To say the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is going through a change heading into 2016 is an understatement. The charter system, reduced field size, the overtime line and the low downforce package are all creating quite a bit of upheaval heading into the year. But one thing that hasn’t changed for the last four years is the package that the series runs on restrictor plate tracks.
And while stability in an otherwise changing world can be a good thing, it is time to switch up how NASCAR does plate racing.
This isn’t a column about taking the plates off; that horse has been beaten to death and probably will be by other columns this weekend. They were a band-aid in 1987 until the sanctioning body came up with something better to slow the cars down. They’re still trying to find that formula. This is about the fact that the minds in the garage have massaged and primped and prodded these cars so much that they have milked just about everything out of them that they can. The cars have become so equal in the draft on these restrictor plate tracks that it has become almost impossible to pass the leader without a very large push from one or more cars. At this point any car that doesn’t have a No. 88 on the side of it seems to be destined to follow the leader if they do not come out of the pits in the top spot.
In the first Can-Am Duel Thursday night, the drivers tried to run two lines for some of the race but were unable to make a move on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when he was at the point. After pit stops Earnhardt came out of the pits behind Denny Hamlin. After a spin by Cole Whitt, Earnhardt restarted on the outside row and slipped back to fifth. Unlike anyone else during both Duels, he was able to time moves and work his way back to the lead. In the second race, it was literally follow-the-leader racing for 95 percent of the race. When it came down to the end, people tried to make moves heading into the last lap but only ended up with steaming heaps of twisted sheet metal and a caution flag to finish the event.
Outside of the No. 88 garage, the drivers reiterated that it is extremely hard to make a move on the leader. The cars get close to the leader but the cushion of air being pushed in front of them gives the leader a boost and stalls the cars trying to advance. The trailing cars are forced to attempt to lag back and get a large push and then hope the leader doesn’t block their run or stick their nose into a dangerous position that can ultimately cause the Big One.
Tandem racing was eliminated in favor of returning to pack racing. The pack has returned, but it is really racing? The cars run close together in two and three lanes, but there is little to no movement at all. The occasional pass by cars dropping out of line, receiving a push and forcing their way back in front of another car is far less common than the car attempting to drop out of line, receiving no help and dropping precipitously through the pack.
It is hard to say what can fix this situation but clearly something needs to be done. As the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death passes by, the memories of the package that was on the car, which included the wicker bill on the roof that promoted runs and slingshot passes, would seem like a good alternative. It seemed to create a hole in the air that was large enough to allow the cars behind to make a run while not preventing them from completing the pass once they pulled alongside the car in front. The cars have changed significantly since then, and it most likely won’t have the same impact this time around as it did then, but it is at least worth a try.
Obviously the art of aerodynamics is something that has received billions, if not trillions of dollars of research in all forms of racing and in street car development. Those things that have been learned cannot be unlearned and overcoming that knowledge is absolutely going to be a challenge. However, something must be done to make plate racing competitive once again. The Duels are nearly irrelevant now that all but four spots are guaranteed into the Daytona 500, two of which come from the qualifying day Sunday. The only real purpose is determining pit stall selection, since it has been proven that the race can be won from anywhere dependent on strategy and luck.
The stands Thursday night were as full as they have been in many years for the Duels yet the racing was not deserving of that attention. In a year full of changes that are altering the face and direction of the sport for years to come, it is time to change restrictor plate racing for the better of the sport.
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