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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Earnhardt's rough draft still translates into 'plate' success
April 23, 1999 By Matt Yocum Special to ESPN.com
spacerwhite.gif (835 bytes)Before we get into the Diehard 500 and Talladega Superspeedway this week, go back to the final laps of this year's Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon in the lead. Dale Earnhardt right on his bumper. Gordon blocking Earnhardt's every bid to pass him. The two cars coming off Turn Four and Earnhardt unable to do anything but run second to Gordon.
spacerwhite.gif (835 bytes)Now, Earnhardt did everything in his power to set up Gordon coming off Turn Four. But when the two cars arrived at the finish line, Earnhardt remained behind Gordon. Earnhardt could have drafted Gordon all the way to Victory Lane, but he still wouldn't have found enough wind to use that patented "sling-shot" move used so many times to decide races.

Not in 1998. Not while racing with restrictor plates at Daytona or Talladega.

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt has continued to be successful on restrictor-plate tracks. He has won eight of 46 races since 1988 and finished second at Daytona this year.

Despite what happened at Daytona, Earnhardt remains the master of the draft and it's helped him remain the dominate driver on restrictor-plate tracks. Drafting is an art and Earnhardt told me a couple of years ago that he learned it from the very best. He learned it from watching and racing against Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.

Today, a lot of people say Earnhardt can see the wind.

But when you look back to the days when drafting really was drafting, today's drivers will tell you in their terminology that they can no longer suck-up on a car. We all saw that in the Daytona 500. We'll most likely see it again Sunday at Talladega.

Talladega -- with its restrictor-plate racing -- won't allow the draft to suck drivers up behind the car in front of them. Drafting still helps a little, but not like it used to help drivers. That "sling-shot" move Earnhardt was looking for at Daytona at the end of the race is gone. The aerodynamics of the cars and restrictor plates have made everyone equal.

But drivers still have to remain true to the draft and be able to feel what the car is doing. Earnhardt likes to explain it as riding along real quietly for a for a long time and then suddenly feeling the air hit him in the face. That tells him it's time to go. The wind is his cue to make his move.

If a driver is going to pass somebody, the wind will tell him the time is right. While he's in the draft, the wind around his car, and the car in front of him, tells him when to make his move. Only at that moment is the driver going to pick up what draft there is and get the wind's help to move around the car in front of him.

Drafting is still an art, but the restrictor plates have created a new form of riding the wind. And Earnhardt has adapted nicely over the past decade.

Since 1988, there have been 46 restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona. In those races, Earnhardt has earned the most points, he's had the best average finish and won eight times. He also has 27 top-five finishes, 34 top-10 finishes and has led the most total laps.

It's easy to see why he's still considered a threat anytime the restrictor plates are slapped onto Winston Cup engines.

Earnhardt's average finish going into this year's Daytona 500 was 10th place. Heading into the Diehard 500, Earnhardt is 15th in points, but after a great run at Bristol where he finished 10th after starting 43rd in his backup, Earnhardt should have plenty of confidence Sunday. Talladega is a track Earnhardt can begin to make his move on in the points standings.

Now, like everybody else, I give restrictor plates mixed reviews. While they do provide really tight racing, it's that tight racing that sets up what everyone calls "The Big One" -- that huge crash at some point in the race. You have so many cars running in a tight pack -- usually 15 to 20 cars -- that one small mistake can set off a major disaster.

It's like Jeff Burton told me last year, a driver can sit in his car, watch the cars in front of him and say to himself, "Don't do that. Don't do that. Don't make that move." Then all of a sudden, wham, somebody makes the wrong move and you've got 12 cars in the garage that look like they've come from Bristol or Martinsville.

I'm not saying the plate is what creates the problem. The problem comes from so many guys racing with plates who are so equal. It's so tough to pass on restrictor-plate tracks that drivers tend to make the wrong move. Over 500 miles of racing, someone is going to make a mistake. And at Talladega, those mistakes can be very minor, but the results are very large.

You also have to consider the racing at Talladega is usually side-by-side at the highest speeds on the Winston Cup circuit. It's not uncommon to have cars race side-by-side, 12 rows deep, lap after lap after lap at Talladega. It's white-knuckle, hold-your-breath racing for 500 miles.

Still, if Winston Cup went back to unrestricted racing at Talladega or Daytona, there is no telling how high the speeds would climb. Bill Elliott sat on the 1987 Winston 500 pole at 212 mph. With today's improved tires, cars shaped like bullets and stronger chassis, there is no telling how fast Cup cars would go without the plates.

Talladega, with or without restrictor plates, is a track were strange things can and usually do happen. Like Kyle Petty said to me a few years ago, "Going to Talladega and not seeing a wreck is like going to the beach and not seeing the ocean."

As the fans who fill the stands know each year, they are going to see plenty of action

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