Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s Plate Races the Place for Drivers to Debut, Develop

Restrictor-plate racing, intentionally or not, is the closest thing to an equalizer that can be found in NASCAR sanctioned-events. It’s how Brian Keselowski and Kirk Shelmerdine have qualified for the Daytona 500 in self-owned racecars. It’s how 28 cars in a 43-car field can somehow lead laps in the same race.

It’s how Brad Keselowski and Trevor Bayne won Sprint Cup races as a Nationwide Series regular. And, over in the Nationwide Series, it’s how the most unlikely drivers, from West Series regular Johnny Borneman III to former development driver Kyle Krisiloff have scored top-five finishes.

For a driver trying to break onto the scene, it’s on paper the best possible venue to make a debut. The plate races already get inordinate amounts of attention; Daytona and Talladega are historic staples of the NASCAR circuit, the winner cannot be predicted and there’s the wrecks that always make the highlight reels for years at a time.

There’s also the reality that, thanks to new asphalt and the emergence of tandem racing, an afternoon in the draft is an all but sure way to gain the respect of fellow competitors in a hurry. It’s hard to forget just how much street cred Bayne got during Speedweeks last year after a strong showing pushing Jeff Gordon in the Gatorade Duels. There’s a reason he had enough help to win the Daytona 500 at 20 and his actions in the qualifying races were no small part of that.

Even though in terms of racing skill, restrictor-plate racing is at best a discipline and in every form a departure from the norm, there’s a name to be made at it. Take away a plate win and see just how many people would remember Greg Sacks and Derrike Cope today. Take away plate racing and see just how many people would be heralding Bobby Gerhart as a legend in the ARCA ranks.

Right or wrong, between the packs, the wrecks and the crown jewels of the sport that are Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor-plate races are big-time events. They’re stars on the calendars. And there’s a number of drivers in the field this weekend that seem to recognize that fact.

Friday’s ARCA race, take a look at Brandon McReynolds. Despite having a name that carries considerable clout within the stock car racing community and having spent a good part of the season traveling with the Turner Motorsports brigade, the late model racer’s starts in the big leagues have been few and far between; he’s made six ARCA starts in the last three years.

Tomorrow’s race will mark start number seven … and number four in a plate race, including three consecutive starts at either Daytona or Talladega. Whereas most ARCA programs hone in on the intermediate 1.5-mile ovals, this UARA development prospect is sticking to the superspeedways.

Nationwide Series, there’s several storylines to watch. Josh Richards, who drove a limited Truck schedule for Kyle Busch a season ago while winning every dirt late model race he could enter across northern Virginia and Maryland (I saw firsthand the whipping he put on the field at Octoberfest in Hagerstown last fall) is slated to make his Nationwide Series debut Saturday on the circuit’s biggest track.

ARCA plate regular John Wes Townley suddenly popped up on the entry list in the No. 24 car that Benny Gordon spent the first half of the season racing into the top 30 in owner points.

Even more notable, Townley’s got sponsorship from Toyota for Saturday’s race. That’s remarkable for a number of reasons; for one, ever since returning to NASCAR racing after a DUI prior to the season opener at Daytona, even his family-owned Zaxby’s company has refrained from putting their decals on his race trucks (the No. 09 has been running an all black paint scheme).

Even more so though, the fact that Toyota is taking their own sponsor dollars to back a driver that’s been a backmarker his whole career even as regulars such as Kenny Wallace have been unable to stay in Toyota race cars due to lack of sponsorship.

Two points are clear here; one, Townley’s backing, with Zaxby’s decals or not, is serious cabbage … why else would Toyota be throwing this bone out there? Because the driver, talented or not, is keeping RAB Racing afloat in a way that Wallace could not.

Two, there’s value to be had in advertising in restrictor-plate races. Thanks to packs of cars and attrition, anyone can get up front and anyone can win. Toyota’s not the only company to recognize this; Golden Corral is returning to back Dave Blaney on the Cup side this weekend and in the other superspeedway races in 2012 despite having not renewed their sponsorship package of a season ago.

The truth of the sport these days is for every seat, there’s 10 guys that want it, if not more. More than ever, a single moment can and will make a driver’s career. Brad Keselowski proved it relief driving for Ted Musgrave in a Germain Racing truck at Memphis. David Gilliland proved it with his, pun intended, David-like slaying of goliath Joe Gibbs Racing when he stormed to a Nationwide victory at Kentucky in 2006.

And if Bayne, Brian Keselowski, even Blaney (who for a while looked like he was going to win the Daytona 500 for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the great Daytona Fire of 2012) have taught race fans anything, it’s that if one is searching for that moment, their best chance to find it is plate racing.

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