News & Media

Plate change serves up slower speeds for Daytona field

February 16, 2011, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In its continuing quest to reduce the speeds of Sprint Cup cars this week at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR on Wednesday finally made the move everyone felt was coming -- ordering the use of a carburetor restrictor plate with a smaller opening.

NASCAR trimmed plate openings by one-64th of an inch, a change that reduced engine output by about 10 horsepower and that officials hoped would reduce the uncomfortably fast speeds the cars were turning on the recently resurfaced 2.5-mile oval. The move had an immediate effect --in last Saturday 's Budweiser Shootout exhibition, some cars reached speeds upward of 206 mph, but Kyle Busch topped a rain-delayed Daytona 500 practice session Wednesday afternoon at 200.254 mph. Kasey Kahne led the day's second session at 200.067 mph.

"The biggest unknown right now, knowing that we just ran two practices, is the difference in how teams approach a race versus practice. If everything stays pretty much like we saw [Wednesday], we'll be fine."


"Ready for the Duels," Sprint Cup director John Darby pronounced, referring to Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races that will set the bulk of the Daytona 500 field.

"We'll run the Duels, take a look, see how everything is," he added. "The biggest unknown right now, knowing that we just ran two practices, is the difference in how teams approach a race versus practice. If everything stays pretty much like we saw [Wednesday], we'll be fine."

Darby said the tandem drafting situation that has defined much of these Speedweeks wasn't the reason for the change, and that NASCAR was most concerned with high speeds and engine RPMs. Prior to the plate change, defending Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray said he heard from his engine builders that his power plant was turning 9,000 revolutions per minute, raising concerns about the stresses placed on it during the race. Most drivers seemed to support the change.

"I completely understand the situation NASCAR is in, and have talked to [series president] Mike Helton a lot about changes and ways to keep the speeds down," five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said. "So I certainly have seen the process and appreciate the decisions that have been made. Only time will tell. I think in general we'd all like to have no plate on there, which is impossible, or the biggest plate we possibly could. But at those speeds, we know what happens .... It's like Brad [Keselowski] and Carl [Edwards] at Talladega -- you add 10 to15 mph to that, and it's going to be even worse."

Edwards flipped into the catch fence in a final-lap accident that injured several fans two years ago at Talladega Superspeedway, the only other track where NASCAR uses restrictor plates to limit speeds and keep cars on the ground in the event of a crash. The smooth new Daytona surface, necessitated by the pothole that developed during last year's Daytona 500, creates so much grip that even two Nationwide cars cracked the 200 mph barrier during a practice Wednesday afternoon -- a fact that led NASCAR to order use of smaller engine spacers to attempt to reduce speeds in those vehicles. Wednesday night, NASCAR confirmed that beginning with Thursday's practice, it would use a restrictor plate along with a tapered spacer to further attempt to bring down speeds in the Nationwide cars.

"They're trying to slow the cars down to keep everyone safe -- not just the drivers, but the spectators in the stands, and make sure they keep the car on the ground. If they decide to put a smaller plate on, I don't think you're going to hear one driver complain about that, because it's not going to affect the racing," McMurray said Wednesday before the restrictor plate change was announced.

"I think the reason NASCAR is taking small steps is because they don't need a lot to get the speeds back down to where they need to be. In the last couple of days, I've talked to a lot of drivers, and nobody seems to be a little upset or concerned with the changes they've made. I think everybody's for it."

In the immediate aftermath of the Shootout, NASCAR ordered changes to the cars' engine-cooling systems in the hope that forcing the vehicles to break the two-car drafts on occasion would slow their average speeds to more tolerable levels. Despite that move, Darby said use of a smaller plate opening was still an option -- one that NASCAR employed after crunching some dynamometer numbers on Monday and Tuesday.

Some had hoped NASCAR would go in a different direction.

"I thought that going bigger would be better, simply because the faster we go, ultimately the handling will come into play eventually," Denny Hamlin said. "If we're going a certain speed ... the cars really can't handle the corners being pushed. I thought [the plate openings] being bigger would be an advantage for getting the pack back together. The pack would be able to catch the two-car tandems very, very quickly if the plate was bigger. Obviously they felt that they didn't want the cars running 206. There's a big safety concern when the cars are running 206. Not necessarily for us, but the flag man especially."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. indicated that the slower speeds were a factor in his practice crash Wednesday, when Martin Truex. Jr. hooked him from behind and wrecked the No. 88 primary car. Earnhardt had to go to a backup, meaning he will vacate his pole position and start at the rear of the Daytona 500 field regardless of how he fares in Thursday's twin 150-mile qualifying events.

"They keep slowing the cars down, and it makes a car drafting normally much slower, and now the closing rate on the two-car pack is even faster. And I mean, it's just hard," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully, there's no more accidents this week. We're all kind of getting the hang of it, but the guys that aren't, in a two-car pack, [they] need to be aware that those guys are going to come flying up on them faster than they think. And you've just got to keep that in mind and hold your line."

The end result was another day of changes in a week that's forcing Daytona 500 entrants to adapt on the fly. But Johnson said most competitors understand what NASCAR officials are trying to do.

"I think we all felt like a smaller plate was coming, and understand why, so I am not saying I have a problem with the direction it is going," he said. "I think everybody would love to see the plates off the cars to start with. It is that necessary evil that we talk about every time we go to a plate track. NASCAR was trying to do everything they could to not go down on plate [opening size], but they are kind of at that point."