NASCAR has decision to make on using restrictor plates more often

CONCORD, N.C. -- The debate has lasted 30 years. NASCAR, which is at a crossroads, might finally have to try to answer it.

Is restrictor-plate racing really racing?

After a somewhat successful NASCAR All-Star Race, NASCAR has a decision to make on using restrictor plates more often, and it's not an easy decision. It will certainly drive some fans away from the sport and could likely impact drivers' careers.

NASCAR fans and drivers, for the most part, have, grudgingly accepted the use of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. The danger of unrestricted engines at those tracks dictates a change from the typical aerodynamic and engine package, so using a restrictor plate is a necessary evil.

For the past 30 years, NASCAR has worked on packages that would create the most exciting racing on those tracks while also mitigating danger. Some fans dismiss the races because needing help in a draft to make passes often doesn't reward the talents of traditional driving. The epic danger creates a knot in the stomach amid the exhilaration for those who can bear to watch, not to mention a dangerous car-airborne element that creates a disturbing what-the-hell-are-we-doing aura.

But the dreaded aero push and an aerodynamic package of the current NASCAR Cup cars, albeit better in its current form than three or four years ago, has not worked well enough to create passion among a fan base. It has not compensated for a fan base already impacted by a societal shift toward a lack of passion for cars, NASCAR's shift of its national development series away from the short tracks that created opportunities and connection to the grass-roots level, and the economic conditions that make fans skeptical that talented drivers get the opportunities they deserve.

Some will say restrictor-plate racing ranks as a gimmick, just along with the playoff system or stage racing. It would require another adjustment for fans and how they view the sport, just as the playoffs have required an adjustment on how they view their champion when it comes down to a one-race event rather than a true season-long performance-based system.

Even the drivers who thrive in restrictor-plate racing don't love it.

"They're going to do what they want to do," Brad Keselowski said about NASCAR. "It doesn't matter what I like. I like having a job."

Kyle Busch doesn't hide his disdain for the restrictive aero package.

"It's not necessarily what I signed up for to be a race car driver to bring the whole field closer together and have it dictated by some type of a plate race," Busch said.

"But if that's what we're going to have going forward, then I guess I either need to think about how to get really good at it or getting out of it, so we'll see what happens."

NASCAR doesn't want a bunch of angry drivers dissing on the package every week, but it also wants to have fans excited about what they watch. What did the fans sign up for?

Fans used to have passion for stock cars because they could relate to them -- they were souped-up, safer versions of the cars they worked on at home. Fans used to have passion for car manufacturers, and even teams that could come up with innovative engine and car modifications within the rules.

A restrictor plate goes just another step further in creating that disconnect (admittedly, if that is even possible).

And will fans want to see a dozen or more races where the winner is more unpredictable, where teammates and manufacturer alliances come more into play and where more violent crashing -- and that means potential for more injuries -- can occur?

Some think so. One car owner of a team that has struggled came up to me during the prerace at the All-Star event all excited about the package. Fans want to see as many cars as competitive as possible, and this would be a night when more cars would have a chance to win.

And yet the car that has dominated most of the season still won. NASCAR couldn't deliver the stats quick enough after the race, saying that in the All-Star Race this year there were 38 green-flag passes for the lead (determined by its timing loops around the track) compared with none in 2017's event.

In view of those stats, some will question how anyone could not like what they saw Saturday night. But it shouldn't be a surprise that some fans didn't like it. What made NASCAR great was the view from the stands that they saw the best drivers team with the best mechanics try to win a race.

Frankly, it's difficult to make that assessment now. Not taking anything away from Kevin Harvick and his team for their stellar 2018 season -- they certainly deserve it. But the question is whether they are winning races based on an engineering wonk at a computer screen who has figured something out that Harvick and his team have been able to adapt better than others.

"Just remember this," Harvick cautioned after his victory Saturday night. "There was a large buzz about the low downforce package that we currently race when we left the All-Star Race one year."

He's right. When teams have time to work on new rules and throw their resources at them, the results can change.

That being said, restrictor plates at intermediate tracks might be the answer to NASCAR's recent inability to create cars that put on great racing at aero-dependent tracks.

Then again, it just might be the easier answer for NASCAR -- or would that then be NASCE for National Association for Stock Car Entertainment?