’s a smart rule in theory. However, in practice, it’s rarely applied correctly (the penalty is for advancing position down there, and is supposed to be waived if the driver was forced. NASCAR has missed more calls on the rule than it’s gotten right) and has ruined some fantastic finishes over the years. It’s hard to say if it’s prevented enough mayhem to justify its existence.
Let’s talk safety here for a minute. There are arguments for and against plate racing and a lot of them revolve around safety for both drivers and fans. The wrecks look horrific, and sometimes they are; there have been driver deaths and serious injuries on the plate tracks, plus instances where fans have been injured by shrapnel as well. Kyle Busch is currently sitting out races because of serious injuries he suffered in an Xfinity Series crash at Daytona in February. Certainly the high speeds at the superspeedways are a danger. But speeds entering the corners are just as high at a few other tracks, so safety as a reason not to race these tracks isn’t a valid argument.
Finally, there’s the end product, the racing that fans see. Fans seem to be divided on plate racing; some like it, others loathe it. It is undeniably exciting, but for some, it’s the wrong kind of excitement. Some do watch for the crashes, though many will deny that draw. For some, it’s a turnoff because it’s no fun for them to spend three hours wondering when the big one will happen (and 99% of the time it is when, not if) and if their favorite driver will be caught up in it. Watching their driver have a great run only to get wiped out in the closing laps because someone else threw a bad block isn’t exactly conducive to happy people.
So, given the negatives – including the changing rules, safety concerns and polarized fans – is there a place for plate racing in NASCAR today? Some fans love it, others hate it – and same goes for the drivers. I think that because sheer blind luck plays a larger than normal role and the current Chase rules are so unforgiving that a case could be made for not having a Chase race on a superspeedway, or that a plate race should be the first or second race, where there’s a little more time to recover.
But at the end of the day, plate racing is a skill. Some drivers are stellar at it, others just try not to cause a wreck. And neither is necessarily who you’d expect. A skilled plate driver can win at Daytona or Talladega despite an underfunded car; the same can’t be said for most other tracks. You’re as likely to see Casey Mears or Michael McDowell in the top 10 as some of the elite names because their skill trumps their equipment.
And at the sport’s highest level, drivers’ skill should be tested in a variety of ways, including plate racing, though the ultimate goal for superspeedway racing should be to find a way to race at safe speeds without restrictor plates. It’s a lot like road racing: some fans love that and others hate it, too, but it’s a skill set that should be tested, probably more often than it currently is (and most certainly within the Chase). Intermediate tracks and short tracks also test drivers differently, and in an era where the cookie-cutter tracks are so prevalent already, it’s important to test skills beyond the intermediates. Plate racing does that, and it allows a group of drivers to shine.
To be called a champion, a driver should take on as many different racing challenges as possible. To be called a winner, he or she should be able to call on the best strengths in the arsenal.