By David Westergreen, Fan Column
The first NASCAR race I ever watched was the 2001 Daytona 500.
While it is a race well remembered for its last lap, what is often forgotten is the 49 lead changes among 14 drivers and underdog winner. Performances by Ward Burton and Sterling Marlin bringing Dodge back to the forefront for the first time since 1979 at Daytona are lost to the memories of Dale Earnhardt. This was my first experience as a fan. I did not see any one of Dale’s 76 wins live, nor did not know much about him.
As a 7-year-old, I was sad, but I didn’t know why.
The sport I had shared for the first time with my father had proven to be incredibly dangerous and the drivers I began to grow fond of showed bravery for even getting into those cars to drive 200 mph in close packs. Obviously, the next week when I tuned in for Rockingham, the style was very different and I found a new way to enjoy racing, but it had all started at Daytona.
Restrictor plate racing has evolved quite a great deal from 2001 to 2016.
I have seen all of Michael Waltrip (each of his career wins), Ward Burton, Bobby Hamilton, David Ragan (twice), Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Dale Jarrett (in his final season) and Brad Keselowski (in the 09 car) win races with incredible finishes and underdog stories. I have seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive through the pack by himself to win multiple races at Talladega and also have wins stolen away from him like at Talladega last fall. I was tuned in live for the Edwards/Keselowski race in 2009, the Bobby Hamilton caution free win in 2001, Ward Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 gift, Brad Keselowski winning to make the next round of the chase at Talladega in 2014, Tony Stewart wrecking the field by blocking Michael Waltrip at Talladega in 2012, Kevin Harvick winning the 2007 Daytona 500 by a nose while Clint Bowyer finished on his roof, and most recently Denny Hamlin defeat Martin Truex in the closest Daytona 500 finish ever.
I have seen the most leaders and lead changes in any NASCAR race (29 leaders, 88 lead changes, 2010 Aaron’s 499), the evolution and elimination of tandem drafting, and some of the best and most classic finishes of all time, including the closest finish of all time in 2011, .002 seconds by Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer at Talladega.
There have been 62 restrictor plate races since I began watching racing that day in 2001. Every one I have tuned in for. I have witnessed many flips, hard accidents, and scary crashes, of which to NASCAR credit, none since that very first race have been deadly. And NASCAR deserves the credit. Despite the danger, our drivers and fans are being better and better protected. And this is a testament to them. It is worth noting that I have seen those exact things at other tracks as well! Think of Michael McDowell’s very scary qualifying crash at Texas in 2008. NASCAR is not an inherently safe sport, and it is important to recognize the improvements made by the men and women working to keep those drivers safe no matter what track is raced.
I’m certain my story is not unique.
The Daytona 500 is the most watched race of every NASCAR season, including 11.4 million viewers in 2016, and Talladega this season has the third highest rating and total viewership this season, at the writing of this article, with 6.7 million viewers tuning in. Talladega’s stands were completely full at race time, which to my viewer’s eye, is the first time that has been the case since the Daytona 500 (unfortunately I missed the race at Auto Club Speedway, which drew the second highest rating and viewer number.) Talladega is a top 5 popular draw in the sport to this point in the season, remaining true even as the season has moved to the July Daytona event we prepare for tomorrow.
The race itself was incredible. I was watching with a friend and we continually marveled at how wonderful the racing was. There were 37 lead changes among 17 drivers, side by side racing, 3 wide intensity, and a few accidents along the way. The accidents only provided such stories as Austin Dillon finishing 3rd after being involved in multiple wrecks, David Gilliland running 3rd with 1 lap to go, and several underdog drivers getting fantastic finishes because of the carnage. And the following is why I think restrictor plate racing is the best —
It’s the personification of the American Dream and anyone can make it to Victory Lane.
This remains and rings true after the Subway Firecracker 250 that I attended live on Friday night. Aric Almirola, driving for a small one car operation in the Xfinity series, went home the winner after a fantastic race filled with hard two-wide pack racing and several accidents, which opened the door for an underdog – if full time Sprint Cup driver – winner. Almirola had won one race in the Xfinity series before this, and that was a race he didn’t complete, so this certainly counts as an underdog performance.
Ryan Sieg was running in the top 10 all race and finished 4th after nearly taking the lead on the final lap of the race with a push from Joey Logano. Fans around me were applauding the finish, despite being under caution, and the thrilling photo finish was incredible to have witnessed. I even discussed the Sprint Cup Talladega event with a few fans – all of whom agreed that it was the best race of the year and maybe the best they had seen in a few years.
In the last 2 years (2015 and 2016), ONLY drivers from Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick (one of which retired, and not including Kasey Kahne), Stewart-Haas racing, and Martin Truex Jr. have won races. That is 12 drivers. 12/40 drivers have a chance to win every single week and if your favorite driver does not fall into that category, too bad. This is why the restrictor plate tracks are such a positive draw for fans. The 12/40 goes out the window. At Talladega, Trevor Bayne and Kyle Larson led laps, passed Keselowski, and had a chance to win the race. Even David Gilliland had a shot at the win late in this race, as did Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Unfortunately, this time, Keselowski took the race, but the parity that restrictor plate racing creates is so incredibly refreshing.
So the point of this article is that I really took offense to the negative feedback to the most recent plate race at Talladega and to those who called for it to be changed or otherwise removed from the schedule. I feel a strong desire to respond to that.
A near capacity crowd at Talladega doesn’t want it to go away nor do the 6.7 million people who tuned in for the third best race of the season.
I have a hard time believing this form of racing is as disliked as the media claims. Most teams included in these media reports are larger teams frustrated from a poorer finish than usual. My mind goes back to Bob Jenkins fist pumping and screaming in elation after winning his team’s first race in 2013 with David Ragan. Or how about James Finch’s victory celebration in 2009? Even Michael Waltrip’s silly grin after a 12th place finish this last race put a smile on my face or Landon Cassill getting successful finishes every plate race makes it absolutely worth it.
Those smaller teams getting success they don’t usually have is a joy to NASCAR. How can one not enjoy that? How can you call to shut down the one chance they have per year to win races? In 2017, Talladega won’t be a cutoff race in the Chase. This is a fine call in my opinion, as Talladega’s craziness probably doesn’t belong in the chase at all. But to remove one of the most historic tracks and types of racing would be a MAJOR drawback and downfall for the sport.
Fans like me, tuning in for the Daytona 500 or their first Talladega race, might never acquire the same taste for racing without the excitement and intensity that Talladega and Daytona bring to the table four weeks out of the year.
The above column was submitted by a fan and does not necessarily represent the views of Motorsports Tribune nor its staff.