Tom Bowles
Monday April 26th, 2010

Just the numbers themselves are startling. Twenty-nine drivers combined for a record 88 lead changes, with the winner breaking a 115-race victory drought. Three green-white-checkered finishes determined the outcome of a race that had a margin of victory of 0.011 seconds.

Reading that, you'd think Talladega had race fans begging for more on Sunday. So why were some leaving with a sour taste in their mouth? The divisiveness of "restrictor plate" racing leads off our Five Things We Learned From Talladega:

1. The rear spoiler can't replace those restrictor plates.

No question, NASCAR's new handling package made it the most competitive 'Dega race in history. The return of the rear spoiler combined with officials turning a blind eye to "bumpdrafting" -- where two cars lock bumpers in a dangerous maneuver for extra speed in the draft -- led to wild racing right from the drop of the green. Unprecedented parity ensued, as no one driver led more than 28 of 200 laps. Add in a pass for the win in the final turn, and the sport seemed to find the perfect formula for success at the same track drivers ran single-file in protest last fall.

"I thought all day, the racing was amazing," said Jeff Gordon -- an opinion made more impressive considering he wrecked. "I don't think you could have asked for better, so I applaud that rear spoiler."

Not everyone was smiling, though, because of the puzzle piece the sport refuses to change: restrictor plates. Reducing the maximum speed of the engines, the plates are there for safety reasons but sometimes cause more trouble than they're worth. Leaving every car running wide open, no one's able to pull away from the pack, causing a snarling, 43-car traffic jam where disaster lurks around every turn. There was no 20-car wreck known as the "Big One" Sunday, but a handful of small ones still eliminated half the field.

"It's gonna happen," said Elliott Sadler about the usual long list of wrecks. "I don't care what rules you bring here. It's Talladega and you can't change it."

Most importantly, no horsepower to pass leaves the racing not to the fastest car but to Lady Luck. The power of the draft means you need another car to make any type of serious move, meaning you go an entire race without controlling your own destiny.

"In restrictor plate racing," says Greg Biffle, "If you don't have a guy pushing you, you're a dead duck."

It's the equivalent to watching a roulette wheel for four hours, then betting all your money on a number during the final spin and hoping you hit. It's 480 miles of randomness for one heart-pumping payoff; exciting for some, but others would rather find something else to do with their time, including the drivers themselves.

2. What does this win mean for Kevin Harvick?

Everything. Just days after the news his sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil, is leaving after the season, Harvick struck back with a shocker all his own. Breaking a winless streak that extended back to the 2007 Daytona 500, today's race bumped him up to second in points and put him in the news for the one thing a new prospective backer will pay to see: his car in Victory Lane.

"They can leave while we're winning," the 34-year-old said about Shell with a sly smile, the closest thing to a knock you'll get from him on their impending departure. Now, he needs to spend the next few weeks knocking down doors of other companies that'll finance his future. Despite angry rebuttals to the commentary on our story from this week -- in a media conference Friday, he said "anonymous sources are crap" -- sources maintain that remaining at Richard Childress Racing isn't an option. So look for Harvick to take this trophy, run to good buddy Tony Stewart, and see if they can put something together for his future in 2011.

3. Did Dale Earnhardt, Jr. waste an opportunity?

In a word: yes. Earnhardt appeared to be toying with the field Sunday, moving through the pack at will. Teaming up with anyone who'd work with him, the No. 88 had enough horsepower to put anyone from Jimmie Johnson to your grandma up front. As the race wound down, everyone expected for racing's favorite son to break a 65-race winless drought at his favorite track on the circuit.

But that became the day's big surprise. For when it came time to face the music, Earnhardt lost his voice.

"When it counted at the end, we just didn't make the right moves," he said after a shocking fade to 13th. "The bottom line didn't go very good, and on that last restart it cost us a couple more spots."

The veteran was quick to accentuate the positive -- "It was a pretty fun day, and I'm happy with the car and how well we ran," he said -- but a look at the stats sheet leaves me concerned. Through three of his six best tracks on the schedule, he's got an average finish of 11.0 with one top-10. That's only marginally better than 2009 (17.7, one top-5) and leaves him vulnerable for a summer swath of tracks (Pocono, Infineon, Watkins Glen) where he often struggles to run competitively.

Certainly, the No. 88 is improving but they whiffed on what could have been a much better day. Come September, it's these types of races they'll look back on if the Chase slips through their grasp.

4. Is there really bad blood boiling between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

No. It's true the duo clashed again on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson cutting off Gordon late in the race on the backstretch. Narrowly averting disaster, the No. 24 was left hung out to dry, back in the pack and swept up in an unrelated wreck half-a-lap later.

"The 48 is testing my patience," Gordon said afterwards. "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed right now. When a car is going that much faster ... I don't know what happened in the wreck."

But all those hard feelings will dissolve the second both head to the team meeting this week. It was Johnson's spotter, Earl Barban, who mistakenly directed the No. 48 to come down the track into the No. 24. A few laps later, a second Barban error wrecked his driver when he directed Johnson right into the path of the No. 16. It's hard to be mad at someone when it's not their fault, and the second Gordon sees that, expect fences to be mended ASAP.

5. Who gained and lost from a flurry of late-race wrecks?

The handful of 'Dega "small ones" ruined Gordon's day, but no one was more affected than Jeff Burton and Joey Logano. Burton had the best car, leading a race-high 28 laps, but an ill-timed bump by Mike Bliss left him ending the day inside the garage. Ditto for Logano, who had an exceptional day in just his sixth career restrictor plate race before ending up the victim of someone else's mess.

On the flip side, NASCAR's hard-luck driver Mark Martin persevered. After a day of running towards the back, he dodged the wrecks and charged to fifth at the finish for his first top-5 at 'Dega since 2001. A longtime critic of plate racing, that run may prove the difference for him come Chase time -- the run boosted him from 10th to sixth in the standings.

Underdog Shoutout of the Week: Car owner James Finch announced this week he'd put his single-car Phoenix Racing team up for sale. That left Sunday his grand finale at the track where he earned his only Cup victory last year; but while underfunded (the team lost its sponsor in February) they still put together a top-10 effort with interim driver Mike Bliss.

Race Grade: A for the finish, C for everything else. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. compared restrictor plate racing to the lottery this weekend. Sure, it's great to hold your ticket and wait for those numbers to be called, but do you really spend your whole day on pins and needles waiting for those 60 seconds? I don't think so. Ultimately, the fans will make the call; but if 88 lead changes can't hold their attention, you wonder if NASCAR will finally look at dumping the plates altogether.

Want race updates and NASCAR inside information you can't find anywhere else? Follow Tom on Twitter at NASCARBowles. You can also e-mail him at tbowles81@yahoo.com.

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