Restrictor plates spark debate with a visit to Talladega awaiting
When last we left Talladega Superspeedway in October 2012, there was the usual trail of crumbled sheet metal heading to the garage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was saying that people who enjoyed that type of racing were "bloodthirsty," while Jeff Gordon was questioning why fans were not "lined up out to the highway" to see the excitement -- and carnage -- of restrictor-plate racing.
Such has been the high-speed contradiction of plate racing for the past 25 years. Many drivers hate it, some tolerate it, and a few actually enjoy it. Michael Waltrip, for example, has competed in only 12 Sprint Cup races since 2010, and 10 of them have been at either Talladega or Daytona (the circuit's only other restrictor-plate track). On the opposite end of the spectrum, Carl Edwards has managed just four top-10 finishes in 17 Talladega starts and griped last year that "it's easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time" at the track.
That is the biggest criticism most drivers have about restrictor-plate racing. They say the racing is out of their control and that, in the end, it all comes down to luck. It is a complaint Clint Bowyer had heard numerous times over the years. And it makes him laugh.
"Everybody who says the racing is not in their hands and there is nothing they can do, well, they might need to start watching the races and see what those six or seven cars are doing that keep winning there every time," Bowyer said to SI.com a few weeks ago.
Bowyer did not list those drivers by name, but it is obvious he considers himself to be one of them, since he has two victories in his past five Talladega starts. Other drivers with multiple restrictor-plate wins over the past 10 years include Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart. This group of seven has accounted for 25 of the past 36 victories at Talladega and Daytona.
Contrary to popular belief, Bowyer said there are plenty of things drivers can do to improve their chances of success in restrictor-plate racing. All the drivers need to do is be willing to experiment and learn while on the track, not of simply riding around in a straight line.
"You should be learning as much as you can the whole time you're out there," Bowyer said. "You're learning aero, where to get the best pull off the car in front of you, side drafting, what car your car runs with the best. For whatever reason, you'll find somebody -- it can be your teammate or (a driver for) another manufacturer -- who you'll have better (drafting) success with them.
"You have to do all your homework and then find that right situation with all those pieces of the puzzle and get it put together correctly. You don't have all the pieces in your hands. You're just trying to drive over and connect one to the other and make it all happen. You should be busy the whole race."
Instead, what has happened in recent years is many drivers are content to bide their time until the end and not start truly racing until there are less than 20 laps to go. This leads to a mad scramble that often results in a huge wreck. But Bowyer said the "Big One" could sometimes be avoided if drivers were willing to mix it up during the race and learn more about what their cars are capable of doing.
"That's what I didn't like about Daytona this year," Bowyer said, referring to the long stretches of single-file runs that made up the bulk of the race. "There were several times in that race when I was yelling at my spotter that if he could get three or four (other drivers) to go with me, I knew we could go to the bottom (of the track) and pass. We did it in practice, and when it came time near the end of the race, that bottom line was where it was at. But nobody wanted to do it.
"And then you get down to the end and you haven't learned anything. You don't know the right way to side draft and all the things that you need to practice all race long. Nine times out of 10 when that happens, as soon as we start racing the least little bit, we wreck because we haven't been practicing any of it. And that's what happened at Daytona. You have to get out there and learn during the race, and some people are better at that than others."
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Johnson had his second-worst finish of the season at Richmond, and still finished 12th. If that is what's going to be considered a "bad" race for Johnson this year, then he won't drop from the top spot in the rankings again.
2. Kasey Kahne (2nd) -- Unlike Johnson, Kahne truly did have a disappointing showing at Richmond, coming in 21st for his worst finish since the Daytona 500. Still, he has five top-10s in the past seven races, tied with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski for the most during that span.
3. Carl Edwards (6th) -- Edwards leads Kahne in the standings by three points, but overall he has not been nearly as consistent as Kahne. Edwards has finished 15th or worse in three of the past six races.
4. Clint Bowyer (8th) -- Bowyer's runner-up showing at Richmond gives him four top-5 finishes in the past six races. And now the series heads to Talladega, where he has won twice.
5. Brad Keselowski (3rd) -- Engine issues at Richmond sent Keselowski to a 33rd-place finish, his worst of the season and only the second time he has been outside the top-10. Even with a potential suspension hanging over crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski should bounce back.
6. Kyle Busch (4th) -- Busch has one of the weirdest stat sheets of the season so far. He finished outside the top-20 in the first two races, then ripped off five consecutive top-5s (with two wins), and has now followed that with two more finishes worse than 20th.
7. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- Kenseth is only 13th in the standings, though he would be fifth if not for the 50-point penalty his team received after failing post-race inspection a week ago at Kansas. But with two victories already this year, Kenseth will still likely make the Chase.
8. Kevin Harvick (unranked) -- Harvick had been stuck in a rut of mediocrity before his victory at Richmond, finishing 12th to 14th six times in the first eight races. Now that he is in the win column, look for Harvick's weekly performance to improve.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- Thanks to his hot start to the season, Earnhardt is still fourth in the standings and is only four points out of second. But he has an average finish of 19.8 over the past four races.
10. Greg Biffle (7th) -- This final spot could just as easily have gone to Paul Menard, who like Biffle has four top-10s and only one finish outside the top-20. Biffle gets the edge thanks to his fourth-place showing at Texas (Menard's best finish is eighth).