ATLANTA - The goal during Tuesday's special test session at the Daytona International Speedway was to find a way around the restrictor plate.
But there was a hidden, a more important agenda - NASCAR finally doing something about boring races.
Fans have been critical of a lack of competition at Daytona. There were only 10 lead changes at the season-opening Daytona 500 and just nine lead changes last month in the Pepsi 400. It wasn't until television ratings took a dive for both events that the sanctioning body seemed to notice.
After years of watching stock cars play follow-the-leader at its premier racetracks, NASCAR huddled with tire and chassis engineers, a couple of car owners and 12 drivers Tuesday in a private session at the 2.5-mile speedway to make cars more racy in the future.
"It's been real nice to get these guys together to work on a common cause for a change," said Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer. "They've all got some good ideas and all of them have chipped in to try and make some headway. We're feeling pretty confident that we'll be able to come up with some rules and regulations, as it relates to the aerodynamics of the car, that gives restrictor plate races some of the old feel of racing that the competitors and the fans are used to at Daytona and Talladega."
The restrictor plate is a device inserted between the carburetor and engine to restrict the flow of gas and air into the engine at the two fastest raceways on the stock car schedule - Daytona and the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The plate reduces about 200 horsepower - about 25 mph - to keep cars from becoming airborne during an accident.
The plate, however, seems to have created more problems than it solved.
Since cars are under-powered, there is little separation between the frontrunners and the back markers. Huge packs of traffic have increased the chances of an accident since there's no room to steer clear of a problem and no power under the hood to make an escape.
Body styles have been improved since the restrictor plate became mandatory in 1988 to help get around the effects of the restrictor plate. Now the cars are so fickle aerodynamically, they lack the stability to maneuver in traffic.
No power and no stability means no fun for the drivers or the fans.
NASCAR tried a variety of ideas to create a more aerodynamic drag - thus achieving the necessary reduction in speed - while expanding the size of the opening on the restrictor plate to give drivers a little more horsepower and throttle response.
"We're trying to get the cars to slow down aerodynamically so we can put a bigger restrictor plate on so that we can have a better balance, maybe more acceleration power in traffic, but yet have the cars be stable or unstable - however we get them to where we won't have to rely on other people," driver Bobby Labonte said. "We want to have the cars stable or unstable enough to race, yet have enough power where we can pull back from a pack and make a pass without having to rely on three or four cars to help you out."
Currently, the only way to pass is for two or more cars to team up in a "draft" to bypass the leader. Two cars running nose-to-tail can better divide the wind resistance to pass a car running by itself.
Since it takes a team of cars to make a pass, drivers aren't willing to gamble their track position late in the race on making a pass. If the second-place car expects the third-place car to help it pass the leader and the third-place car stays in line, the second-place car is usually dropped from the aerodymanic train until it finds an opening, usually at the end of the line. In 40 restrictor plate races during the 1990s, there was a pass for a win on the final lap only once. The other 39 races featured anti-climatic follow-the-leader finishes.
"So far what we've seen, it's obvious we need to get more horsepower back to the car, but we need to keep the speeds down," driver Jeff Gordon said. "How do you do that? You do it by drag. We're just working on getting the drag high enough to where the speeds are slower but you still have a bunch of horsepower under the hood. It's attainable. We just have to keep working on it."
NASCAR invited a select group of "progressive" drivers to the test session. Joining Labonte and Gordon were: Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Dale Earnhardt, Mike Skinner, Chad Little, Dale Jarrett, Steve Park and Ricky Rudd. Mark Martin also was there, but he didn't drive during the 6 12-hour-long session. Car owners Richard Childress and Robert Yates also participated, as did engineers from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and Chevrolet.
Although NASCAR refused to reveal what it tested, a couple teams said an increase of the rear spoiler angle from 45 degrees to 65 degrees and a curved strip added to the rear spoiler to grab more air were among the things tested. Several cars also tested an inch-high metal strip across the roof.
Top speeds in traffic were clocked at nearly 186 mph.
"We needed to do this," said driver Dale Earnhardt, the king of restrictor plate racing who's won 10 time with a restrictor plate. "If we can get the throttle response back to the driver and be able to draft back up, we'll make a better race of it. When it's all said and done, I want to be able to drive the car and go to the front."
The final restrictor plate race of the season is the Winston 500 at Talladega on Oct. 15.
Where: Michigan Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Broadcast: Television -- ESPN; Radio -- Motor Racing Network
Track: 2-mile, D-shaped oval
1999 winner: Bobby Labonte
What it takes to win: Michigan is generally regarded by the drivers as the easiest track to drive since it's so wide and so smooth. Horsepower and fuel mileage are the keys. The fastest car often loses because it has to make an extra stop for gas. It's also a favorite raceway because the three players in the manufacturer's race -- Chevrolet, Ford and Pontiac -- have their worldwide headquarters less than an hour away.
Morris News Service pick: Jeremy Mayfield
Other drivers to watch: Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Johnny Benson and Tony Stewart
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