Tyrannosaurus Wrecks

It just ain’t real racing. Restrictor plate racing is to real racing what a barroom brawl is to boxing, what porno is to the cinema and what a chainsaw is to brain surgery. Oh, reducing all the cars to the least common denominator can make for a competitive race with drivers three wide scrapping over the lead, but as we learned February 18th, 2001 plate racing can extract a terrible price.

48 cars. That’s how many race cars were damaged Saturday and Sunday in wrecks that took place within ten laps of the start. Some were more bent up than others, and some were reduced to parts donors, but no drivers were reduced to organ donors. Not this weekend at least. No one was surprised. No one seems particularly outraged. You expect these huge wrecks in plate races. They’ve become so common “the big one” has been added to race fans’ lexicon. I’ve never liked that term. It sounds too positive in a country where “bigger” usually means “better.” In doing a little research on plate racing last night I also found out that “the Big One” is the name of a gay porno movie. Whoops. In its place I suggest the term “Tyrannosaurus Wrecks” which more accurately conveys, the danger, savagery, size and potential deadly consequences of those huge multi-car pileups.

Hey, maybe I’m off base. The readers of the sport’s official website voted 2-1 in favor of a race that featured a huge fiery wreck over a caution free event. (Interestingly that’s the same ratio Darrell Waltrip claims his “boogity-boogity-boogity” slogan was approved by readers of that same site. Who are these people? Can we do something to keep them from reproducing?) I like chase scenes in the movies just fine. I howled with delight watching the Blues Brothers. But that’s different. It’s not real. You know no one is going to get hurt no matter how torn up the cars get. Restrictor plate racing just turns my stomach particularly when you see fire flare up amidst all the tire smoke.

But NASCAR has an ace in the hole. Dale Earnhardt Junior has assumed the mantle of the sport’s most popular driver his father held for so many years. And like his dad, Junior is a mighty good plate racer, particularly at Talladega where guys named “Dale Earnhardt” have won seven of the last nine Cup races. And as long as an Earnhardt keeps winning at Talladega, the majority of fans aren’t going to insist the track be fixed.

What some fans of other drivers think was fixed this weekend was the outcome of the race. A caution flag saved Earnhardt Junior from running out of gas on Saturday. NASCAR decided that Earnhardt was “in the act of passing” (Here we go again) when he traveled below the yellow line. I won’t say NASCAR made a bad call there. It didn’t appear that Junior had to go below the yellow line to make the pass and the best car and driver won anyhow. But I will say that NASCAR made an inconsistent call. What Junior did didn’t look all that different from similar moves Sterling Marlin and Tony Stewart have made at Daytona and been penalized for. On the message boards Junior’s fans, a pretty vocal bunch, are standing up for their boy’s honor in no uncertain terms. But one must question had Jeff Gordon made that exact same move to pass the 8 and take a win at Talladega how many of those same fans would be screaming all NASCAR officials be hung from a stout branch until dead for the no call?

Junior has certainly found a wide variety of ways to win at Talladega just as he has found varied ways to lose at Daytona. There’s no doubt that of the current crop of drivers Junior is simply the best at Talladega, and his bravado serves him well there just as it did his old man. Bringing some stout equipment doesn’t hurt either. Junior was expected to win Sunday and he did so though he had to overcome some unexpected obstacles to do so. The engine in the 8 car had to be hastily changed Sunday morning after water was found mixed with the oil. That dropped Junior to the rear of the field for the start. He got a piece of the lap 4 calamity and bent up the nose of his Chevy to a significant degree considering all the hours that thing was lovingly tweaked in a wind tunnel. The team was forced to pit seven times under caution and use a few miles of duct tape to try to repair the damage. By his own crew chief’s assessment Junior got caught sleeping on a restart and fell off the lead draft. To get back to the front Earnhardt had to battle with four teammates running nose to tail and coordinating a way to keep the 8 behind them over the radio. Jimmie Johnson did in fact cut hard to the right to try to block Junior and danged near triggered a wreck that would have eliminated the cars still left running by that point. With three laps to go Junior made his “no guts no glory” pass for the lead to win his eighth career race, in the eighth race of the season driving car number 8. Must have been something he ate.

Perhaps it’s fitting the GM Goodwrench car finished second, though with a fellow named Harvick, not Earnhardt at the wheel. The second place result was Harvick’s best finish of the season. That’s something else some fans of plate races like to point out. When you eliminate so many well prepared cars and talented drivers in the first four laps of a race it gives some new names a chance to finish in the top 10. Harvick was one of several drivers to have his best finish of the season or his best finish since the last plate track race on Sunday.

Elliott Sadler scored his first top 5 finish for Robert Yates Racing despite getting a piece of that lap four wreck as well. Had there been another Ford up there to draft with him, Sadler might even have snuck away with a win.

Ricky Craven scored his third top 5 finish of the season Sunday and moved up to sixth place in the points.

Terry Labonte finished fifth, his first top 5 since Sonoma last year, incidentally his only top 5 finish of 2002. This team has been showing signs of life as of late though they need a little good luck to go along with the hard work.

Sterling Marlin’s sixth place finish matches his best result of the 2003 season but it’s only his third top 10 finish in eight races this year. While Marlin advanced seven positions in the points Sunday he still finds himself languishing in sixteenth. At this point last year Marlin was leading the points, had already won two races and missed the top 10 just twice in all eight races.

Ward Burton scored his best finish of the 2003 season and his first top 10 result of the year. If Marlin's season is off to a bad start, Burton, currently 26th in the standings is in far worse shape. So apparently Tommy Baldwin knew what he was doing after all?

The crowd at Talladega loves nothing more than a good side by side battle between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and they got their money’s worth Sunday. It’s a classic battle between good and evil, or hip and nerd as the fans on hand see it and any time the righteous one prevails, even with seventy laps to go the volume of the crowds screaming is deafening. Ronnie Von Zant didn’t get that kind of reaction to the opening bars of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Matt Kenseth was in contention to win his first ever plate race where Junior dove beneath him with three laps to go. In the end Kenseth was shuffled back to ninth place but that was his seventh top 10 finish in eight races run to date this season. As a result the 17 bunch is leading the points for the fifth consecutive week.

Robby Gordon rounded out the top 10 in another RCR car. That sounds impressive until you consider he finished one spot ahead of Kyle Petty. Yep a lot of good drivers and strong teams were eliminated in wrecks Sunday.

Personally any time a plate race weekend ends and no drivers have been maimed or killed I’m satisfied. The Neanderthal mentality that leads to Tyrannosaurus Wrecks still frightens me, but if Sunday’s event wasn’t a real race it was a real spectacle and for some folks that’s enough. One thing the fiercely loyal Earnhardt fans never got to see was a battle between the two Earnhardts for the lead late in a plate race which I’m guessing would have been one for the ages. But the very nature of plate racing deprived us all of our chance to ever witness that. In Sunday’s big wreck a tire torn from Ryan Newman’s car was punted over the fence where fortunately it landed harmlessly in an unpopulated area. That's not always the case as the IRL and CART tragedies at Charlotte and Michigan taught us. The rational behind the plates is to protect the fans. Or at least that was the rational fifteen years ago when the plates were introduced as a temporary measure to protect the fans. So what’s going to protect fans from plate race carnage now?

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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