By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For nearly 30 years, restrictor plates and both Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway have been viewed as the ‘great equalizers’ for all three of NASCAR’s National Series. Restrictor plates reduce horsepower, and in turn, keep speeds in check, but they also keep the field in a ‘draft-lock’ like situation.
These ‘draft-lock’ packs are prone to massive wrecks that often involve 10 or more cars. In the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series, less than half of the field avoided both of the two ‘Big Ones’ that occurred with two laps to go or in overtime. For the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero 400, three separate accidents wiped out race favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Larson, and Ryan Blaney among others.
For those who survived the races, both strategy and the luck of being in the right place at the right time was key.
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, five drivers, Dakoda Armstrong (third), Jeb Burton (fourth), David Starr (fifth), B.J. McLeod (11th), and Ray Black, Jr (12th). earned their best career finishes. Ross Chastain, earned his second-best career finish, sixth, and Joey Gase earned his third-best career finish, 10th. Many of these drivers compete for under-funded or underdog teams that most weekends do not have a chance to compete for the victory.
A similar story played out in NASCAR’s Premier series as Michael McDowell earned his first-career top five finish. Brendan Gaughan earned his first Top 10 since 2004 and the first-ever Top 10 for Beard Motorsports. Corey LaJoie and Darrell Wallace, Jr. both earned their best career finishes, 11th and 15th respectively. AJ Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Matt DiBenedetto, and Paul Menard all had excellent runs, some of their best this season. Allmendinger and Buescher’s Top 10s at Daytona account for half of the Top 10s this season for JTG–Daughtery Racing.
Like the Xfinity Series, many of these Cup teams would not have had the chance to compete for the victory at most other tracks. Beard Motorsports, for example, only competes at the Superspeedways because the draft increases their odds of being able to snatch a victory and be the ultimate underdog.
But, restrictor plates have not always been exclusive to Daytona and Talladega. Looking back to the 2000 season NASCAR elected to use restrictor plates in the second race of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS), then a flat 1-mile oval, after accidents took the lives of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, Jr. After starting second, Jeff Burton took the lead on lap one and lead all 300 laps that day. A handful of drivers who started outside the Top 15 moved into the Top 10, but Burton and polesitter Bobby Labonte were untouchable.
Two drivers, John Andretti and Ken Schrader, earned one of their two Top 10s in the 2000 season at the NHMS restrictor plate race. Schrader started ninth and finished 10th while Andretti climbed from 31st to finish seventh. 10 of the 43 cars in the field that day crashed out, with a total of 13 failing to finish. That certainly helped Andretti and others move forward.
For the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the next restrictor plate race will be at Talladega in the Playoffs where championship contenders and underdogs will likely be vying for the victory.
Meanwhile, for the Xfinity Series, they normally only have three restrictor plate races a year. For 2017 however, plans have the restrictor place being used at the flat, 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The move is meant to encourage more passing and in turn, more pack racing. Although the 2000 NHMS race was prompted more by safety reasons, the benchmark it sets does not bode well for the results at Indianapolis.
Will the experiment of restrictor plates at the famed and historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway improve the racing and be the ‘great equalizer’? To answer this question, we need to put this into perspective, we need to look at the recent Xfinity Series races at Indianapolis.
Three of the five races have been won by Kyle Busch who dominated, leading 92 of 100 in 2013, 53 of 100 in 2015, and 62 of 63 laps in 2016 respectively. Busch also lead 51 of the 100 laps in 2012, but ended up deep in the field. The 2012, 2014, and 2015 races in were competitive with eight or more lead changes. However, the 2013 race had just six and last year’s running had only two.
Back to the question, the best answer that this writer can come up with, taking into account the history of both Indianapolis and restrictor plates separately, is that only time will tell whether the combination restrictor plates and Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be ‘the great equalizer’ or not.