The question is continually raised after each of NASCAR's new-era restrictor plate races: is the two-car tandem draft "real racing"?
Racing is all about doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line first. In some cases, it's about having the fastest car. In others, it's about the fastest pit crew. Some races play out so that the winner is the one with the best fuel mileage. And in four races a year, it's about who gets the best push from their partner on the final lap.
The two-car draft isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Go back and watch Kevin Harvick move to the front down the backstretch on the final lap of the 2007 Daytona 500. It's just that now it's each driver, each green flag lap all race long.
There are questions by long-time, award-winning writers asking if the lead changes (which have come in record numbers with this style of racing) actually mean anything. The answer to that one is simple: does any lead change other than the last one ever mean anything? When Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in 1984, did any of the first 73 lead changes that day mean anything? No, only the final one in which Earnhardt took the lead did. But here's the rub: any lead change could be the last one, even one on lap 2 at Daytona.
For too long, we've heard how the number of lead changes (and also the number of cars on the lead lap) are benchmarks of competitiveness. The more lead changes the more competitive the race, and by extension, the more exciting the show for the fans. While that's generally true, it's not always the case. One of the best races I've ever seen was a 400-lap ASA race at the quarter-mile Anderson Speedway that was led green to checkered by Steve Holzhausen. Conversely, some of the most tedious races I've watched were some plate races with the big packs and plenty of artificial lead changes.
Does today's plate racing offer edge-of-your-seat excitement from green to checkered? I think so. It's not because the drivers are in one big pack and one mistake could take out two-thirds of the field at any time. But instead it's because of the skill and timing it takes to successfully make a two-car draft work. You can go from first to sixteenth in one lap or sixteenth to first just as easily now as you could then, but the danger of wiping out half the field or more is dramatically lessened. And the bonus, at least to me, is the speed which often approaches or even exceeds 200 mph.
Sure, pack racing was exciting. The big wrecks were highlight reel material. But too often we saw The Big One break out early leaving 20+ cars to just ride around and log laps hoping to improve a position or two instead of being in contention to win.
As the pavement at Talladega and Daytona slowly loses grip it could be we'll see yet another evolution in plate racing. Maybe NASCAR will make some rules changes to mix things up once again. Until then, I'm going to continue to enjoy the new-era plate races and enjoy the unpredictability they offer.