NASCAR & Auto Racing

Plate racing enters third decade as a NASCAR fixture

When Bobby Allison had a horrifying crash at Alabama International Motor Speedway in May 1987, no one could have imagined that it would usher in an era of restrictor plate racing that would still be going 21 years later.

Allison got sideways and then airborne at close to 210 mph, sailing into the protective fence that separates the track from the grandstands during a race at what is now Talladega Superspeedway. The car tore down about 100 yards of fencing, scattering parts and pieces of both the fence and the car into the stands and injuring several spectators.

The accident struck fear in NASCAR officials and prompted the sanctioning organization to make sure that speeds stay below 200 mph at Talladega and Daytona - its two biggest and fastest tracks - by mandating horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates.

That has made for a very different style of racing on the big tracks. With all of the cars close in speed, they tend to race in huge packs, usually two- or three-wide, inches apart at close to 200 mph.

And there is the constant danger of someone making a mistake and setting off "the big one" - a huge multicar crash - at any moment.

And that's exactly what the Sprint Cup drivers will face Sunday in the AMP Energy 500 at the big Alabama track.

"I like racing at Talladega, but I hate wrecking there," Kasey Kahne said. "It's so easy to get caught up in somebody else's mess, but that's part of racing at Talladega.

"If you're not in one of the wrecks, it's fun running that close together for 500 miles. It's a hectic but exciting day. Anytime we go to Talladega I know it's going to be a wild race. There are some things that are out of my control, but I have to make sure that I take care of what I can and get the Budweiser Dodge to the finish, hopefully with a chance to win."

Rookie Patrick Carpentier, making his second start at Talladega, says knowing what to expect makes a difference.

"This will be my third restrictor plate race in the Cup Series and I'm glad I know what to expect running in those big packs," the former open-wheel star said. "I wouldn't say it's something that you can ever get comfortable doing - running 200 miles an hour inches away from each other - but you can get used to it. That's something I have going for me now that I didn't have going into Talladega in the spring."

Series points leader and two-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he isn't sure if his strategy should be to hang back and try to stay out of trouble, or try to lead every lap.

"I really don't know what to do," he said. "The last couple of Talladegas have been pretty calm. Everybody has been relatively respectful to what's going on. ... It's one of those things where you just kind of judge the situation at the time and just take it from there. It's really tough to map out strategy."

Tony Stewart, another two-time champion, says drivers practice as much as they can at Talladega to try to see what the car will do in every traffic situation.

"It's trial and error, but at the same time, it's like pulling a pin on a grenade," Stewart said. "You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car's torn up for the race. It's just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it."