At the end of the day, it's still Talladega
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Carl Edwards was out front in April as he came off the final turn of this 2.66-mile catastrophe waiting to happen otherwise known as Talladega Superspeedway. He dropped low to block hard-charging rookie Brad Keselowski, who didn't budge for fear of breaking NASCAR's yellow-line rule that cost Regan Smith the win a year earlier.
We all know how that turned out. Keselowski's bumper caught the left rear of Edwards' car and sent it into an airborne spin. As the car settled toward the pavement it was struck by Ryan Newman's car, sending it and Edwards into the catch fence at nearly 190 mph.
Debris flew into the first few rows of the grandstands like shrapnel from a grenade. Seven fans suffered injuries, the most severe a broken jaw to Blake Bobbitt.
After a trip to the infield medical center, Edwards, who usually goes out of his way not to be controversial, fired a shot across the governing body's bow.
"We'll do this until somebody gets killed, and then [NASCAR] will change," Edwards said.
NASCAR didn't wait. It mandated that the restrictor-plate holes be reduced from 60/64ths of an inch to 59/64ths of an inch in diameter. The change, so small you can barely detect it with the naked eye, is expected to decrease horsepower by 12 to 15.
Talladega officials didn't wait, either. They increased the height of the catch fence from 14 to 22 feet and made a few other subtle adjustments in the technology that experts promise will make it safer.
Edwards is glad to see the changes, but will they really make racing here safer? Opinions are mixed. Some believe the slower speeds will keep cars from going airborne.
Others believe the slower speeds will tighten the field even more and increase the possibility of the so-called "big one."
Bottom line? John Darby, the Sprint Cup Series director, summed it up best:
"You can't write a rule to prevent what happened," he said.
As long as there is restrictor-plate racing, as long as there are cars going close to 190 mph in huge packs, disaster will strike. It's why fans fill the stands in a place that seems lost from civilization. It's why television ratings typically don't take a dive here.
"It's madness, but exciting madness," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "If you're on the outside looking in it's pretty exciting. From the inside it's pretty intense.
"You've got to be pretty smart, but when the closing laps come in that goes out the window. You've got to do whatever it takes to get yourself hopefully to Victory Lane."
The last two restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega have produced a vicious highlight show. Kyle Busch was the big loser in the July 5 race at Daytona, flying into the wall after contact with Tony Stewart racing for the win.
Edwards was the big loser here on April 22.
They can raise the fences and slow the cars by a few miles per hour, but there's at least a 50-50 chance we'll see a big wreck again on Sunday.
"I mean, it's Talladega," Gordon said.
They even wreck here in practice. Clint Bowyer went for a spin and several other cars received minor damage before Friday's first practice was 15 minutes old.
Edwards jokingly said he thought his 12-inch Subway (the sponsor of his car) sandwich was going to be reduced to 6 inches.
"This race is what it is," he said. "I can't tell the difference in the plates. The cars seem to run the same as they have."
So what exactly can we expect from the smaller holes in the plates? Darby doesn't expect the speeds to be much slower. He says NASCAR made the change to keep crew chiefs and engineers from getting faster as they often do for the fall race.
"We were at the threshold," Darby said.
It would be so neat if instead of plates we could come in here with a narrow tire that is really hard or spray water on the track, or something so we would have to lift off the throttle. As it is now we're stuck in one big pack. The smaller plate is only going to magnify that.” -- Carl Edwards
Most crew chiefs and drivers believe the speeds definitely will fall off, although the early practice runs were in the 194 mph range like they were in April. What will happen in packs is the mystery.
Some say with less horsepower it will be tougher to close and lock up. Some say cars at the back of the pack will have more trouble staying in the draft.
Todd Berrier, who will begin his new role as crew chief for Jeff Burton, believes the packs will be bigger than ever. That escalates the danger factor. That creates multicar crashes like you see nowhere else.
"That's not going to change at all," Berrier said. "We've got that no matter what."
Again, it's Talladega. If the racing was strung out like it is at California and many 1.5-mile tracks, there wouldn't be the intrigue, the anticipation.
Drivers and crew chiefs involved in the Chase wouldn't circle this event as one to survive so they have a shot at the title.
"Slowing the speed down will keep them on the ground when they get turned around backwards," said three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who leads second-place Mark Martin by 118 points. "In that respect [it] will be safer.
"We're still going to be in the big group, and the potential is still there for the big wrecks."
The biggest safety improvement at Talladega is the new car. It is almost indestructible. Edwards was living proof of that in April as he climbed out of the shell of his wreckage and jogged across the finish line a la "Talladega Nights." The car also has produced a situation not typically associated with plate racing. Two-car drafts have proved to be as effective, if not more, as strings of 10-plus cars. They can push each other through the turns, too.
That creates another kind of danger.
"I thought there were no-bump zones," Gordon said. "The reason why that is working and happening is NASCAR is allowing the cars to push one another through the corners.
"Until they crack down on that you're going to see it come down to two guys locking up together and pushing one another and then trying to figure out how to decide it among themselves."
That has resulted in spectacular crashes in the past two races. The lead driver can decide to either block, creating the potential for a wreck, or settle for second.
Drivers typically aren't willing to settle for second.
No rule will change that.
"It would be so neat if instead of plates we could come in here with a narrow tire that is really hard or spray water on the track, or something so we would have to lift off the throttle," Edwards said. "As it is now we're stuck in one big pack. The smaller plate is only going to magnify that."
Hey, it's Talladega.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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