Better plate than never?
That was a major question entering this year’s Daytona 500 — and particularly after a pair of lackluster races at Talladega Superspeedway last season.
The 2019 season opener marked the last superspeedway race before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates permanently were removed and replaced by the (similarly shaped) tapered spacers used to choke down engines at the rest of the tracks on the circuit.
So what would the post-plate era look like in NASCAR?
The 26 Hours of Talladega provided a definitive answer: A lot like most of everything that transpired on the biggest, fastest tracks in NASCAR for the previous 31 years.
It’s the bedrock upon which superspeedway racing happily has rested for three decades in the interest of entertainment (and, ostensibly, safety in ensuring speeds are manageable enough to prevent cars from sailing over catchfences with disturbing regularity at Daytona and Talladega).
After an off-year in 2018, NASCAR found its sweet spot in Sweet Home Alabama this season.
The most arbitrary form of racing delivered by NASCAR’s premier series again felt as predictably unpredictable as it ever had since the restrictor-plate era began in 1988. There were colossal crashes, double-crossing duplicity and razor-tight finishes.
That was great for fans. It wasn’t necessarily good for Cup drivers.
Of course, it rarely is in the finicky and violent environs of Dega, which was unusually tame last year with only two wrecks of at least a half-dozen cars across 1,013 miles (this year, there were three times as many).
The knock on plate racing in 2018 was the lack of driveability. It’s hard to make passes when cars aren’t stable at 200 mph-plus in the draft.
That put the leader at a huge advantage of being able to tow lines at will and control the front of the pack in a decidedly un-Talladega-esque manner. It was most evident last October when Stewart-Haas Racing led 155 of 188 laps with cars that (stunningly) were built for handling instead of speed.
NASCAR addressed this by raising spoilers to 9 inches with the advent of the spacers. That didn’t do much for handling, but it did punch a bigger hole in the air that caused massive acceleration in the draft and eradicated the “aero bubble” barrier that drivers said made it difficult for trailing cars to pass last year.
So the ability to catch the leader improved … even though handling didn’t nearly as much (look no further than Joey Logano’s in-car camera, which was a furious blur of hands manhandling the steering wheel on every shot).
That was a recipe for the return of the huge wrecks that felt like Dega of yesteryear. Holes in the draft vanished much more quickly, and blocking became futile as drivers scrambled (and often failed) to adapt to the higher closing rates.
If there was a theme, it was that misjudgment on blocking and bumping made the racing much more treacherous – particularly in the rain-shortened July 7 wreckfest at Daytona and the extravaganza Sunday-Monday.
As analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in the NBC broadcast, though the bumpers don’t line up as well with the Gen 6 as in the previous iteration (which spawned the nefarious tandem drafting), the bump-drafting has become even more aggressive in the era of stage points and playoff berths tied to wins.
With bigger runs coming from every direction, an increased susceptibility to being passed and cars just as unstable when in a pack, the lead no longer was the place to be at Talladega.
There were more lead changes Sunday-Monday (46, up from 38 in the April 28 race) than the combined total (40) for both 2018 races. There were 22,214 green-flag passes (59 per lap) at Talladega in 2019, up from 13,294 last year (35 per lap).
A NASCAR without restrictor plates?
Talladega still served up the action for fans — on a silver platter strewn with twisted sheet metal, of course.
The situations weren’t entirely analogous, but NASCAR’s non-call on the final lap Monday was reminiscent of its controversial non-call on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning pass of Matt Kenseth in the April 6, 2003 race at Talladega. In both instances, officials claimed the spirit of the yellow-line rule wasn’t violated even though the letter clearly was.
Here’s how the rule was presented in the drivers meeting at Talladega: “Drivers, this is your warning. Race above the double-yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you go below the double-yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you force someone below the double-yellow line in an effort to stop someone from passing you, you may be black-flagged.”
It’s indisputable that, just like Earnhardt did in passing Kenseth 16 years ago, Ryan Blaney went below the yellow line before taking the lead for good Monday from Ryan Newman. It’s possible that contact with Newman caused Blaney to dip below the boundary, and that seems to be NASCAR’s explanation in why no call was made.
But it also seems like the rule demands that (as it did in 2003) a penalty should have been called on either Blaney or Newman. NASCAR can rule that “in its judgment,” Blaney didn’t intentionally go below the yellow-line to improve his position … but if that’s the case, it means he had to have been forced there, right?
Regardless, NASCAR officials say they are happy with the language of the rule.
Given that it affords them tremendous leeway to turn every yellow-line pass into a ball and strike call, it’s easy to see why.
As many have noted, manufacturer alliances at Daytona and Talladega were invented long before the 21st century. In the 1990s, Chevrolet and Ford drivers regularly worked together – when possible — to try to ensure their makes won the race.
But there were some glaring differences about the tempest that sprung forth last weekend and sparked major disgruntlement among fans and media.
Chevrolet’s decision to call an in-race meeting at Garage Suite 3 in full public view was ill-advised, at best. The references afterward to shilling Corvettes and watching PowerPoints were too clever by a factor of maybe 100, and they also were indicative of why the optics were problematic.
Chevy’s extremely disciplined approach felt too corporate, and it seemed micromanaged to the point of making Michael Scott blush. Chastising drivers for racing three wide instead of single file while still in Stage 1 is hardly palatable to anyone in NASCAR, which has an appealing undercurrent of cutthroat intensity (especially at Daytona and Talladega).
It’s understandable why Jim Campbell demanded his Chevy drivers stay on script. The heat from GM headquarters in Detroit surely was unbearable after Hendrick Motorsports essentially helped Toyota win the Daytona 500. And Ford and Toyota drivers surely were given virtually the same marching orders at Talladega – just much more discreetly.
That might be the right line to choose next time.
The focus on manufacturer alliances wasn’t all bad, though.
It forced some good discussions on awkward topics into the open, and it raised important issues about how much influence manufacturers and teams should have in effectively determining race winners. If younger drivers for midpack teams essentially are told to subjugate themselves for the greater good (or risk being stripped of perks), is that a just sacrifice at a track that might offer their best opportunity at winning all year?
That conversation got shoved to the forefront by the weekend’s manufacturer debate. And it was nice that none of it actually mattered at the conclusion of a race that featured a passel of unheralded underdogs vying for the checkered flag.
It also could be indirectly good for NASCAR while continuing to court new manufacturers to enter with its next generation engine (which probably won’t happen until 2023). With the overall decline in the corporate sponsorship spend over the past decade, there are few entities investing as much in stock-car racing as the automakers.
At least they got good bang for their bucks at Talladega, particularly if you ascribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Ryan Blaney still isn’t a favorite to reach the Championship 4 this season, but Monday might be remembered as a turning point if the No. 12 driver eventually wins a Cup title.
There is enormous pressure on the 25-year-old to perform at Team Penske, which has been enjoying a worldwide results bonanza well beyond NASCAR that is impressive even for this storied organization. Never mind championship teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Blaney also is competing against winners of the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000 and Rolex 24. If he makes the playoffs but still goes winless this year, it gets noticed more than it would at a less successful team.
It was important that his 2019 breakthrough happened at Talladega after a string of plate failures the past few years. Blaney’s Fords led four of the past six races at Talladega but didn’t finish higher than 11th in any of them. He finished seventh in the 2018 Daytona 500 despite having the best car and leading a race-high 118 laps.
The confidence-booster of making every right move over the final two laps (including the bold decision to choose the outside for the lead on the final restart) should go a long way toward making Blaney feel his place is secure at one of racing’s greatest teams.