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“Real Race Tracks”: Appreciating Daytona and Talladega

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Ryan Blaney leads a pack of cars in the 2018 Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway. Photo: Erick Messer | The Racing Experts

By Taylor Goins

July 10, 2018

Following an eventful Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, a chorus emanated from the keyboards of some NASCAR fans- that superspeedway racing is too carnage-filled and luck-based to be considered “real racing.”

In fact, drivers have even gotten their two cents in regarding the matter. Following Saturday’s race, AJ Allmendinger said “I think it was a destruction derby out there instead of a Cup race.”

After Kyle Busch crashed last May at Talladega Superspeedway, the other of NASCAR’s two superspeedways, he too had harsh words to say about plate-track racing: “Unfortunately our circumstances didn’t quite go our way, but we go to a real race track next week and we’ll try to win there.”

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Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, William Byron, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Brendan Gaughan crash in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.                                                     Photo: Erick Messer | The Racing Experts

This begs the question: do the fans have a point? Is what Allmendinger and Busch said accurate? Are plate-tracks bogus racing?

One look at Erik Jones’ face, who won his first-ever Cup series race Saturday at Daytona, will provide the answer: a resounding “NO!”

Restrictor plate racing at NASCAR’s two superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega, is the breath of fresh air that we all need.

There are only four restrictor plate races each year, and NASCAR fans are guaranteed a couple things at each of these events. They are guaranteed to see an exciting race with close packs of cars perilously darting in-and-out of one another at 200+ MPH and they are guaranteed to see underdogs running up front with a real chance to win.

At the other 32 points-paying events, NASCAR fans are simply guaranteed that Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Martin Truex Jr. will win.

Obviously, that last statement is made in jest, but there has been a real lack of parity in Victory Lane this season. Out of the 16 non-plate races, we have seen only four different winners.

Now, let me be clear, the dominance shown by the Cup Series’ repeat winners is something to be appreciated. What they have accomplished has required great skill, hard work, and impeccable execution, and it’s fun to watch. Everyone remembers the NBA’s dominant ’96 Bulls with great wistful appreciation, and we should appreciate our great drivers’ prime performances right now, while we have the chance.

However, it’s only human to want to see new faces in the winner’s circle and to enjoy a good underdog story. In the NCAA basketball tournament, everyone gets swept up by the “Cinderella Story.” No one wants to see “Rudy” relegated to the bench forever and everyone wants to see “Rocky” beat the odds. Michael McDowell leading 20 laps at Daytona and having a real chance to win the race is our real-life version of these Cinderella’s, and we only get that at Daytona and Talladega.

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Michael McDowell leads his first career laps at Daytona International Speedway.                     Photo: Erick Messer | The Racing Experts

In objection, some may say that plate tracks are inherently unsafe due to the number of accidents. Sadly, though, racing as a whole is simply a risky sport. There are wrecks at every track, and with the remarkable safety breakthroughs in NASCAR today, Talladega and Daytona are just as safe as Las Vegas or Kansas.

As a recent illustration of this, Aric Almirola suffered serious injuries at Kansas last year and walked away unscathed from wrecks at both Daytona races this year. Thankfully, safety improves continually in NASCAR, and ghosts of the past shouldn’t be held against plate tracks.

Others may say that winning at plate tracks is simply luck, and that it doesn’t take as much skill to win at these tracks because the cars are largely equalized. This is flawed reasoning, because restrictor plate racing actually puts more in the drivers’ hands. Sure, running full-throttle the whole time isn’t exactly the hardest thing to do, but driving mere inches away from a pack of 39 other competitors for 400+ miles is extremely difficult.

In fact, this is why there are so many accidents at Daytona and Talladega: it’s hard to not make a mistake. If you are able to survive to the end of the race unscathed and make the right moves in the draft to find yourself in first place, then you have accomplished something that isn’t easy at all.

There’s a reason why the Daytona 500 is the most revered race in the sport, and that’s because it’s as tough as a two-dollar-steak to win.

If you enjoyed the heck out of Saturday’s race, then don’t feel guilty one bit, because it ISreal racing, and it’s a real show too. Daytona and Talladega: please don’t ever change.

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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