TALLADEGA, Ala. — Athletes are control freaks. Doesn’t matter if they throw a ball or slap a puck or drive hundreds of horsepower, they hate variables.
That makes the randomness of restrictor-plate racing a hassle for NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. More than anywhere on the top stock-car circuit, Superspeedways Daytona and Talladega define “stuff happens” tracks.
Some drivers rage at fate. Others try their best to shrug and bear it. One driver says these settings demand extra caution. Another says extra caution is what gets you in the most trouble.
“There are a lot of guys that come to this track worried, nervous,” driver Clint Bowyer said of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. “Not scared that they’re going to get hurt, I don’t think. It’s scared they’re going to lose points. They’re going to get caught up in a crash and it’s going to take them a month to overcome a bad race.”
Daytona and Talladega – behemoths in the family of stock-car tracks – are faster, wilder, more dangerous. As Denny Hamlin put it Friday, this is a setting where wrecks can come almost as easily in the first lap as the last.
The track is wide enough at 48 feet that you can occasionally drive four-wide. But take that next step…
“If you go five-wide, then you wreck,” Bowyer warned.
NASCAR’s reaction to all that speed is the restrictor plate, a contraption to limit cars’ power. That’s a safety measure, an attempt to keep cars from flying over catch fences.
But it makes for bunched-up fields and a heavy reliance on draft-racing, where drivers get close enough to push each other faster aerodynamically. Put that many cars that close together at such speeds and stuff happens. Stuff that makes drivers furious at themselves and others.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was swept up in a wreck at Talladega last season that caused his second concussion in six weeks. He made numerous angry comments, including wishing he’d never race here again. It’s what the superspeedways do to these guys.
“I over-reacted, overstated those comments,” Earnhardt said. “To go 495 miles, then wreck in the last five miles, it’s hard to get your brain around.
“I don’t think of Talladega as a bad place. It’s a place where I’ve won and can win. I’m supposed to be up front, and when I got swept up in that crash I was driving 18th. So that’s something I didn’t do (well).”
These superspeedways place an even bigger premium on driving up front to avoid being swept up in a chain-reaction wreck. It’s almost a weeding-out process: One mistake can knock 20 cars out of the field, where maybe 18 of those cars had nothing to do with the cause.
To stay out front, you have to be an expert at drafting. The trouble with that is it changes with each NASCAR change in the restrictor plates and body shapes. Those changes are an annual event.
“The package is changing just about every year. Every time you move something on that car, it’s going to draft differently,” said Earnhardt, who’s won five Sprint Cup races at Talladega. “You have to keep an open mind and change how you’re going to race.”
The challenge to that is collecting the data. Ten years ago race teams would use every minute of practice time at Daytona and Talladega to experiment with drafting techniques. Nowadays crew chiefs want to minimize potential for pre-race crashes and engine-builders want to minimize mileage on their work.
“We’re scared to practice,” Bowyer said. “So then you try to learn something during the race when you haven’t really learned anything.”
For Bowyer, that means a conservative approach early: “You’re always going to be cautious and play a little defense until the end.”
Earnhardt sees it differently:
“Just driving with caution and driving without confidence sends you backward or puts you in a mess that tends to be the one that takes you out.”