Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 was billed as one of the most exciting and heart-pounding races of the season. The promos of the spectacular last-lap crash from April’s race prepped those watching at home for a race full of intense action. However, Sunday’s race was one of the strangest events in recent memory at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
Prior to the event, NASCAR announced it would implement a smaller restrictor plate to slow down the cars in an effort to ensure safer racing. Aggressive bump-drafting throughout Friday’s practice led NASCAR to park Michael Waltrip before the end of the session. During the pre-race drivers’ meeting, NASCAR president Mike Helton told the teams that if any bump-drafting occurred in the corners, the black flag would be thrown. "If you win the race by drafting through Turn 1 and 2 with help, then you’re going to have a problem," Helton said.
This rule change upset drivers and fans alike. A number of teams were forced to reexamine their race strategies. Dale Earnhardt Jr. told ABC/ESPN’s Dale Jarrett during the pre-race show the new rule was like telling the NFL to go from tackle football to two-hand touch. Also unhappy with NASCAR’s decision, Denny Hamlin said his team had set its car up specifically to push in the draft. To top it all off, Jimmie Johnson led the field to the green.
After Paul Menard brought out an early caution that also caught up Joe Nemechek, the drivers sent a message to NASCAR. Instead of dicing it up two- and three-wide, the field fell in line and drove around the top of the track single-file. Lap after lap the field snaked around as the fans sat and watched and those at home checked football scores. Tony Stewart even radioed his crew asking them to tell him something interesting so he could stay awake.
The racing eventually heated up late. A mistimed bump-draft between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart left the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet on its roof. Stewart caught the outside wall as Newman shot down the track into Kevin Harvick. Newman’s car spun around with its rear wheels lifting into the air. The car cart-wheeled upside down onto the hood of Harvick’s car, slid up the banking into the wall and then flipped again, landing on its roof in the grass. Elliott Sadler and Marcos Ambrose also were caught up in the incident. The safety crew had to cut the roof off the car to get Newman out.
One of the biggest critics of NASCAR’s rule package, Newman has been vocal about NASCAR keeping cars on the ground. After Sunday’s wild ride, his criticism only grew louder.
“The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the race cars, the less we can race and the less we can put on a show for the fans,” Newman said. “As I said, I will go back in the day, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, all those guys, they respected each other. In the end there were some big accidents, but geez, we don't need the cars getting upside down like this. This is ridiculous.”
Despite having just three laps to go once the race restarted, Newman was not the last car to land on its roof. Coming to get the white flag, April winner Brad Keselowski got into the back of Kurt Busch going into the tri-oval. The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge turned down across the pack causing the second big crash of the day. Mark Martin wound up rolling the No. 5 Chevrolet in the multi-car crash.
Jamie McMurray scored the win, but the bigger story seemed to be NASCAR’s intrusion on the track, and how the drivers reacted. Single-file racing has been a feature of races at Talladega in the past, but Sunday’s seemed much more deliberate. Following the race, opinions differed on how the new rules changed the game.
“It was just kind of a terrible race today in general,” David Ragan said. “There was a lot of single-file racing. I know it’s exciting there at the end, but what happens is NASCAR slows these cars down. They’re too easy to drive and everyone just gets kind of crazy. It’s a shame to tear up a lot of good race cars like that for kind of being stupid, but that’s restrictor plate racing.”
Said Elliott Sadler, “I think NASCAR and all the drivers should sit in a private room, lock the doors and have a discussion and try to fix this together. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Said Jimmie Johnson, “At the end of the day, the restrictor plate is still here because it's a good show for the fans. So at some point when the fans dislike it, I guess we'll make a change, and we won't have this stuff. But until then, we're a product of what the fans want to see.”
Judging by the response on various social media sites on Sunday, fans were none-too-pleased with Sunday’s race. The single-file action bored fans and the rule change left drivers unsure how far they could push the envelope. On top of that, two cars flipped over and the restrictor plate adjustment did little to separate the cars. Johnson suggested the only way to fix restrictor plate racing was to bring out the bulldozers and eliminate the banking.
Restrictor plate racing has always created controversy and drawn complaints from both drivers and fans. The sanctioning body has done a number of things to ensure safety for everyone, yet pack racing and big crashes remain.
Will Sunday’s controversial race change the way NASCAR looks at the future of restrictor plate racing? One can only hope so. Three cars have gone airborne this year at Talladega despite the roof flap safety feature. As Sadler said, this seems to be an issue NASCAR and the teams need to meet on and figure out before next season.