Sympathy For The Superspeedway

Racing at Dega

Just like the good ol’ USA, NASCAR Nation has its polarizing issues. Instead of Obamacare and taxes, one debate among NASCAR fans has to do with racing on the superspeedways, also known as the “restrictor plate tracks.” The metal devices that resemble a slice of Swiss cheese, restrict airflow and limit speed- this coming after Bobby Allison’s car took out a section of fencing at Talladega in 1987 and injured several fans with flying parts.

The upshot of the move has resulted in racing in what Greg Biffle described as a “parking lot.” For yours truly, it is reminiscent of the 120 bypass connecting Interstate 5 to Highway 99 in northern California, a stretch of road also dubiously known as “Death Alley.” It’s bumper-to-bumper traffic going 75 miles per hour plus at 6 a.m., and with one false move, you have a massive, and I mean massive pile-up. The two-car car involving Casey Mears and Austin Dillon was nothing compared to what has been seen over the years.

Critics say “That’s not racing.” When Mark Martin was making his run at Jimmie Johnson in 2009, he called Talladega a lottery. Restrictor plate racing has produced its share of “specialists” (in less polite circles, “one trick ponies.”) Four of Jamie McMurray’s wins have come on restrictor plate tracks, David Ragan’s two career Cup victories have come at superspeedways, and all four of Michael Waltrip’s career victories came at either Daytona of Talladega-just to name a few.

At one time, the races produced “two car tangos.” 2013 has marked the return of “freight train” and “parade” racing. The “Big One” that commentators and fans seem a little too eager for was not seen at the Camping World RV Sales 500 Sunday.

So why would anyone enjoy this kind of racing?

Plate track racing is intense. Even though the “Big One” never happened, it darn near did more than once. Watching 3,500 pound machines darting around in packs is a rush, especially when your favorite track master is passing some neophyte or a driver with a bad reputation.

To this observer, there’s something about the song of an engine revving up around nine thousand RPMs. Those 43 drivers, running flat out, are doing something we can only dream about- legally flying low at over 200 miles per hour.

Then there’s strategy. Yes, it is both a blessing and a curse; Kasey Kahne will no doubt agree. Somewhere along the line, you may have to draft with a guy you don’t like. There’s also the question of what to do with your pit stops: most stops, you’re only going to need two, but sometimes four might be needed. When do you pull out of line? Matt Kenseth got killed at the end, thinking SOMEBODY might make a run, and that lower line never really formed. Sometimes it does. There’s also the question of do you hang back and make your move at the end? Or do you do rush up front and lead the parade from flag to flag?

Restrictor plate racing has produced some riveting finishes: Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin in the 2007 Daytona 500, what about the racing between Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch later that summer? Let’s not forget Travor Bayne’s thrilling finish in the 2011 Daytona 500.

Speaking of drivers like Bayne, restrictor plate racing is fun, because you never know who might win it- especially at Talladega. A Bayne, a Ragan, a McMurray has a shot if they can endure until the end.

These races are wild cards, and they truly are just that. Who really saw Jamie McMurray coming? You can call it dumb luck, but the Joplin, Missouri native has gotten lucky four times on restrictor plate tracks. He may be lucky, but remember, luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Unlike the mile and a half tracks where the super teams dominate, anything (or sometimes even nothing) happens. There’s a place for a few dates like that on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.