Fixing Two of the (Many) Problems with NASCAR Restrictor Plate Racing.

NASCAR restrictor plate racing is one of the most exotic forms of motorsports in the world. Done right, it is a breathtaking display of strategy played out at nearly 200 miles per hour with over forty-cars racing inches apart from one another. Done wrong, it’s a formula for vehicular carnage and a high potential for injury — not just for drivers, but for fans as well.

Without restrictions on speed and horsepower, these cars can go so fast that the slightest mishap on-track will send them airborne at triple-digit speeds. Given that nobody wants a 3500-pound racecar landing on top of people, the cars re restricted in speed and horsepower by various methods, including aerodynamics and engine restrictions involving intake plates. Hence, the races at Daytona and Talladega are known as restrictor plate racing.

When all the cars on-track have roughly the same horsepower and can drive at full-speed the entire way around the track, the result is that passing becomes a matter of stragegy. A driver can’t just pull out and pass another car — the drives must employ aerodynamics and strategy in order to slingshot past other drivers. In fact, it has become nearly impossible for one car to pass another unless the passing car has another car behind them “pushing” them forward.

Because the racing on these tracks is so different, the officiating needs to be different as well. We’re talking about 43 cars driving nearly 200 miles per hour only inches away from each other. This is a situation where the slightest mistake results in a massive pile-up at incredibly high speeds. Cars are destroyed, money is wasted — these cars cost $100,000 or so, after all — and drivers can be seriously hurt.

Sunday, with only a few laps remaining in the race, the #1 car’s engine blew up, spraying oil across the track and bringing out a caution. At lap 188, the scheduled distance for the race, Greg Biffle was leading. Biffle’s team desperately needed to win a race this year, and Biffle was leading because of a fuel mileage gamble. Had the race ended under caution, the sports reports would have had a feel-g00d story about an underdog team finding a way to win for the first time in a LONG time.

Instead, NASCAR decided to attempt a green-white-checkered finish. This is a situation where drivers are given two green-flag laps to finish a race so the fans get to see the race end with actual racing, not parade laps. At most tracks, green-white-checkered produces some exciting finishes. At Daytona and Talladega, it almost always results in wrecks and frustration. Sunday was no different. Even though NASCAR changed its policy from the normal 3 attempts at a green-white-checkered finish to 1 attempt, the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish was an utter failure and cars were crashing before anybody even reached the start-finish line. So, NASCAR tried it again, insisting that the first attempt wasn’t really an attempt and, therefore, they wren’t violating their own rules. The second attempt was even worse than the first, with even more cars crashing. The fans didn’t get to see the final two laps under green flag racing conditions because the race had to be stopped at that point due to the wreck.

The situation was so chaotic that NASCAR held an impromptu press conference to explain to the media why they weren’t wrong in their officiating process. But the point is, no matter what NASCAR says, everyone knows the race Sunday was one of the most exciting, competitive restrictor plate races in over a decade and the ending totally ruined it.

Like it or not, NASCAR needs to change the way it officiates restrictor plate races.

Here’s what needs to change. First, there should NEVER be a green-white-checker scenario at a restrictor plate track. Yes, fans love green-white-checker finishes because they produce chaos. No, we don’t need to tear up dozens of expensive race cars just become some fans want to see that.

There’s a more basic reason that green-white-checker finishes at Daytona and Talladega make no sense, though. These cars take over a lap to reach full speed after a restart. A green-white-checker finish gives the drivers TWO laps to finish the race. That means they’re racing at full speed for LESS than one lap. History has also shown that the drivers tend to think they can bump, bang, and shove their way to the front during a green-white-checkered restart. This causes wrecks.

Another area NASCAR needs to change officiating policy in regards damaged race cars. In NASCAR, teams are allowed to fix damage to cars with high-strength tape, often called Bear Bond or 200 Mile Per Hour Tape. Not only is tape seen as a viable solution, but teams rush to slap tape on as quickly as possible so they can push their car back onto the track as fast as possible. Guess what happens when teams rush through repairs like this? Parts fall off these cars EVERY SINGLE TIME.

Sunday, we saw the roof escape hatch on Denny Hamlin’s car come loose. NASCAR forced Hamlin to put and Hamlin’s crew slapped two pices of tape onto the car and sent Hamln back into the race. Predictably, one of the pieces of tape flew off and the roof hatch came lose again.

This should be common sense. If parts of your race car are rattling around and look like they’re going to fall off, you shoudl pit. Staying out on the race should not be an option. Ever. If a large piece of a car flies off, it can hit another vehicle and effect the outcome of the race. Or, worst-case, it could fly into the grandstands and cause spectator injuries.

On a track like Daytona or Talladega, however, these parts and pieces flying off cars also have the potential for causing a multi-car crash.

To NASCAR’s credit, they have a minimum speed requirement and if a car can’t make minimum speed, the car is ordered off the track fairly immediately. What NASCAR needs to do, however, is stop allowing teams the opportunity to slap tape on a damaged car and send it back out. If a part is flapping or there is potential for flying off the car, that car should be removed from the track and forced into the garage area. At the very least, a NASCAR official should require a complete repair be made on pit road which would involve, at a minimum, riveting the lose parts back onto the car or, at the very least, using enough tape to completely secure the loose part.

In the interest of competition and safety, NASCAR needs to treat Daytona and Talladega as extremely volatile racing environments and take EVERY reasonable measure to prevent crashes. The cars are governed differently at these tracks, the engines are built differently, it’s time for the officiating to be changed for these events as well in order to prevent the kind of chaos that happened Sunday in the final minutes of what had, up until then, been a spectacular — and safe — race.

I don’t expect NASCAR to be open to any criticism at this point. They seem quite happy with the quality of racing at these tracks and, I guess, big crashes make for good highlights. Still, I think NASCAR could only benefit from adopting an aggressive stance against anything that might trigger a wreck at these tracks. Maybe I’m the only one.