Ken Willis: NASCAR’s pack-racin’ madness continues at Talladega

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — During its return to the track, NASCAR has gone to extremes to meet and maybe exceed health safety requirements during this age of coronavirus.

Common sense, risk management and, yes, some occasional overkill have all combined to put eight races in the books since the mid-May return at Darlington. NASCAR, it seems, will go to any length to ensure the well-being of its competitors and, now in a limited capacity, fans.

Well, almost any length.

Sunday they roll off the grid at Talladega, where no facial covering or temp check can save them from the Big One, which has become so inevitable you likely know folks offering a $10 pool to guess which of the 188 laps delivers the usual from Mike Joy: “Oh my, huge trouble in Turn 3!”

Plate-racin’, it was always called, from its inception in 1988 to 2019, when the horsepower-sucking carburetor restrictor plates were replaced by something called tapered spacers, which basically do the same thing in a different manner of physics. If you have the time, ask Jack Roush, not me.

We can now call it pack-racin’, I reckon, and so far it looks exactly like it did between 1988-2019 at sister tracks Daytona and Talladega, where the high banks, long backstretches and equally long frontstretch doglegs invite speeds beyond what the creators imagined in 1959 (Daytona) and ‘69 (Talladega).

Restrictor plates were introduced after Bobby Allison’s violent 1987 wreck took down a lot of the Talladega fencing and nearly killed Harold Kinder way up in the flag stand. Speeds had sped by the 200 mph mark and the plates would reduce that dramatically.

Over time, ironically, slower cars made things dangerous in a different way. The Haves were no longer much faster than the Have Nots, resulting in huge drafting packs of 20, 30 cars, with everyone afraid to lift off the gas because if you lift, you lose the draft and play hell finding it again because — remember? — your horsepower is plated.

Eventually, someone loses grip and there’s nowhere to go but toward the smoke.

Over the years, the only racers who enjoyed this in the least were the Have Nots who viewed such things as their only chance to compete. Check out the top-10 finishers from recent Daytonas and Talladegas and you’ll get the drift.

Over those same years, as it became obvious that plate-racin’ wasn’t honest racin’, everyone with a wrench and an ounce of mechanical know-how would weigh in with an alternative, usually focused on forcing drivers to get off the gas in the turns and therefore scrub off a lot of speed (as happens with stock cars in Indy’s flat corners, for instance).

The suggestions ranged from the interesting (narrower tires) to the extreme (shave down the massive banking). I believe it was Darrell Waltrip who once suggested putting the backstretch chicane into play in order to slow everyone enough to satisfy the insurance underwriters. Smokey Yunick would simply bellow, “Smaller engines!”

My belief trended toward the cynical. Yes, there are ways to slow the cars at the two biggest tracks without killing throttle response and inviting a 30-car draft. The folks in that NASCAR garage could’ve probably beaten Elon Musk to the space station if they weren’t so hell-bent on winning trophies, so yes, they likely have workable solutions.

But cynicism tells you NASCAR and the all-important network partners are addicted to the high numbers produced by that four-hour tightrope act.

So, many of us detractors simply gave up, settled in and enjoyed a drama that played out in predictable fashion because, after all, the important work at NASCAR’s R&D Center post-2001 had largely made these cars as safe as a baby’s womb.

But then Ryan Newman happened and we were reminded that, yes, you can plug 99 holes, but sooner or later No. 100 will come into play. Through research, development and a fair amount of luck, Newman survived his February crash at Daytona.

And now he climbs aboard for Talladega, where NASCAR has instituted some additional protections to the cars’ underbellies, based on knowledge gained from Newman’s Daytona crash data.

But at Daytona and Talladega, they’ve yet to find or agree to a way to make much of that R&D unnecessary.

Buckle up.


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