Tom Bowles
Thursday October 29th, 2009

As NASCAR heads to Talladega this Sunday, the Cup Series will conclude its 22nd consecutive year of "restrictor plate racing." Designed to slow speeds on the circuit's two fastest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, restrictor plate racing is a temporary solution to an age old question: how can NASCAR keep drivers safe while leaving competition and innovation intact?

Looking back, it's easy to understand why plates are in use. Speeds at these tracks are a problem, and plates are designed to keep cars from crossing the 200 mph threshold -- one that tends to turn stock car racing from dangerous to deadly. After Bobby Allison nearly tore through the catchfence in 1987, injuring several but coming close to killing hundreds, NASCAR implemented driving plates to prevent accidents like Allison's from happening again.

The first time NASCAR applied the rule, the plates slowed the pole speed from 212.809 mph in the spring of 1987 (a series record) to 198.969 one year later. This fall, that number is expected to drop to between 185 and 190 mph, with holes 59/64ths of an inch, small enough to limit the strongest engine from reaching its full potential.

Yet, as we saw this spring, when Carl Edwards' flip at Talladega injured seven and nearly sent his No. 99 car hurtling into the stands, it's a fix that's far from flawless. When a dozen cars failed to finish for the second 'Dega race in a row, garage chatter turned about as anti-restrictor plate as it's ever been. While each wreck may bring fans to their feet, for drivers, the risks outweigh the rewards.

"It's tough to race here," said points leader Jimmie Johnson, whose car got swept up in a multi-car wreck on Lap 179 last spring -- a reminder that his fourth straight Chase title won't be safe until the checkered flag this Sunday. "As long as we run restrictor plates, they're going to have these big packs and these big wrecks. There's no way to get around it."

As it currently stands, the powerplants reach their limit without much effort, and 43 drivers roll around the 2.66-mile oval with perfect handling that keeps virtually everyone bunched together in unison. Since restrictor plates keep the driver from achieving maximum horsepower, the only way a car can pull out and pass is with the help of somebody else, leading to a snarling 43-man draft that changes only when drivers choose to work together.

No wonder Mark Martin calls this race "The Lotto." Over 500 miles, teamwork and patience are required in a sport where second place is the first loser. It's also why, during the final 100 miles, fear of the Big One becomes reality. Drivers break deals and fend for themselves, making desperate moves to get to the front in packs that leave the smallest of holes. All it takes is one fatal tap on the bumper at 190 mph, and five, 10, sometimes even 20 cars can be wiped out in an instant. With everyone bunched so close together, there's no place to go but into a wreck or into the outside wall.

"So damn frustrating," says Martin Truex Jr. of the process. "You ride around all day long just waiting for the end. That is not even racing."

Despite the racers objections, the unpopular plates have gained traction amongst a crucial subset: the fans. 'Dega's Fall race has been the number two rated race on ABC/ESPN for the last two years, trailing only the Brickyard 400. With the track setting a season high number of lead changes for eight years running, it's no wonder why most are riveted to the television. Most fans claim they don't like it, but it's the only time they're guaranteed a battle to the finish without seeing the winner automatically pull away. In a touch of irony, a sport preoccupied with safety puts its best foot forward at a track that leaves its drivers exposed to serious danger.

"You want to get mad, but it's just Talladega," Jamie McMurray said back in April. "And that's what the fans pay to come see."

Would the cash stop flowing if fans truly understood the risk they take? Turns out 190 mph is plenty fast enough to do damage, as Edwards learned the hard way. His move to block Brad Keselowski in the tri-oval ended with a wreck this spring, and while his speed may have been 20 mph slower than Allison's, the end result was nearly as fatal. For this week's race, the catchfence was raised eight feet (it now stands 22 feet high), but will making it taller strengthen its resolve if an airborne car hits it?

This weekend, Edwards will take the time to visit with the fan most seriously hurt from his accident, Blake Bobbitt. She was lucky, escaping with a broken jaw that's now fully healed -- but you wonder if their memories ever will.

"That's a feeling I've never had before and I never want to have again," Edwards said. "It was a real eye-opener as to how serious this can be. We race cars, and we all wreck and we know we can get hurt ... that's something we all accept. But I don't think part of my job is people in the grandstands getting hurt."

As for the other 100,000+ in attendance while all that went on? Most of them cheered. But that's Talladega in a nutshell, isn't it? Tragedy and triumph all rolled into one.

"I guess we'll do this until somebody gets killed and then we'll change it," he claimed. "But that's the way it is."

As long as you fans pay to see it.

- With Joe Gibbs' replacement of Steve Addington on Tuesday, both Busch brothers will have new crew chiefs in 2010. But while Pat Tryson left Kurt Busch on his own terms, Addington was shoved aside for Kyle Busch due to a paralyzing inability to get the No. 18 running well on intermediates. With just four top-10 finishes in his 13 starts at midsized tracks this season, Busch was going nowhere at the ovals that make up half of the Chase each season.

While a quick listen to the radio could tell you that the relationship between driver and crew chief had soured, the bigger question is whether Dave Rogers, an internal hire, will prove the fix all. After collecting nearly two dozen wins and an owner's championship in the Nationwide Series since '06, Rogers struggled in his only other Cup crew chief job; he never scored a top-five finish and even failed to qualify once with driver Jason Leffler. Considering the Californian is far more laid back than the volatile Busch, it'll be interesting to see how much leeway the star driver gives the new head wrench to settle into the role. My over/under: two races before his patience fizzles out. When Busch loses his temper, will Rogers keep his cool?

-- Denny Hamlin's Martinsville win on Sunday was a great way to salvage a difficult end to the season. While he's known to be a little too emotional at times, it's the first time he's proved capable of bouncing back quickly after two DNFs effectively eliminated him from title contention. In order for the 28-year-old to step up and challenge Jimmie Johnson next year, he has to start broadening his horizons a bit. Six of his seven career wins have now come on just three tracks: Richmond, Pocono and Martinsville. Just one of those appears in the Chase, and Hamlin has yet to visit Victory Lane on any of the 1.5-mile intermediate ovals. Until Hamlin beats the No. 48 at its own game, cashing in at a place like California, it's hard to consider him a true threat.

-- A full field without a single start-and-parker? Looks like we'll have it at Talladega, as each of the 44 teams entered (except the No. 66 PRISM Motorsports team and perhaps the No. 37 Front Row car) intend to go the distance if they qualify.

Why 'Dega as opposed to anywhere else? It's not a bigger purse or bigger market attracting these guys but simple, pure racing competition. With the plates, it's one of the few tracks on the circuit where teams like the No. 87 and No. 36 can actually compete for a top-10 if they play their cards right. And since purse money only pays off if you finish that high, it makes financial sense for them to run all 500 miles. Makes you wonder what would happen if their equipment gave them a chance at other tracks on the circuit...

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