TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – As the speeds inched frighteningly close to 200 mph at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR officials were adamant everything was fine.

Then they slept on it.

NASCAR called a 6:30 a.m. crew chief meeting on Saturday to hand out smaller restrictor plates to push the speeds back down before Sunday’s race on the freshly paved Talladega oval. The new plates knocked the speeds from Jeff Gordon’s top mark of 198.689 mph in practice to David Gilliland’s pole-winning mark of 191.712.

“We tried to downplay it and we didn’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction,” NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said in explaining the delay in changing the plates. “We were hoping that the speeds would go the other way.”

When they didn’t after Friday’s second practice session, NASCAR officials decided to err on the side of caution by slowing the cars. Despite the change, NASCAR did not work a practice session into the schedule so teams could adjust their cars with the new plates.

That infuriated five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of many drivers to visit the NASCAR hauler and lobby for some extra track time.

“At least give us 30 minutes to go out there and run a little bit. I need some laps on the track,” said Earnhardt, who saw his speeds go from 196.600 on Friday to 187.471 in qualifying.

“That stuff right there shouldn’t be going on – especially in the Chase. We should have some practice or something. I don’t think this is a very fair situation.”

Even though Gordon agreed that the plates needed to be reduced out of safety concerns, he didn’t mind the high speeds and agreed that NASCAR needed to offer additional track time.

Talladega is the fourth of the 10 Chase for the championship races, and because of its three- and four-wide racing conditions, it’s considered the wild-card of the title hunt.

Now that’s magnified because, in changing the restrictor plate, the cars need adjustments to their gear ratios, carburetor jettings and maybe even minor changes to the bodywork. But without a practice, it’s a guessing game to get it right before the green flag falls for the start of the UAW-Ford 500 on Sunday.

“I would have liked to know what it would have done for us for gearing and for jetting the engines and those types of things,” Gordon said. “Those are important. They are things that I feel like we should have at least been given the opportunity to feel out.”

The new plates will have four holes of seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, or one-64th smaller than the ones used Friday. Pemberton expects them to knock the race speeds back down around the 195-mph mark that was reached in the May race here.

The carburetor restrictor plates are used at Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR’s two biggest race tracks, because the wide-open lanes create speeds that would easily surpass 200 mph.

The plates are designed to sap the horsepower and make the speeds much more manageable.

But Talladega repaved the track over the summer, and the new asphalt created a smooth surface with better grip – a perfect scenario for creating faster speeds. The drivers – 18 of whom eclipsed 197 mph on Friday – loved it and said it wasn’t a big deal.

“Running close to 200 was pretty cool yesterday. It had been a long time since I had done that,” said defending series champion Tony Stewart, a six-time runner-up at Talladega.

“We don’t have a highway in Indiana that’s as smooth as this race track. The fun factor was definitely back up. I hope these plates don’t slow it down too much.”

Restrictor plates were introduced after a 1987 accident here when Bobby Allison’s car went airborne and into the fence as the pack was racing by at about 209 mph. Although debris flew into the stands and injured a handful of spectators, it would have been deadly had the fencing not held. Bill Elliott set the track record that year with a qualifying mark of 212.809 mph that still stands.

The plates went into effect for the 1988 season, and Davey Allison won the Talladega pole at 203.827 mph – the last time a lap has eclipsed 200. The openings in the plates have been changed occasionally to control the speeds at Talladega and Daytona since then.

This isn’t the first time NASCAR has made a plate change in the middle of a race weekend. It happened here in October 2000, when practice speeds reached 198 before the plates were altered.

The late Dale Earnhardt went on to win that race, the last of his 76 career victories.

This second plate change is not sitting well with his son, who didn’t think there was anything wrong with the speeds.

“The track is safe,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “My mom could drive a car out there. It’s ridiculous. It’s so dang easy you wouldn’t believe it. It’s a piece of cake.”

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