Talladega brings out those restrictors

Apr 20, 2004 3:10 AM

The ninth race of the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup series takes us to the biggest, baddest, fastest track in the world, Talladega Superspeedway.

Because of the obscene speeds obtained by the stock cars on the monster 2.66 mile track, NASCAR continues to implement new rules in an attempt to slow the cars down. The one constant rule throughout the last 15 years of Superspeedway racing has been the use of the restrictor plates.

When Bill Elliott set a blazing track record of 212 mph in 1987, NASCAR realized something had to be done to keep the racing safe if they were going to run on tracks like Talladega and Daytona. Rather than just requiring a smaller engine that produces less horsepower, NASCAR instituted the plates which allows less air to the carburetor, slows the cars down yet doesn’t give the drivers a real feel for the car. When drivers mash down the pedal, some have said it’s like going up a steep incline in a Yugo. After a few laps however, the drivers get it going and speeds get over 190 mph when they get into the draft.

In the last 10 Talladega races, all have been won by Chevys. Eight of the wins were by the late great Dale Earnhardt, the master of the draft. Dale Sr won three of those races driving Richard Childress’ car. The duo of Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip, driving cars for Dale Sr’s DEI team, have won the last five at Talladega.

Throw in Daytona, for good measure, where a DEI car has won 5 of the last 7, and it makes us all wonder, "Why are they so much better?"

Their edge doesn’t rest with the manufacturer. Some of the top Chevy teams, such as Gibbs and Hendrick, aren’t winning plate races. Ford snuck in a Daytona win with Greg Biffle last year, but it was clear even in defeat that the DEI cars were the class of the field by a large margin.

Whatever secret they have, they won’t be willing to share anytime soon. After all post race inspections, the DEI cars pass with flying colors, so we can rule out cheating. What’s amazing in all this however is how NASCAR has allowed a particular team to dominate this long without some real changes.

With so much money at stake for the other sponsors and manufacturers, you’d think there would be more of an outcry for radical change. In 1990, Dale Sr dominated Daytona SpeedWeeks prior to the 500 and everyone was crying foul. There was a huge uproar and major changes were discussed. Derrike Cope ended up winning that race and no changes were made until a season later.

To be fair to NASCAR, they have made several changes in plates races, but most have been to the aerodynamics and not the actual engine. The biggest change may have been the smaller fuel cell that requires more pit stops over the course of race, and part of the reason Biffle won at Daytona last season.

Many have said that if it were any other team in NASCAR that was having the same success, major changes would have already taken place such as using a smaller engine. But the fact that it involves their most popular and marketable driver, Dale Junior so everything is fine as is.

Now, to be fair to Junior, he has also done his share of driving. It hasn’t all been just the car. Junior comes into this week’s race as a 5-2 favorite. The next closest is Michael Waltrip at 6-1, and then everyone else is 10-1 or higher.

If you’re one or the few who thinks this will be the race that the five-race winning streak ends for DEI at Talladega, then you should get compensated well in the books. Odds to win wagers on drivers will all be higher than 10-1, but there are some other opportunities to cash in on as well with matchups. It’s unlikely Junior will be involved in any driver matchups, but if he is, he’ll surely be over —200 favorite against anyone.

Station Casinos post a weekly manufacturer winner and car number to win. This week’s odds are higher than ever (Chevy —280 vs Ford and Dodge +220): Then there is Hendrick’s group of drivers led by Jeff Gordon (10-1) and Jimmie Johnson (11-1). Both Gordon and Johnson have been very competitive in plate races over the last three years but don’t have any wins in that span.

Gordon’s last plate win was at Talladega in 2000. The top Chevy plate team other than DEI is the Childress crew, particularly Kavin Harvick (10-1).

Complimenting the Chevy bow-tie is Tony Stewart (10-1) and Bobby Labonte (14-1). Stewart went the distance with Junior in February’s Daytona 500 to finish second and should be considered the top candidate to unseat DEI.

The plate programs from Dodge and Ford have been lacking of late. At Daytona, an unlikely source was the top performing Dodge or Ford to finish. Scott Wimmer (25-1) finished third and the next closest non-Chevy was Elliott Sadler’s Ford (20-1) in seventh. Wimmer’s car does has some great pedigree and supports the notion that his run wasn’t a flash n the pan.

Ward Burton won the 2002 Daytona 500 driving the No. 22 caterpillar, the only Dodge to win a plate race since they came back to NASCAR. Of all the teams from Ford or Dodge, the Ganassi team might be the one to look at to beat Chevy if any can. Sterling Marlin (18-1) has always done well in plate races and Jamie McMurray looked very strong at Daytona. Kurt Busch (10-1) is the one Roush driver who has done consistently well with plates.

Car numbers 0-23 (-200) vs Car numbers 24-99 (+170): Junior drives car No. 8 and Waltrip drives car No. 15 giving a huge edge to that side, but it isn’t as weighted as the manufacturer prop. On the other side, you get Harvick, both Gordons, Johnson, Busch, Marlin, and McMurray.