TALLADEGA, Ala. -- As the speeds inched frighteningly close to 200 miles per hour at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR officials were adamant that everything was fine.
Then they slept on it.
NASCAR called a 6:30 a.m. crew chief meeting yesterday to hand out smaller restrictor plates to push the speeds back down before today's race on the freshly paved Talladega oval. The new plates knocked the speeds from Jeff Gordon's top mark of 198.689 miles per hour in practice to David Gilliland's pole-winning mark of 191.712.
``We tried to downplay it and we didn't want to make a knee-jerk reaction," NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said. ``We were hoping that the speeds would go the other way."
When they didn't after Friday's second practice session, NASCAR officials decided to err on the side of caution by slowing the cars. Despite the change, NASCAR did not work a practice session into the schedule so teams could adjust their cars with the new plates.
That infuriated five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of many drivers to visit the NASCAR hauler and lobby for some extra track time.
``At least give us 30 minutes to go out there and run a little bit. I need some laps on the track," said Earnhardt, whose speeds went from 196.600 Friday to 187.471 in qualifying.
Even though Gordon agreed the plates needed to be reduced out of safety concerns, he didn't mind the high speeds and agreed that NASCAR needed to offer additional track time.
Talladega is the fourth of the 10 Chase for the Championship races, and because of its three- and four-wide racing conditions, it's considered the wild card of the title hunt.
Now that's magnified because, in changing the restrictor plate, the cars need adjustments to their gear ratios, carburetor jettings, and maybe even minor changes to the bodywork. But without a practice, it's a guessing game to get it right before the green flag falls for the start of the UAW-Ford 500.
``I would have liked to know what it would have done for us for gearing and for jetting the engines and those types of things," Gordon said. ``Those are important. They are things that I feel like we should have at least been given the opportunity to feel out.
``Now, we're basically just going out and qualifying completely blind -- and into the race as well. It's not a significant change. But if they have to put themselves against the wall to make that call, I think they should also consider changing the schedule a little bit."
This isn't the first time NASCAR has made a plate change in the middle of a race weekend. It happened here in October 2000, when practice speeds reached 198 m.p.h.
The late Dale Earnhardt went on to win that race, the last of his 76 career victories.
The current plate change is not sitting well with his son.
``The track is safe," Earnhardt Jr. said. ``My mom could drive a car out there. It's ridiculous. It's so dang easy you wouldn't believe it. It's a piece of cake."