1. Do we really need these restrictor plates?
Define need. Do the cars need to be slowed down? Absolutely. A few years back, Rusty Wallace tested an unrestricted Cup car at Talladega and ran speeds of almost 240 mph. That’s too fast. But do they have to do it with plates? Technically, no. It could be done with smaller engines or EFI, but it’s the restriction of air intake in combination with the aerodynamic package that keeps the cars in tight packs, and that’s what NASCAR wants fans to see. To be fair, it’s what a lot of fans want to see too. That means the days when a driver could use the draft to make up entire laps are gone, but so are the days of just a handful of cars finishing on the lead lap at Daytona and Talladega. At the end of the day, NASCAR – and a large enough number of fans to keep NASCAR thinking the way they do – likes the suspense and parity of plate racing, so there has been little effort to find ways to run unrestricted.
2. The Big One is pretty much a given.
Can a restrictor plate race run to completion with the Big One? Sure it can, but it probably won’t. And before you go blaming drivers for suddenly becoming more aggressive than an angry hippo in a swimming pool, consider the nature of plate racing. The cars have no throttle response to get away from each other. If they did, they wouldn’t be in the position to have the huge multi-car crashes that have become staples at Daytona and Talladega in the first place.
What you have is a lot of cars running in a relatively small amount of space that are aerodynamically unstable in turbulent air. Translation: The smallest mistake can end with 20 cars in a smoking heap in the tri-oval. Look at the Sprint Unlimited. When Carl Edwards cut up on Brad Keselowski a foot or two shy of being clear of the nose of the No. 2, Keselowski couldn’t lift, because he had several other cars behind him all running maybe a couple of feet apart. On an intermediate track, Keselowski could likely have backed out and not caused a five-car pile-up, or he could have stayed in it and only piled up Edwards. Not so on a plate track, where unless 40 drivers can race for 500 miles and not make a single mistake, there’s going to be at least one incident, and it’s probably going to involve several cars.
3. The upside? The race is in the drivers’ hands more than a lot of places.
Tired of seeing the same drivers win all the time? While it’s more likely that one of the regulars will still be in Victory Lane when all is said and done, restrictor plate racing is more likely to create a new or unusual winner than a short or intermediate track. Plate racing is a specific skill, and not all drivers have it. They do have the most equal cars you’ll see all year, and that means a good plate driver can have a good finish as long as he can avoid trouble.
Some of those drivers are a bit surprising. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has long been known as a strong plate racer. In the last five races at Daytona, he’s finished outside of the top 10 just once, and that was a 14th-place result, not surprising for a driver with four wins at the track.
Then there’s Denny Hamlin, who has three wins in the Sprint Unlimited but no points-paying victories at Daytona. His stellar record might be a bit more of a surprise, but he too has just one finish worse than 10th over the same five-race span – 36th after the aforementioned Big One bit him. His next worst finish? Sixth.
Next on the list is an even bigger surprise: Casey Mears, whose worst finish over the same span is 11th. On the flip side, some of the best drivers in the sport aren’t strong plate racers, and that includes six-time champion and Cup Series’ winningest active driver, Jimmie Johnson, who’s mediocre at best. He can win, or he can wad up the field with similar regularity. Same old same old on the plate tracks? Maybe, but maybe not.
4. Some guys really aren’t good at pushing… or being pushed.
Have you ever heard a driver on the radio say that his car won’t work as well if it’s pushing another car? He’s not necessarily full of it; there are several reasons why drivers struggle in line but are fast at the front. Some just aren’t comfortable in the turbulence of the draft, like Johnson, who’s less likely to make a mistake at the head of a line than in the middle of it. The way the cars are currently, the front and rear bumpers don’t line up well. That’s by design, to keep them from pushing for too long and forming two-car breakaways.
Some teams configure air ducts in such a way that the engine is slightly underpowered in line. And yeah, some guys are just trying to maneuver their way into a better position by finagling with others. Can you blame them, really? But don’t assume that the driver saying he can’t push, or can’t be in front, is being untruthful.
5. Should we end the season where we started at Daytona?
The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race. Everyone wants to win it. Some have suggested moving the track’s second race, currently run in early July, to November and the season’s final slot. While it would be an exciting race, it’s a bad idea, especially considering the current championship format.
Plate races are known for being somewhat of a crap shoot. Running a mistake-free race does not guarantee a good finish, or even a finish at all. With the title now decided by a single race, that’s not a good thing. While weird things can happen anywhere at any time, running at Daytona increases the odds significantly. Is it a good title run if all four contenders are wiped out at lap 50 and the champion is either the guy who was ahead of the other three at the time or one who limps around for the most laps afterward? Is the championship fairly determined if someone not involved in any way triggers a crash that takes out some or all of the contenders? Again, while it can happen anywhere, the odds of it happening at Daytona are simply too great to take the title game home.
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