Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Can Cup Drivers Bring Restrictor Plates to Their Knees?

For years, critics of restrictor plate racing have looked every which way to stop what they call “manufactured entertainment.” However, the racing at Talladega Superspeedway was always rallied by support from the stands – never unanimous, but just enough that it’s been next to impossible for NASCAR to appreciate both the danger and the destructiveness plate racing can cause.

But just when it looked like those four-hole square pieces of speed-sucking equality were becoming a permanent fixture on the circuit – they’ll celebrate their 20th anniversary next year – NASCAR found an unlikely and surprising enemy.

It’s the drivers, of all people, who may leave them no choice but to make some changes.

True, Sunday afternoon’s event was the first for the Car of Tomorrow at a restrictor-plate track – but the race wasn’t as notable for the different type of car as it was for differing strategies. Last week, conserving fuel was on the agenda for Kansas; this time around, it was just downright going slow. That’s right, as slow as you possibly could without losing the draft.

“That was the hardest three-quarters of a race that I’ve ever had to run before,” said Jeff Gordon, admitting that the hardest thing a racecar driver would ever be asked to do – and should never be doing – is to run at a snail’s pace. “We talked about it (as a team). Basically, our qualifying determined what our strategy was going to be. I knew there was going to be a bunch of bumping and banging with this new rules package. I didn’t know what to expect. We’ve got a championship on the line.”

Needless to say, this strategy worked like a charm for Gordon, who used the last 100 miles to put himself in position to win. In between was two hours of mind-numbing single-file action with him, Jimmie Johnson and several others bending over backwards to stay planted at the rear of the field – letting other, lesser-known drivers dictate the pace up front.

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“We kind of made a plan to ride around in the back,” added Matt Kenseth, one of a long line of Ford drivers who created a single file parade far off the front of the field. “We rode around for about 350-400 miles, and then sooner or later, you’ve got to go race and try to get a partner up there and see how your car is gonna handle.”

“But that’s not really what everybody pays to come and watch.”

Indeed. In the past, this strategy has been used by a smaller number of drivers, disguised by the rest of the field taking chances to keep it interesting. However, this was a race in which no one seemed willing to stick their necks out anymore, at least until the very end of the event – making the first 400 miles nothing more than a glorified parade at 190 mph.

So much for a new car breathing new life into the competition.

“I was really surprised how un-racy everybody was in the middle stage of the race,” claimed Mike Wallace when it was all said and done. “Everybody committed themselves to the top of the racetrack. I even made the comment on the radio, I said, I bet this is boring for the fans because they’re all lined up.”

“It just made it hard to get that second lane going,” added Dave Blaney of the drivers’ reluctance to, well, compete. “The middle lane is usually fast, but today, it was really slow. It was hard to get two-wide or three-wide and compete. The top lane took over.”

In hindsight, that’s not the only thing that took over on this day. These drivers have made one of the stronger unintentional statements ever put forth from a group of men that doesn’t even have a union backing them up. In a year where there’s been increasing criticism of NASCAR not listening to what the drivers say, what better way than to make a point than by simply going out there and putting up a stinker? Yeah, the last 20 laps were exciting at Talladega, they always are. But that doesn’t make up for the two-plus hours it takes to get there; how many fans either tuned out or just didn’t stick around until then?

“I looked up front and I could see all the guys just running single file,” said Jamie McMurray. “It was a pretty boring race today to watch. I’m sure the last few laps will be good, but the first 450 miles you’re just trying to ride around.”

Perhaps the harshest words were spoken by his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, his chances for the win torn apart by the inevitable big wreck that occurs when all the cars do start racing.

“Everybody got what they wanted,” Greg Biffle claimed. “They got to see a wreck-fest, just like Talladega. I haven’t finish a race here yet in a Nextel Cup car. I don’t ever plan to, I just come to put on a show for everybody and see when I wreck.”

Of course, what Greg didn’t understand is that the show didn’t go on, not in the ways intended, and that had more fans than ever before scratching their heads and wondering openly if restrictor plates were an acceptable form of racing for the first time. And the more this lay back strategy is employed, the fans will continue to be un-entertained, and NASCAR will have no choice but to finally address an issue that’s been around since I first turned the sport on TV at eight years old in 1989.

“It was a little boring out there for us,” said Jeff Burton. “Just going around that top lane single file is not what any of us want. The drivers don’t want that, the fans do want that and I don’t think we are going to see a whole lot more of that.”

“I think the racing was disappointing,” summed up Ryan Newman. “To see single-file racing and the guy that wins the race sitting in the back all day just lounging around, that’s not racing to me.”

“I hope it wasn’t what NASCAR intended with this car.”

Well, actually it was; but one or two more races like that one, and clearly won’t be what NASCAR intends anymore.

It’s in the drivers’ hands.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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