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Does NASCAR need to open up speeds at Talladega...to make for safer racing? That's what some teams say

  Crew chief Chad Knaus (L) studies Jimmie Johnson's Talladega Chevy, with that new rear spoiler, one of the March test versions (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   As Sprint Cup practice opens Friday afternoon, NASCAR is already considering changing engine restrictor plates for Sunday's Talladega 500...with some teams complaining that the current package is too conservative and that it will bunch the field up too tightly, creating more dangerous situations.
   Friday's practice at Talladega SuperSpeedway will likely have to be the telling practice, because Saturday storms are expected.
   Jimmie Johnson says he likes the package teams will be using in Friday's practice, but others think it is too conservative a package of rear spoiler aerodynamics and engine power.
   Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Joey Logano, says using the rear spoiler-restrictor plate combination that would give drivers more passing power would actually make for a safer race that the conservative setup used in the opening round of practice, "because if you give drivers a chance to pass and make things happen, they're less likely to feel pressured to make bad moves."
   Johnson explains the dilemma: "In the test (here in late March) we had a variety of combinations...   and it worked backwards from what we'd thought: the higher drag package (with a bigger rear spoiler) you would think would create a faster closing rate (in the draft), and create opportunities to pass....and at the same time you would think the higher drag would slow the cars down.
   "The other package was less drag and a larger restrictor plate.
   "Out of those two, you would think a bigger restrictor plate would mean faster speeds (in the draft).
   "But we saw the opposite. The smaller plate, with the bigger spoiler, allowed the cars behind to have less air on them, and those vehicles behind would push the leader...and we ran really, really fast speeds that way.
   "With the bigger plate and less downforce (smaller rear spoiler), yes, we ran faster speeds by ourselves, but in the pack we were much more controlled and contained.
   "It was a really interesting discipline to go through, and I'm thankful we had enough cars here (for the draft) so we could figure this out.
    "If you (use the package that will) create the opportunity to pass, the speeds are going to be really high....we'll see a lot of crashes...
   "But if you use the other scenario, and don't have the faster closing rate, the drivers are going to love it, and the fans are going to say 'Aw, we didn't see the race we wanted to.'
   "So we're really stuck in a spot where we need to say 'What is the safest race we can put on – for the drivers and for the fans.
   "Yes, people aren't going to be happy...because there will be less energy in the draft.
    "But you have to put a stick in the sand and say 'This is why we're doing it.'
   "And I believe that's where we're at – we have the safest combination, though it might be criticized by people who want to see more action. But we've got to keep the cars on the ground, and keep the drivers safe and the fans safe. And I believe that's where we're at.
  "Now this is the phrase I believe: you'll have 30 percent who love it, 30 percent who hate it, and 30 percent who don't care."
  Put Tony Stewart in the camp that doesn't care: "Whatever they give us, we'll have to make work."

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  Crew chief Greg Zipadelli is among those who think the current Talladega spoiler-plate package is too conservative, that it will lead drivers to make more gambles (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

The bigger plate-lesser drag

The bigger plate-lesser drag argument is misleading. The cars were faster, period. Yes with the smaller plate and more drag the draft kicked in much better, but that's what is supposed to happen. The argument that the current package is "too conservative" is designed to blame the package for wrecks instead of the specific drivers. "It will lead drivers to make more gambles" is the classic passing of the buck. And when cars are faster they're going to fly higher.

The criticism of the present package ignores that the restrictor plate is still too large. A package that makes the draft super-effective always creates more opportunity to pass than a package with lesser drag. The bigger plate with lesser drag makes the cars too fast and is inferior competition, period.

a lot of this isn't

a lot of this isn't necessarily about aerodynamics and speed but about getting inside a driver's head -- if he thinks he can pull to try a pass and at the worst only lose six or seven spots, he'll try it. if he feels that if he pulls out to pass and nobody goes with him he'll go straight to the back...that's when he either does something rash -- like try to push his way back in line, in a hole that may not open up -- or he sits there and rides and doesnt try to pass, like happened last fall here. the spring race is usually wilder, because in the fall the title is on the line. the point is to make a driver feel he can afford to try to a pass....IMHO (and JJ's)....

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