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MOTOR RACING

Plate racing is now a fixture in NASCAR

October 05, 2008|Mike Harris | Associated Press

When Bobby Allison had a horrifying crash at Alabama International Motor Speedway in May 1987, no one could have imagined that it would usher in an era of restrictor plate racing that would still be going 21 years later.

Allison got sideways and then airborne at close to 210 mph, sailing into the protective fence that separates the track from the grandstands during a race at what is now Talladega Superspeedway. The car tore down about 100 yards of fencing, scattering parts and pieces of both the fence and the car into the stands and injuring several spectators.

The accident struck fear in NASCAR officials and prompted the sanctioning organization to make sure that speeds stay below 200 mph at Talladega and Daytona -- its two biggest and fastest tracks -- by mandating horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates.

That has made for a very different style of racing on the big tracks. With all of the cars close in speed, they tend to race in huge packs, usually two- or three-wide, inches apart at close to 200 mph.

And there is the constant danger of someone making a mistake and setting off "the big one" -- a huge multicar crash -- at any moment.

And that's exactly what the Sprint Cup drivers will face Sunday in the AMP Energy 500 at the big Alabama track.

"I like racing at Talladega, but I hate wrecking there," Kasey Kahne said. "It's so easy to get caught up in somebody else's mess, but that's part of racing at Talladega.

"If you're not in one of the wrecks, it's fun running that close together for 500 miles. It's a hectic but exciting day. Anytime we go to Talladega I know it's going to be a wild race. There are some things that are out of my control, but I have to make sure that I take care of what I can and get the Budweiser Dodge to the finish, hopefully with a chance to win."

Rookie Patrick Carpentier, making his second start at Talladega, says knowing what to expect makes a difference.

"This will be my third restrictor plate race in the Cup Series and I'm glad I know what to expect running in those big packs," the former open-wheel star said. "I wouldn't say it's something that you can ever get comfortable doing -- running 200 miles an hour inches away from each other -- but you can get used to it. That's something I have going for me now that I didn't have going into Talladega in the spring."

Series points leader and two-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he isn't sure if his strategy should be to hang back and try to stay out of trouble, or try to lead every lap.

"I really don't know what to do," he said. "The last couple of Talladegas have been pretty calm. Everybody has been relatively respectful to what's going on. ... It's one of those things where you just kind of judge the situation at the time and just take it from there. It's really tough to map out strategy."

Tony Stewart, another two-time champion, says drivers practice as much as they can at Talladega to try to see what the car will do in every traffic situation.

"It's trial and error, but at the same time, it's like pulling a pin on a grenade," Stewart said. "You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car's torn up for the race. It's just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it."

Hitting hard

Bump drafting is the art of hitting the rear bumper of the car ahead of you to get both cars going faster and to give the car doing the bumping some momentum for a possible pass.

Bump drafting got out of hand at times early in 2007, prompting a new term -- slam drafting. NASCAR warned the drivers that it would police the practice more closely, and it has. But former series champion Kurt Busch says the new, bigger, blockier Car of Tomorrow, in its first full season of competition, has made bump drafting easier and more prevalent.

"With these new cars, it's easier to bump draft and you can do it so much harder than before," Busch said. "I don't think NASCAR realized that fact entirely when the car was on the drawing board.

"With the old car, it became a situation that policed itself. If you bump-drafted too hard, you bent stuff and made your car overheat. That's not the case with these cars. You can go at it as hard as you want without that worry."

Busch said the bump drafting is also different at Talladega than it is at Daytona.

"It's really made Talladega easier and Daytona harder," he said. "You can bump draft at Talladega all you want and not pay a penalty (in your car's performance) because the track is so wide and it's all about speed. At Daytona, it's made it even more of a handling track. You can't do the bump drafting there so much like at Talladega because there is such a big premium on the handling of your car."

Strong starter

Jimmie Johnson came into this year's Chase for the championship with two straight victories, just as he did on the way to his second title a year ago. Only this year, his first three races in the postseason were even better than in 2007.

A year ago, coming off those two straight victories, Johnson began the Chase with finishes of sixth, 14th and third. Since winning at California and Richmond this season, Johnson has run off finishes of second, fifth and first.

But little has changed in the standings with his considerably faster start to the Chase.

A year ago, Johnson led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by six points and Clint Bowyer by 14. Heading into Talladega, Johnson leads Carl Edwards by 10 and Greg Biffle by 35.

Stat of the week

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won at Talladega since the fall of 2004, but he still has one of the best records at the track with five wins, seven top-fives and 10 top-10s in 17 Cup starts. Junior has led 616 laps and has an average finish of 14.1 after finishing 10th there in April.

His five wins are the most for Earnhardt at any track and rank him third all-time at Talladega, trailing only the 10 wins by his late father, Dale Earnhardt, and six by Jeff Gordon.

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