Restrictor-plate races give NASCAR’s little guys a shot at the Chase under new scoring format

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comMay 2, 2014 

— NASCAR drivers are in constant search for “clean air,” which basically means relative solitude on a race track.

That’s true everywhere but in Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor-plate racing means cars must run in packs. Where packs go, crashes follow.

That’s always been true for restrictor-plate races. Now it’s true as well in qualifying in the group format Sprint Cup adopted this season. So just trying to start near the front for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 becomes a new gamble.

“I think there will be a wreck within (Saturday’s) qualifying session just because of the closing rate you’re going to be catching up to some of these guys,” said Ford driver Joey Logano. “Oh, shoot, you’re going to get in a crash. So you’ve got to be on your toes throughout the whole session.”

If just qualifying becomes a game of risk/reward, then imagine how that will multiply during the race. Talladega often makes for unlikely winners – Front Row Racing’s David Ragan won here a year ago – because the frequent crashes don’t play favorites with the sport’s stars. Since everyone must run in packs to effectively draft, the first two-thirds of any race are as much about survival as competition.

The new wrinkle is the change in Sprint Cup’s scoring system, which puts greater weight on winning individual races this season than in the past. Win a race and a driver is virtually assured of qualifying for the Chase, the sport’s season-ending playoff, regardless of what might otherwise be a spotty season.

So drivers like Ragan, who don’t have resources comparable to Hendrick or Roush teams, have extra incentive to go for it at a restrictor-plate race or a road coursein order to slip into a Chase slot.

“It’s a unique race,” Ragan said Friday. “I wouldn’t enjoy running this type of race 36 weeks a year, but (restrictor-plate weekends) fit our style.

“One win and you’re in the Chase. You don’t want to be overwhelmed by that, but we do (think about it) and every other team that hasn’t won thinks it, too.”

Since drafting is obligatory to compete at Talladega, drivers have to cooperate with opponents. That creates the “freight train” effect; long lines of cars pulling each other along to go faster. Eventually one driver makes a bold move from the pack that could win the race, drop him 10 spots back or wreck 20 competitors.

“It’s very much a crap shoot, a roulette wheel, because you’re dependent on other drivers” to pull you along, Ragan said. “You’re looking to be in the tire tracks of someone who is fast and that’s the very opposite of what we do other weekends.

“What you’re not able to do is predict what 42 other drivers will do. How aggressive will they be?”

Restrictor-plate weekends tend to favor a go-with-the-flow mentality, as described by Matt Kenseth Friday.

“Restrictor-plate racing is obviously unique,” he said. “Basically you don’t know what’s going to happen. Obviously you can’t really get away from anybody with the restrictor plate and you can’t make a lot of moves by yourself.

“A lot is dependent on what everybody else does. It’s just a totally different mindset, I think, when it comes to these races. It’s a totally different driving style, strategy, the way you go about things.”

For drivers like Ragan, that difference is a game changer.

“Really, we are not a Chase contender” under the previous scoring system, Ragan acknowledged. “We are not consistent enough to win several races and click off five or six top-10s in a row. We realize that.

“We’re certainly not gonna be a threat to win the championship if we can get into the Chase…but you’re in the show and you never know what can happen. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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