Plate racing losing steam

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – Mark Martin doesn’t like racing at Talladega Superspeedway, and he’s pretty sure most of his rivals feel the same way.

“If you take a poll, and the guys weren’t being politically correct and were telling you the truth, then only about five or six of them would say they had a good time racing at Talladega,” Martin said Tuesday, a day after he was caught in a 15-car pileup at Talladega.

Restrictor-plate racing is volatile, to say the least. Getting to the finish requires as much luck as it does skill, and drivers are constantly on alert trying to avoid the eventual “Big One.”

In Monday’s rain-postponed race, it came ridiculously early. Only nine laps in, to be exact.

It happened when five drivers decided to line up door to door across the track and jostle for position. Five-wide racing is never a good idea, no matter what the track.

But at Talladega, where the cars use horsepower-sapping restrictor plates to keep speeds under 200 mph, it’s particularly dangerous. Drivers can’t separate from one another, so everyone is in a tight pack and one slight bobble can wipe out half the field.

So when Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. met in one solid line, it took just seconds for disaster to strike. One of them bobbled – replays looked like it was Busch – and the demolition derby began.

Martin was collected, leading to his third-straight finish of 33rd or worse at Talladega.

“It’s just so stupid. Beyond stupid,” he fumed. “The biggest problem I’ve got is the last three races, I didn’t even make it to the first pit stop before I was wrecked – and none of which I had anything to do with other than trying to stay out of trouble.”

Sterling Marlin certainly knows how to get around Talladega, with two of his five plate wins coming on the Alabama superspeedway. But he, too, was caught in the early accident and placed the blame squarely on NASCAR’s younger drivers.

“These guys get out there and act like its a 10-lap shootout every time the green flag waves,” Marlin said. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. You should never be five-wide, probably should never even be four-wide. But these idiots just don’t care.

“I guess they are just young and dumb and don’t want to learn.”

Marlin might just have a point. Toss out Newman’s four years of Cup experience, and the other four drivers in that crash-causing line combine for just four full seasons of track time.

Even Tony Stewart, who has finished second in six of the last 11 Talladega races, was frustrated with the foolish on-track actions of NASCAR’s newest stars. To make it to the finish, Stewart made a mental checklist of which drivers to avoid. If he closed in on that driver, he faded far back in the field for his own protection.

“There were two or three guys in particular that were up there that are fairly young, that were guys I did not want to be anywhere near on the race track,” he said. “None of these guys have figured it out. It’s amazing.”

“They raced their guts out all day, and I always end up going to the back and riding around all day and keeping my fenders straight and at the end of the day, we always end up in the top five where we need to be,” he added. “But there are a bunch of those guys who just beat themselves to death up there all day and end up putting themselves in bad positions.”

That’s the strategy Jimmie Johnson finally learned after several Talladega bobbles nearly ruined his reputation. Blamed for three accidents last year, Johnson watched tape of Dale Jarrett’s victory last October and noted how the veteran laid back the entire race.

Only in the closing laps did Jarrett make a run at the front. Because he had stayed away from trouble the entire race, his Ford had nary a nick on it as he barreled past the battered cars of his rivals.

Johnson then realized he didn’t have to lead every lap, so long as he led the final lap. His new strategy helped him win Monday at Talladega, giving him a second plate-race trophy to go along with his Daytona 500 victory.

But Martin isn’t convinced any one strategy is correct. After all, he’s been wrecked running at the back of the pack and at the front. Although he acknowledges youth plays a huge role in the accidents – “it’s not the veterans out there causing the wrecks,” he said – his biggest complaint is the plate environment.

And that, he lamented, can never be changed.

“There’s no solution because the fans love it,” he shrugged. “If you are throwing dirt, you’re just losing ground and you look like a fool complaining about it. The fans love it. And you know what? When I’m not in that race anymore, you better believe I am going to watch it on TV.”

AP-ES-05-02-06 1726EDT

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