NASCAR's building boom of the 1990s saw a slew of nearly identical 1.5-mile superspeedways sprout up in markets such as Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago. While many fans derided them as "cookie-cutter" tracks, the familiar configuration no doubt looks inviting to the 10 drivers vying for the 2005 Nextel Cup as NASCAR's top circuit turns to 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway this weekend, with last Sunday's bump-fest at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway still painfully fresh in the rearview mirror.
Few emerged from Talladega unscathed, though some championship contenders improved their lot by virtue of their rivals' misfortunes. Tony Stewart seized the lead in the standings on the heels of his second-place finish, while Jimmie Johnson tumbled from first to fourth after triggering an eight-car melee just 20 laps into the race.
Talladega was particularly hard on Roush Racing, the powerhouse team that won NASCAR's past two championships and has placed all five of its drivers in the 10-man postseason chase for the 2005 title. Crashes or blown tires tripped up nearly every Roush entry -- most notably the No. 6 of Mark Martin, the highest-profile casualty of Johnson's overzealous racing, who finished 41st and plunged to ninth in the standings. Entering Sunday's Banquet 400 at Kansas, Roush's fleet makes up the rear of the chase, with none of its drivers among the top four.
To nearly everyone's delight, Kansas Speedway marks a return to a brand of racing that puts control back in the hands of drivers and crew chiefs.
While even the best driver and most prepared team can't always avoid getting snared in someone else's wreck, chances of that happening aren't as great on a 1.5-mile oval as they are on the giant superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, where cars run in dense packs because of the carburetor-restrictor plates that limit horsepower to keep speeds below 200 mph.
The restrictor plates are NASCAR's solution for the two behemoth tracks built roughly 40 years ago, when promoters didn't anticipate today's 800-horsepower engines and the speeds they could churn out. Instead of razing the antiquated ovals, NASCAR officials designed horsepower-choking plates to slow the cars. Over time, they added roof flaps to keep spinning cars from getting airborne and mandated smaller gas tanks that make drivers stop for fuel more often, which naturally breaks up the dangerous packs of cars.
Despite the measures, it has proved all but impossible to avoid the big wreck at Talladega. That's because the engines are so equal that every car runs at the same speed, and because the aerodynamic draft is so powerful that cars suck up to the bumper ahead as if pulled by a magnetic force.
But at "unrestricted" tracks such as Kansas, neither factor is in play.
"What you do at Kansas is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car -- not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move," Stewart said this week. "There are too many variables out of your control in a [restrictor-]plate race. At Kansas, we're back in control. There are still things out there that can screw up your day, but they're minimal when compared to what we dealt with at Talladega."
Also less common on 1.5-mile ovals is the controversial tactic of "bump-drafting," intentionally hitting the bumper of the car ahead in an effort to give both cars an aerodynamic boost through traffic. When executed deftly (with a gentle, squarely placed tap on a straightaway), a bump-draft can enable both "giver" and "receiver" of the nudge to surge past cars around them. But done indiscriminately or, worse, in turns or the front-stretch tri-oval (where the leading car isn't pointed straight), it's apt to spin out the front car and trigger mayhem.
That's precisely what Johnson did when he rear-ended Elliott Sadler on Talladega's tri-oval, triggering a wreck that sent Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet flipping and Martin's Ford to the garage. Ryan Newman bumped Casey Mears in nearly the same spot to set off another multi-car crash on Lap 67.
"It's completely out of control," said Jeff Gordon, among Newman's victims.
After reviewing videotape, Johnson acknowledged his fault, apologized to Sadler and Waltrip and promised to be smarter in the future. But veterans such as Martin and Rusty Wallace, who have seen more than one of their peers killed on restrictor-plate tracks, see no place for bump-drafting. Martin implored fans to lobby NASCAR for an end to restrictor-plate races altogether. Wallace says he thinks that's impractical, given the reality that fans clamor for drama. Instead, he wants NASCAR to outlaw bump-drafting and park any driver who tries it.
"If drivers don't regulate it themselves, then NASCAR has got to regulate it for them," said Wallace, who lost 70 points and dropped from second to third in the standings after his 25th-place finish at Talladega. "When you have drivers just drive straight down a straightaway and ram somebody in the back while they're turning, that's just crazy. And it's not just one individual, it's the whole damn field doing it. I don't give a crap what anybody says, that's what you've got to do."