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Pedley: NASCAR Teams Getting Too Cozy?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 17 2011

Tandem racing in Daytona. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Auto racing. One-on-42. A driver and his team against the world. Asking for nothing and giving less. It’s a sport were a helping hand is often slapped away with a snear and a hiss.

Well, used to be. And still is for all but four races a year.

In those four races, teams and drivers have taken to going begging for help. And the resulting cooperation waters down competition so much that for some in the grandstands, the taste of what emerges borders on being unpalatable.

Those four races are restrictor plate races. The two at Daytona International Speedway and the two at Talladega Superspeedway, which hosts Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race.

Racing has been goofy many years in plate races. Since the plates were bolted on following a race at Talladega during which Bobby Allison nearly flew into the grandstands at over 200 mph.

Success in plate racing demands that teams and drivers look for help on the track. “Dance Partners”. The plates suck so much power, and then drain so much tough-to-recover speed when a driver lifts off the gas, that multiple cars running bumper-to-

Restrictor plates are again in the news. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

bumper are faster than one car running alone.

Racing being an evolutionary endeavor, competitors began hooking up in order to cope. To facilitate that, the teams began having their spotters cut deals to work with others.

That became acceptable. Interesting, even, as it added a bit of flavor and intrigue as the racing wore on at Daytona and Talladega.

The essence of auto-racing competition remained in tact, I think, because “deals” seemed informal, non-binding and ad hoc.

TV talkers even came up with a name for what was going on: Co-opertition.

But the current combination of plate sizes, tires and aerodynamic characteristics of the cars have given birth to the kind of racing we saw at Daytona in February and are assured of seeing Sunday at Talladega.

That is, two-car drafts. Two cars and drivers hooking up in very short trains, staying bumper to bumper and then swapping positions with pusher becoming pushee to keep engines cool and functioning.

But the big difference between the two-car drafts and the long lines of cars which used to be the dominant method of racing at plate tracks, is the deal-cutting.

Teams and drivers now get together before and during races and make plans. And not just teams and drivers whose race shops are owned by the same people.

The cooperation between competitors will extend deep into the cockpits of the cars

Regan Smith pushes Kurt Busch up the front stretch in this year's Daytona 500. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

on Sunday. Teams are installing multiple radios with multiple frequencies into the cars. On those radios, they will not only be able to talk to their own crew chiefs and spotters, drivers will be able to communicate with other teams and drivers.

By using those radios, the drivers will be able to coordinate their position swaps, moves up or down the track, backward or forward on the track. Pit stops can be coordinated.

Yes, over the final miles of the race, the radios will be shut off – figuratively if not physically – and deals will expire, but still, there is something that makes me wince about all of this.

There’s a little too much coziness involved for me. It sneaks a little bit too close to a racing version of a quid pro quo. It mounts, if not an all out attack, then a smaller-scale skirmish on a concept that is a major selling point of auto racing.

Many of those in the sport don’t, apparently, joining me in wincing.

Jeff Gordon was asked if it bothered him on Friday.

“It definitely makes it very challenging,” Gordon said. “To me now when you come to Dayton and Talladega the mindset, the strategy and the chess match that it becomes is the most interesting part about it. And I like that. I like that you’ve got to think a lot about what is going on out there. But sometimes you still just have to be super aggressive. That’s why I don’t mind the two-car draft.”

And Gordon pleaded for understanding.

“I wish that we could better portray what’s going on in the driver’s mind when he is

Jeff Gordon says improved communication is needed. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

inside that cockpit and the intensity that is there to the fans at home and even to the media because I’m telling you its intense, it’s crazy and it’s not always fun. It’s something I just don’t think that we can really get across to people on the outside because I think if they knew what was going on inside there, I think they would approach these races or from a fan standpoint look at these races in a totally different light.”

I’m not sure that some fans are interested in that. I think many fans want good, hard, all-out racing to the finish line. I don’t think they care how hot, cold, calm, intense, exciting or dull things are behind the wheel.

I remember back to a post-race interview with Dale Jarrett about 10 years ago after a particularly dull Daytona 500. It was suggested to Jarrett that the race was kind of a snoozer.

Jarrett snapped back that he didn’t care much about that because the race was pretty exciting from where he was sitting.

A tad insensitive to the people whom everybody claims the sport is all about – the paying customer – I thought then and still think now.

If two-car drafts continue to be the method of operation at plate tracks in the coming years, I suppose the tactics being used this weekend will become accepted and maybe even loved. You know, the evolution thing.

But for the time being, I find the level of kindness and helping on the roughest, toughest race tracks on the planet to be very uncomfortable from where I’m sitting.

Sounds like Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be sitting next to me.

“But to consider having pretty much the whole field in your radio; I’m hoping this kind of racing goes away fast so we don’t have to talk about this no more. It’s a mess. This is a bunch of crap,” he said.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 17 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Sue Rarick says:

    I have to agree with Dale on this. I really tried to get into this two car thing. It was interesting to see at Daytona, but to be honest I started to watch the Nationwide race today and decided it was a great time to take a nap. Tomorrow I plan on painting the bathroom. I just hope I can schedual things to do for Daytona II and Taladega II.