Ranking the Best Restrictor-Plate Drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2013

Ranking the Best Restrictor-Plate Drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series

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    When it comes to the tricky, dangerous business of restrictor-plate racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there are few secrets.

    The key to success at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway – the circuit’s only venues where restrictor plates are required to keep speeds down – is mere survival. That equates to part luck and much patience. Many drivers opt to stay out of the fray up front until the final 20 laps or so, staying back with the idea of avoiding the big wrecks that are sure to come as the cars race three-wide at more than 200 miles per hour down the front and back stretches.

    These tracks aren’t like others where good finishes are virtually guaranteed once a driver gets a feel  for the places. Even the best restrictor-plate racers occasionally are going to get caught up in The Big One and be forced to settle for a poor finish.

    The best ones know how to make sure they’re around at the end when it gets really crazy. Only then can they hope to withstand what is sure to be a white-knuckle finish and grab the checkered flag at NASCAR’s fastest tracks.

    Here are the best of the best at restrictor-plate racing.

10. Clint Bowyer

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    The man who slid across the finish line at the 2007 Daytona 500 on the hood of his race car learned the hard way that it’s best to keep all four wheels on the ground.

    Bowyer also has learned that you don’t have to try to stay up front, where it’s more risky, all day long in these races. That approach has enabled him to win twice at Talladega despite leading the total for just 96 laps there in his first 14 career starts.

    Bowyer also is in the minority in that his average finishes at both Daytona and Talladega are better than his average starts (19.0 average start to 15.5 average finish at Daytona; 18.7 average start to 16.1 average finish at ‘Dega).

    That means even when he’s not winning, he’s usually at least finishing – even if it’s on his roof with sparks and fire flying everywhere. And merely completing these races under any circumstances is no small accomplishment.

9. Jamie McMurray

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    There is perhaps no other driver who stands as a better example of the craziness that can – and usually does – envelope the restrictor-plate races.

    Entering the spring Talladega race, McMurray had in his career led at total of just 18 of 3,375 laps in 24 starts at Daytona – and won there twice (the 2010 Daytona 500 and the Pepsi  400 in 2007).

    He also had one win at Talladega, where he had led a total of 221 of 3,650 laps per racingreference.com

    McMurray’s downfall is that his results seem to be feast or famine at the two tracks – great on some days, when his strategy and timing to get to the front are perfect; and unable to avoid disaster on too many others. His average career finishes reflect this (24.5 at Daytona and 20.0 at Talladega). He finished in the top 10 in just 10 of his first 42 starts combined.

8. Kevin Harvick

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    Harvick has an edge over many other drivers, because the type of mentality that often seems to work best in the restrictor-plate races already is ingrained in his overall mental approach toward all races. He likes to lay back, stay out of trouble, and make his move to the front towards the end.

    In his first 24 career starts at Talladega, he claimed one win, six top-five and 10 top-10 finishes while leading a total of just 155 of 4,446 laps completed.

    In his first 24 career starts at Daytona, he claimed two victories (one Daytona 500 and one Coke Zero 400 in July), five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes while leading 178 of 3,815 laps per racingreference.com.

    Those numbers suggest a guy who knows how to keep his car mostly out of trouble to get to the end. It’s particularly worth noting that he has been able to finish in the top 10 in nearly half of his career starts in restrictor-plate events. Again, no small feat.

7. Matt Kenseth

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    Kenseth is another proven practitioner of patience when others around him seem to panic and chaos breaks out. That mentality serves him well at Daytona and Talladega.

    Kenseth also has a solid reputation of giving other drivers plenty of room when he’s attempting to pass them. Most other veteran drivers then afford him the same respect  whenever they can. That usually helps him keep his car in one piece and around for the finish.

    He’s won two Daytona 500s in addition to scoring one victory at Talladega (even though his first 500 win was rain-shortened).  He’s also led more than 600 laps at the two places in his career, indicating he can play both sides of the strategy game equally well.

6. Michael Waltrip

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    If he were running more than three Sprint Cup races this season (the July race at Daytona and both Talladega events), he probably would be ranked higher. But as good as he is at the restrictor-plate races, one has to wonder if there might be a little rust hampering him these days – especially with so little seat time in NASCAR’s new Generation-6 race car.

    Waltrip recently turned 50 and now is more into being owner of Michael Waltrip Racing than he is into actually getting behind the wheel. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to resist running at his two favorite race tracks, where he has scored all four of his Cup wins in a career that has spanned 29 years.

    No one is more experienced at finding the right drafting partner and knowing when to push or when to ask to be pushed, nor how to do it in every type of Cup car the governing body has put on the track over those nearly three decades.

    Considering he entered the 2013 season having run a total of nearly 17,000 Cup laps at Daytona and Talladega combined, that should rate as no surprise.

5. Jimmie Johnson

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    The five-time champion doesn’t shrink from the challenge of running in packs at high speeds at the restrictor-plate races. And sometimes he pays a high price for that by getting caught up in wrecks that relegate him to poor finishes. Other times, his high-risk, high-reward gambits pay off.

    Johnson believes in qualifying well and usually tries to stay near the front, unlike some other drivers who don’t worry much about where they’re going to start at 2.5-mile DIS or the 2.66-mile ‘Dega track. It’s paid off with a total of three poles – but his average finish is nearly eight spots lower than his average start at Talladega and the overall numbers are even worse at Daytona (9.6 average start, 18.2 average finish per racingreference.com).

    Despite all that, Johnson always has great Hendrick Motorsports teammates that he can draft with and he might be the smartest driver in NASCAR in terms of knowing when to lay back and bide his time and when to risk going for it. That’s why he’s been able to win two Daytona 500s, plus pull off a pair of wins at Talladega.

4. Brad Keselowski

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    The sample size for Keselowski isn’t as large for most of the other top drivers, as the defending Sprint Cup champion hasn’t been around nearly as long in NASCAR’s top national touring series. But who can forget his dramatic win in the 2009 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega, when he pushed Carl Edwards from fifth to the front over the final two laps and then passed Edwards coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap?

    Edwards’ ill-timed attempt to block Keselowski nearly sent Edwards and his race car into the grandstands that day, and threatened to overshadow the fact that the then-relatively unknown Keselowski had pulled off one of the sport’s great upsets while driving for underfunded owner James Finch.

    Keselowski backed that up with another victory at Talladega in 2012 en route to his Cup title, giving him a pair of victories in just his first eight career restrictor-plate races. He obviously has a knack for making the right moves at precisely the right time on the restrictor-plate tracks and is a threat at any time to score his first win at Daytona.

3. Tony Stewart

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    Stewart seems to love running up front at Daytona and Talladega, which is the opposite strategy of many other drivers who lay back and wait to make their moves to the front toward the end of the restrictor-plate races.

    You want evidence? He had led nearly 1,000 laps at the two tracks in his career heading into this spring’s Talladega race. He’s still chasing that first Daytona 500 victory, but he owns four wins in the July race at DIS and beat out upstart Regan Smith for a controversial win – the only one of his career – at Talladega in 2008.

    He’s led a remarkable total of 665 laps at Daytona. It seems only a matter of time until he finally wins there in February, too, and then his restrictor-plate resume will be complete.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Rise up, Junior Nation! If there is one place besides Michigan where he’s a threat to get back to Victory Lane every time, it’s Talladega. To a lesser extent, that holds true at Daytona as well.

    Earnhardt ranks second amongst active drivers in laps led at Talladega, where he brought the crowd to its feet a total of 737 times while scoring five victories in his first 26 career starts (per racingreference.com). Earlier in his career, he drafted frequently with then-DEI teammate Michael Waltrip at both ‘Dega and Daytona with great success. He owns two wins at Daytona, including the 2004 Daytona 500.

    There is an art to drafting and Earnhardt understands it better in the new Gen-6 car than he did in the old COT. Besides, what other driver is going to refuse his request to draft or screw Earnhardt by bailing on him at the end and survive the wrath of the vast Junior Nation fan base?

1. Jeff Gordon

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    Sure, it’s been a while since Gordon has won at either place (2007 at Talladega and 2005 at Daytona). But he won the pole last spring at Talladega and finished second behind race winner Matt Kenseth there in the fall. And the career numbers scream that he’s still the best of the current lot of active drivers.

    It’s not only about the wins. He has six each, by the way, at Daytona and Talladega. But he also had registered 27 top-five and 38 top-10 finishes at the two tracks heading into the spring race at ‘Dega. He had led the staggering totals of 839 laps at Talladega and 621 at Daytona over his career, with also included three poles at each venue (per racingreference.com).

    Gordon has excellent Hendrick Motorsports teammates with which to draft – but unlike Earnhardt, who could be content with pushing a teammate or even another driver to the win and settling for second, Gordon hides a ruthless streak behind his boyish good looks and will do just about anything to get back to Victory Lane.

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