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Restrictor-place racing now a tag-team effort

POSTED: April 18, 2011 8:45 p.m.

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Jimmie Johnson didn't mind a little tag teaming.

Of course, he won the race.

Matt Kenseth thought it was a terrible idea.

Then again, he was knocked out by a crash.

NASCAR drivers have always had a love-hate relationship with restrictor-plate racing, essentially based on how they finish.

It's the same for the fans, who moan and groan about how boring it is - until there's another nail-biter of an ending like the one at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

Johnson, with a big push from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., edged out Clint Bowyer by two-thousandths of a second to tie for the closest finish since NASCAR started using electronic timing.

Hard to complain about a four-wide sprint to the line. Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards were also in the mix, and the top eight - each of the contenders was accompanied by a pusher - were a mere 0.145 seconds apart.

Throw in a record-tying 88 lead changes among 26 drivers (more than half the field led at least a lap) and it comes across as the most exciting event in the history of racing.

Johnson certainly saw it that way from Victory Lane.

"Statistically, you look at the race, and it looks pretty awesome," he said. "From where I was all day long, I thought there was a lot of racing that took place. I thought it was a great race."

That might be a bit of a stretch.

Before Johnson and the others made that mad dash down the long front straightaway at Talladega, there was a lot of cars just riding around, two by two by two.

Drivers took turns swapping the lead in what seemed more choreographed than good, hard competition.

In a broad sense, the focus was the same as it's always been in a restrictor-plate race: stay out of trouble, conserve the car and try to set up a run for the checkered flag in the last few laps.

But the tactics are different now.

Drivers have figured out they can go even faster when they pair up with just one other car - one guy leading, the other pushing his back bumper - rather than lining up in long drafting formations that used to be the norm at Talladega and Daytona, the two high-banked tracks where horsepower-reducing devices are required on the carburetor to keep speeds from getting over 200 mph.

Now, you've got rivals swapping radio frequencies before the race and cutting deals out on the track to pair up.

You've got drivers actually waiting in the pits for their partner so they can back out together.

You've got drivers such as Earnhardt essentially giving up a chance to win in order to push another guy across.
Is this really racing?

Again, it depends on who you ask.

Kenseth was eliminated in one of the crashes Sunday, all of them caused by a pushing car bumping the pushee a little too hard, leading to a spin that took out innocent bystanders.

Not surprising, since it's impossible for the guy in the back to see anything except the car he's helping along.

"You're pushing somebody as hard as you can and you can't see what's in front of him, so you don't know if he's catching somebody at 30 mph or 5 mph," Kenseth said. "You don't know what's going on. If he makes a quick move and you're not ready for it, that's how people get spun out. Their car is moving one way and you don't know where they're going."

Kenseth liked the old way better. Cars lined up in much larger packs and not quite so close together.

A driver could always pop out of line to make a run for the lead, assuming other cars went along with him to provide the necessary drafting help. If not, he'd fall back like he was standing still.

"At least you can kind of control your own destiny and you can kind of draft a little bit," Kenseth said. "Here, if you don't have a car locked on you and shoving you, or vice versa, you're going to get lapped in 15 to 20 laps."

But Johnson remembers hearing many of the same complaints about the previous style, which could turn into nothing more than a couple of long, boring lines snaking around the track for much of the race in a game of follow the leader, everyone trying to avoid the sort of mistake that would lead to an even bigger crash than any of the ones in Sunday's race.

"From a driver standpoint, we have a lot more control now with what we do," Johnson said. "Yes, it is still plate racing, but it's a race. You can make stuff happen and there is a technique required to stay together and to work traffic together and to communicate. It puts it back in the driver's hands a lot more than the old combination of racing.

"I think it's entertaining," he concluded. "I don't remember people excited about the way it was before."

NASCAR has shown no indication to tweak things with the cars or the rules, so it appears there will be another tag-team event at Daytona in July.

"You can't take something you've learned ... and just throw it in the trash," Gordon said. "That is here to stay."

At least until they figure out a way to go even faster with a device designed to slow them down.

 



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