Is the Daytona 500 rigged? The race itself may not be, but a lot of people think that qualifying for the race might be. There was a time when Formula One and NASCAR were pretty much it when it came to motorsports. Fans would flock from around the world to attend races. Grandstands were packed. Television ratings were through the roof.

NASCAR Daytona 500

Not any more. The digital universe now offers people hundreds of options when it comes to watching sporting events on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Both NASCAR and Formula One are hemorrhaging fans and that is costing them a lot of money. Formula One is always fiddling with its rules, trying in vain to “spice up the show” to get fans back in the seats and in front of screens. Could NASCAR be doing something similar?

According to The Drive, NASCAR hit its peak in 2004. Since then, attendance and television ratings have fallen off a cliff. Things got so bad, the sport stopped releasing official attendance numbers in 2012. NASCAR has been ruled by the iron fist of the France family since the Eisenhower Administration. Before this year’s race, the family sank $400,000,000 into renovating the famous Daytona race track. They added Jumbotrons and wifi. They came up with a multicolor seat paint scheme to make empty grandstands look full on TV. They also removed 45,000 seats.

Coincidence in not causation, they say, but a look back at who the pole winners at Daytona were the past several years makes a person suspicious. First of all, understand that the Daytona 500 is a big deal. It is like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the World Series all rolled into one for NASCAR fans. The sport does everything in can to hype the event.

Last year, it was Jeff Gordon’s final run at Daytona. The year before that, Austin Dillon, grandson of  Richard Childress, was driving a No. 3 car for the first time since Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died while driving a Childress car at Daytona in 2001. Before that Danica Patrick was starting her first full season. Gordon, Dillon, and Patrick all won pole for the Daytona 500 in those years.

This year, the story was about rookies, particularly Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, otherwise known as Million Dollar Bill or Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. Chase Elliott promptly went out and set the fastest qualifying time, giving NASCAR precisely the kind of pre-race buzz it so desperately craves.

His time was a full 10th of a second faster than anyone else — an eternity in the rarefied upper echelons of stock car racing. Jeff Gordon, now sitting in the broadcast booth instead of behind the wheel of a race car, saw how much speed Elliott found between qualifying rounds and exclaimed: “That was a huge pickup! We didn’t think anyone was going to get a pickup like that.”

NASCAR Restrictor Plate

How is it possible that the person leading the NASCAR personality parade wins the pole again and again and again? The answer may be that Daytona is one of only two tracks that use a restrictor plate in the intake tract of the engines to limit horsepower. It is made from aluminum and has four holes drilled through it. Originally, those four holes were located directly over the four venturis in the carburetors. While carburetors are no longer allowed, the design of the restrictor plate remains the same.

An infinitesimal change in the diameter of those holes will allow more air to pass through. More air means more power. Simple as that. An unidentified NASCAR source tells The Drive, “For qualifying and the race events, NASCAR provides the restrictor plates. NASCAR officials install the plate. The team does not touch the plate during the installation process. Once the race and/or qualifying is concluded, NASCAR officials remove the plate. The team does not touch the plate during the removal process.”

Throughout the years, there have been dark mutterings in the pit lane about one driver or one team getting special treatment from NASCAR to get the results it thinks will lead to the highest ratings. It’s called “getting the tap.” Suddenly, people from NASCAR tap somebody on the shoulder, a car disappears into the garage. When it comes out, it is inexplicably faster.

During a radio interview on Sirius, Tony Stewart went on a rant about how NASCAR manipulates the racing.  “They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it. It’s happened too many times this year. I guess NASCAR thinks, ‘Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it’s going to work in racing, too.’ I don’t think they’ve run a fair race all year long.”

Does any of this prove anything? Of course not. But it may get you to watch a race this year, just to see if you can catch NASCAR in the act.

Photo credits: The Drive