Daytona has lost some of its luster

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR CORRESPONDENT
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   Many cries of displeasure was heard from NASCAR fans this week, as the season-opening Daytona 500 was called off short of the scheduled distance due to weather for only its third time in history.
   What is referred to as "The Super Bowl" of stock car racing didn't quite live up to its name, with a mid-race rain delay cutting into the action and finally a stoppage just after the halfway point.
   A race being called because of weather has been a part of NASCAR history, but it really didn't have any impact on my why I thought of why it didn't live up to it's hype.
   As far as I and many other NASCAR fans are concerned, the excitement of the Daytona 500 has been tarnished for nearly the past 20 years.
   Yes, it's the same old song and dance being done that says it's time for restrictor plate racing to go.
   Why do I say this? It's because here we are almost 20 years later after Bill Elliot set the fastest lap record at 210.384 in 1987, and are around 25 mph slower now than we were then.
   Jeff Green posted a speed of 186.382 for this year's event, and that's pretty hard to comprehend when you think of all the safety innovations and technology that NASCAR has gone through just in the last decade.
   Restrictor plate racing evolved in 1988, after Bobby Allison and Richard Petty both rode the fences at Talledaga and Daytona.
   NASCAR was faced then the most dreaded fact of whether the cars had become too fast, and were posing as a danger to both drivers and spectators.
   Well, it's 2003 now and cars are still getting airborne and flipping wildly out of control, just as Ryan Newman had his horrific crash last Sunday.
   Unlike most of the time, when you get ran over from behind when a car breaks loose, Newman's incident with Ward Burton didn't take out half the competition.
   Still he hit from behind, which caused his car to lift with the help of other cars that were too close, crashing into him.
   Luckily he was uninjured, but the same can not be said for the most beloved and arguably the greatest driver ever, Dale Earnhardt.
   Restrictor plate racing did not spare his life, but instead it put the legend in a compromising position of having to defend off the pack which was breathing down his neck.
   With the cars being slowed and restricted, the drafting effect comes into play where you cannot pull away from the cars behind you because it takes more than just a single car to run fast.
   The more cars that are lined up behind one another, the more push from the aerodynamics you'll receive in breaking the wind with the air flow.
   Now you see the whole field of cars running together in one pack, instead of having them strung out all over the track to where if someone makes a mistake, then half the field doesn't have to pay the price.
   Another close tragedy that almost transpired in the 2001 Daytona 500 was when Tony Stewart became airborne and went tumbling out of control with cars wrecking everywhere.
   Thank God, the 3,500-pound Home Depot stock car didn't land down through someone's windshield and into the inside of a driver's cockpit.
   This was close to happening as the field race past underneath the machine of Stewart with a bird's eye of the car from above.
   The wreck became over shadowed by the tragedy of Earnhardt, and the fact that restrictor plate can be more potentially dangerous than if there was no restriction.
   A seat-belt malfunction was given to be the reason of death, and the point of cars being bottled-neck and being put in precarious situations was quickly ignored.
   I'm not saying that restrictor plate racing was what exactly killed Dale Earnhardt, but I have always said before his misfortune happened, that it was just a matter of time when somebody life will be taken, due to the margin of error it takes to have a safe finish.
   So why does NASCAR feel compelled in continuing to run the restrictor plate, and ignore the concerns of many drivers and crews have displayed through the years?
   Possibly, its because you almost always have what is called the "big one," when there is a 15 to 20 car pile-up.
   This may be exciting for the fans and that's possibly how NASCAR looks at it, but I'm not happy with the thought of another icon of the sport being in jeopardy of their life.
   There is always a danger element to racing that will forever exist, but with the technology of safer equipment and added dimensions has reduced the threat of the car lifting up off the ground.
   Insurance reasons has been rumored to why NASCAR has proceeded with continuing to use the restrictor plate, for it keeps the cars under 200 mph., and is a big break on the budget of their expenses in the coverage of tracks.
   If there is any truth to this, then it is a sad fact to know that this has no bearing on what the Indy Racing League and CART series, which do not draw in near the proceeds of what NASCAR does, are willing to spend.
   The two series qualify an amazing 50 mph. faster than the Cup guys, so why not recognize them as the top drivers in motorsports.
   Another issue with the restrictor plate is the fact you must acquire a partner on the track in order to have a good shot at the win.
   It was predictable of what the outcome was going to be on the last restart of the race, when you saw Earnhardt Jr. lined up on the inside of Jimmy Johnson and Michael Waltrip lurking from behind.
   Whenever there's a teammate issue at Daytona, you can almost always bet that the single car guy is going to be hung out to dry.
   This is not so much a total disadvantage to a guy like Johnson, who has a teammate in Jeff Gordon, and potential drafting partner. But it is a big obstacle to a racer like Mike Skinner, who has to rely on another team from a different car owner not knowing when he's going to be left behind on his own.
   I'm not saying that Skinner could never win a restrictor plate race, but I am saying if it comes down to him and two drivers with the same car owner, then his chances are slim to none.
   Great pit-stop! Hold up just a minute because a fast pit-stop at Talledega or Daytona is not always a good thing.
   If you're up near the lead of the pack and you roll off a much quicker pit-stop than what the rest of teams do, which gives you an advantage out by yourself over the rest of the field, then you're screwed.
   You cannot stay ahead of the pack, and when they catch up with you, then you'll see a string of cars freight train by because there was no cars to draft with and your speed is much slower.
   This takes away from the crew's effort and their preparation to get their driver out in the lead, which normally gives you the opportunity for victory.
   What is good about restrictor plate then, if it hampers the teams hard work for making their car the fastest in the field?
   One thing is that it gives the sponsors a chance to be seen throughout the race, whether or not your car is performing correctly or not.
   As long as you can stay tucked in behind a good car in the draft, then you will have a good finish.
   You can always keep the mentality of staying in line and not taking risks with passing and getting caught by yourself with anyone to draft with.
   It doesn't matter so much of how good your car is running, but how the car that your behind is making it through the field.
   Mark Martin and Kurt Busch displayed a great example of this, for the two teammates hook up with the intention of sticking with each other, so neither one would experience the travel back to the end of the line.
   You heard nothing from either driver throughout the race, but this was a great strategy tactic even though going fast shouldn't rely on what another person does.
   Daytona has lost its prestige to me for the entire time that NASCAR decided to use the restrictor plate.
   The two fastest superspeedways of NASCAR have been dismantled to becoming the fifth and sixth speediest tracks on the circuit.
   I watched NASCAR and have been a fan all of my life and one of the most fondest moments was the 1979 Daytona 500, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison banged together on the last lap, which created a spark of fireworks that will always be remembered.
   There was no restrictor plate then, and the race came down to two competitors slugging it out with Richard Petty capturing his sixth victory at Daytona and the action was great.
   Drafting did have an effect then, but nothing like it is today, where you cannot separate yourself from the rest of the field.
   Many drivers and crew chiefs have been adamant about their disapproval with the restrictor plate and the challenges it presents, which are far beyond their control.
   One of the most outspoken drivers was Earnhardt, who eventually sacrificed his life in a sport where he was looked at as being a leader among his peers.
   Daytona has become more of a hype nowadays than what it once was back in the '70s through mid-'80s.
   The 600-mile event at Charlotte is more proof of what it takes to be a great race team, for the driver must keep his focus for an extra 100 miles. Plus the crew has to continually adjust to the handling, and hope their preparation in the shop will make the car last through NASCAR's longest event.
   The long hours of obtaining knowledge and hard work has been somewhat taken away from the Daytona 500, and replaced with a lottery type atmosphere of where you must be in the right places at the right times.
   Today is a different story at Rockingham, where drivers must battle with working the throttle and brakes, as opposed to just holding down the gas pedal and hoping the other drivers are willing to work instead of against you.
   May the best driver and team win this week, for that is what's rewarding to being a champion, and prestige is all about.
   Please do not restrict our heroes from being able to drive the wheels off their machines,. This sport was built on pushing speed to its limits!