USA TODAY US Edition
RESTRICTOR-PLATE RACES ARE WILD CARD
Restrictor-plate racing equals variables, wild cards, unforeseen possibilities.
And in the modified Chase for the Sprint Cup era, when victory nearly ensures a spot in the postseason, restrictor-plate racing ’s ability to impact the season is enhanced.
The Coke Zero 400 (Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET, NBC) is one such race. In the last five seasons, David Ragan and Aric Almirola (albeit in a rain-shortened event), have won. They have just three Cup wins between them. So, there exists the possibility of more oddity at a track and in a form of racing where oddity is commonplace.
That would be bad news for the weighty lot of former restrictor-plate winners in need of a first win of 2016 for postseason security. Of the 16 drivers currently in the Chase points boundary but without a victory, only rookie Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon (who have not won at NASCAR’s highest level) and Kasey Kahne have not won at either Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The two-time Daytona 500 winner is 12th in the driver standings but seeking a first win after becoming a more consistent sojourner to victory lane the previous two seasons. The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who won four times in 2014 and three times last season, has endured some ill and unusual restrictor-plate fortune this season, with his prized “Amelia” No. 88 Chevrolet wrecked in the Daytona 500 and destroyed for good this spring at Talladega. That car had won plate races at Daytona and Talladega in 2015. Earnhardt returns to defend his race title here with a different piece of machinery and his seemingly preternatural abilities in the aerodynamically reliant form of racing. And the fact that scores of other drivers will want to work with him for just that reason.
Ryan Newman: The 2008 Daytona 500 winner has four top-10s in his last eight points races at Daytona and was eighth here last summer. Granted, Newman has led just five laps at Daytona in that span, but he remains a solid restrictor-plate performer, although he is often ultra-critical of the form of racing and the level of danger it heightens. Newman is 13th in points and could very much benefit from his first win since 2013 to bolster his Chase for the Sprint Cup hopes.
Austin Dillon: The inheritor of the No. 3 Chevrolet has far to go to replicate the restrictor-plate proclivity of its most famous purveyor, but he’s showing signs at age 26 in his third full season at NASCAR’s highest level. Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, who won six champion- ships with the late Dale Earnhardt. Dillon won the Daytona 500 pole in his first race as a Cup regular in 2014 and has four top-10s in six starts on the 2.5-mile track. That includes finishing seventh here last summer despite his car going airborne into and shredding the catchfence at the finish. Dillon was third at Talladega this spring, so he gets this form of racing. At 14th in points, Dillon has produced a season on high and low spokes, but a first Cup win this weekend would be no surprise.
Jamie McMurray: He has won seven Sprint Cup races; four came on restrictor-plate tracks, including the 2010 Daytona 500 — and he has not won at all since 2013, but that was the fall race at Talladega. So the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran must be a consideration this weekend. Constantly overshadowed by teammates — in past seasons Juan Pablo Montoya and for the past two seasons promising 23-year-old Kyle Larson — McMurray is 15th in driver points a season after qualifying for the Chase for the first time. The 40-year-old started 30th but rallied to fourth at Talladega this spring by avoiding the spinning metal.