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NASCAR's restrictor-plate tracks cause drivers and fans to play a dangerous game

NASCAR's restrictor-plate tracks cause drivers and fans to play a dangerous game
NASCAR drivers Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and AJ Allmendinger were all involved in a crash on the final lap of last weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

The cataclysmic gloom and doom coming to NASCAR's restrictor-plate tracks is inevitable.

The cataclysmic gloom and doom coming to NASCAR's restrictor-plate tracks is reactionary nonsense.

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Wherever you are on the issue, let's hope it's far away from the carnage and the flying sheet metal and the fire and the cars flipping in the air at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama last Sunday.

That wasn't racing. It was a blood sport. A demolition-derby crash-fest when 35 of 40 cars suffered some sort of damage. Matt Kenseth's car went flipping in the air. Chris Buescher went barrel-rolling three times before his car finally stopped. Danica Patrick walked out of her car physically battered and shaken.

"It was awesome," a fan said as I walked into a Birmingham hotel after the race.

Talladega is one of two tracks — Daytona International Speedway in Florida is the other — where NASCAR mandates "restrictor plates" in the engines to cap speeds from climbing ever higher. But a byproduct of "plate racing" is that the cars stayed bunched in packs, often spawning multi-car wrecks.

And therein lies the dilemma for the NASCAR business model. Fans — enough of them anyway — crave this stuff. It's sad and scary at the same time, but it also pays the bills.

"I love capitalism," said Brad Keselowski, who emerged as the winner on Sunday. "There's still people paying to sit in the stands, sponsors still on the cars, drivers still willing to get in them. Sounds like self-policing and enough interest to keep going, so we'll keep going."

Yes, NASCAR has made significant strides in safety since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Neck-and-head restraints. Safer barriers. Reinforcing catch fences. Concussion protocols.

It still may not be enough one day at Talladega or Daytona. No one is shaming NASCAR here. It's just the inherent risks of playing it.

This much is certain: Drivers hate every minute of it.

"It's scary; it's very scary," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

"Very, very insane. You get butterflies in your stomach even thinking about coming here because you don't know what will happen," Trevor Bayne said.

"We don't like to be a part of crashes," said Austin Dillon, who was involved in a spectacular one at Daytona in July. "It's not what our job is — to crash. Our job is to compete and have fun out there and put on a show.

"Putting on a show in that crashes happen? I don't think of it that way. I think people, if they're cheering for crashes, man, it's not a good thing."

Yes, drivers sign up knowing the risks. This isn't risk. This is Russian roulette for the sake of entertainment.

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Kenseth, Logano still at odds

Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano have a relationship that has gone sour again.

Logano gave Kenseth a Talladega love tap during the Geico 500 on Sunday, which led to Kenseth's getting shoved from the front pack to the middle one.

Which in turn put Kenseth in harm's way as his car was sent spinning and flipping in the air later in the race.

It looked horrific, although Kenseth walked away fine … except for the burn he felt inside.

"We had a good car and I'm not sure at first what happened — the 22 [Logano] ran me off the race track and that got me way behind so I thought we were done with that, but maybe we aren't."

Kenseth received a two-race suspension near the end of the 2015 season for purposely wrecking Logano at Martinsville in Virginia, an act he deemed necessary payback for previous encounters.

He had some words for Logano outside the infield care center on Sunday, an exchange that Logano brushed off as part of doing business on any given Sunday.

Talladega spares Tony

As track workers at Talladega scrape off the final piece of sheet metal from Sunday's carnage, a bit of good news:

Tony Stewart wasn't involved in any of it. It's been a rough year already for Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the season after suffering a back injury riding an ATV near Phoenix prior to the Daytona 500.

Per doctor's orders, he had to hop out of the car early at Talladega before giving way to Ty Dillon on Lap 53. Had Dillon won the race, the victory would have been credited to Stewart.

Regardless, Stewart was feisty as ever.

"If I hadn't broke my back at the end of January, we wouldn't be in this situation. Good news is this is the last time we have to do it, and I am back in next week. I really appreciate Ty. He's been a rock star through this whole thing and especially this weekend," Stewart said.

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