Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Why I Don’t Love Plate Racing Anymore & Up Next, the Best Month of the Season

Even by Talladega’s “biggest, baddest” standards, that was quite the race weekend in Alabama, wasn’t it, dear readers? Matt Kenseth’s crash in the Nationwide race was violent and scary looking, but it pales into almost insignificance when compared to the carnage the airborne No. 99 Ford Fusion caused on the final lap – not to mention the double helping of the Big One that bookended the 188 laps of mayhem and general disaster.

I wasn’t able to watch the race in normal time, so when I finally got home and fired up the DVR, it was already quite late in the evening. On any other given Sunday, I might just have fast forwarded through the middle portion, but this was a race (and really, for me, plate racing in general) I found so utterly compelling that the little button with the two interlocking right-facing triangles on my remote control remained unused.

Consequently, by the time I got to the denouement of the race, it was well past the witching hour. I’ve always found the last 20 laps of a plate race simply mesmeric. Whether or not you think it’s “real racing” is immaterial; it’s go time for the cars that have avoided the Big One and no-holds barred racing for the checkered flag. To me, there are few more exciting finishes in sport and I’ve written on several occasions of my love for this style of racing, particularly at Talladega.

But Sunday’s race left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth. Watching Brad Keselowski and Edwards tangle coming off turn 4 on the final lap, it’s fair to say that is about as close to disaster as you can get. It’s a miracle, really, that no one was seriously hurt. For those fans injured – especially the two that were hospitalized – my best wishes for a speedy recovery. Yes, auto racing, in whatever format, is inherently dangerous; but you should not have to worry about your personal safety just because you bought seats closer to the track than those at a higher elevation.

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As someone who has always been a massive fan of plate races, I have to say that by watching that sickening incident, my opinion has changed and I won’t be such a cheerleader in the future. I’m not mandating a change to the size of the plates – nor am I suggesting they remove the plates altogether (I’ll leave that to those better qualified) – but you do wonder how prescient Edwards’s words (post-race) may be when he said: “NASCAR puts us in this box (restrictor-plate racing) and will race this way until they kill somebody… then they’ll change it.

“We’re very lucky nobody got [seriously] hurt.” Of course, you can argue that plate racing has done that already, but whatever your view, Carl’s point is a good one.

Until Sunday, I’ve always watched the races from Daytona and Talladega with great relish, but I won’t be quite so excited the next time around. One final word on this topic: back at the Daytona 500 in 2008, I was up close to the catchfence on the first part of the dog leg coming out of turn 4. David Ragan got into trouble and slammed the wall – no more than a scrape by plate-race standards – right in front of me. It was a genuinely scary moment, so I can only imagine the horror the fans must have felt in the split seconds that the No. 99 car was airborne and headed straight for the fence.

Kudos, too, to the folks that designed the catchfences – damn, those wires must be strong.

So, with Talladega now in the rearview mirror until October, the inexorable march of the relentless schedule continues, with the next month shaping up to be a great one for NASCAR based on the circuits they visit. In May, we have races at both Richmond and Darlington before the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 at NASCAR’s quote/unquote home track, and finally a trip to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del. It’s a tremendous stretch of tracks, packed with something for everyone over the coming month of racing action.

We start with three straight Saturday night shootouts. First up is Richmond, one of NASCAR’s most storied venues. With 105 Cup races to its credit, the 0.75-mile oval typically produces some of the best racing on the circuit (new car or otherwise) and as I wrote about a few weeks ago in my track survey, it’s one of the most popular tracks for fans to visit, with a string of sellouts dating back nearly two decades.

From Virginia, the series heads to South Carolina, where they visit the jewel of a racetrack that is Darlington. “The Lady in Black,” the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” call it what you will… but it rarely disappoints, and I don’t expect it to go any differently this time around. A real racer’s racetrack, Darlington has been eating up rookies and veterans for years, and it’s likely a few more will feel the pain this time around. For this writer, Darlington is the best race on the schedule; and although I’m yet to make the pilgrimage to the egg-shaped track, I hope that’s something I rectify next year.

After Darlington, the circus heads back to Charlotte for some hometown comforts. The All-Star Race is next on the list; and just in case you’ve missed any of the three million promos of the race SPEED has run, it’s now a 10-lap shootout to the finish. Fact is, it’s not really much of an All-Star Race, per se, when compared to the other major sports – but without the rigmarole of racing for points, it can still make for some pretty compelling viewing. Last year, don’t forget Kasey Kahne won his way in via the fan vote and still managed to walk away with the oversized check.

We then stay in Charlotte for the Coke 600, the series’ longest race, held the weekend after the All-Star event. It’s a race that is as much about endurance for the fans as it is the driver – and the Coke 600 typically brings drama. Last year, Kahne won a second straight race when Tony Stewart blew a tire late, while the previous year Casey Mears won his first race on a fuel-mileage gamble – his only victory to date.

600 miles is an awfully long way, 100 miles longer than any other race on the 36-race slate, and even when you take into account some “boring” parts in the middle of the race when drivers just make laps, it’s still a fascinating test of man and machine, even by NASCAR standards.

We finish up the month at Dover, Del. at the house of Miles the Monster. Not only does Dover have one of the top 2-3 trophies in the sport, it also provides compelling, edge-of-your-seat style racing. Bristol with room, some call it; but to me, the races at the Monster Mile are always “must-see” NASCAR.

So, after an afternoon in Alabama that was anything but boring, we head into arguably the best month on the racing calendar. The season might have started with a rain-induced whimper, but it’s slowly picking up; and if the next month lives up to the advanced billing, we might (just might) all start focusing on the racing and not the problems.

Some brief thoughts to finish with:

  • I enjoyed the pre-race segment with Jeff Gordon and DW waxing lyrical on the Pepsi Challenger paint scheme run by the No. 24. The way DW lovingly fondled the car was amusing, but the general love-fest between the two Hall of Fame drivers was still good to see.
  • I don’t have quite the same level of acrimony toward FOX and their broadcasting of the races this year (stupid, furry rodent cartoons or otherwise) as some of the writers on this fine site, but how do you have Miss America (Indiana) singing the national anthem and then never show one proper shot of her? The side view when she began singing was the only camera angle we saw. You watch; at some point in the next few weeks when some grunge band is performing, we’ll see them in glorious close-up. Seriously, FOX, seriously.
  • Jimmie Johnson had some unusually harsh words on racing at Talladega in his post-race interview, saying it sucked. For me, this is a little churlish from the back-to-back-to-back Champ. Remember his unbelievable avoidance of the Big One in the Chase last October? How he stayed out of that crash I don’t think even he knows. Then, in the first Big One Sunday, Johnson again miraculously avoided the incident. He wasn’t lucky the third time, though, as the final big wreck took him out of contention. So whilst it’s good to see Jimmie Robot showing some unfettered emotion, he’s had more than his fair share of luck there recently. He’d do well to remember that good fortune – especially in the Chase.

And finally, the next time we return to Talladega it will be race six of the Chase, and race 33 of the season. The switch in schedule for the fall race, albeit only a couple of weeks from Race 4 to Race 6, might be even more devastating this time around than it was for Edwards, the Biff and Kenseth in last year’s Chase. The champion quite possibly may be decided by the vagaries of plate racing – and you can make of that what you will.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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