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You can't help wondering, every time you drive through the tunnel into Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and behold the sheer vastness -- 2.66 miles around, with those 33-degree banked turns -- of what is still called "the World's Fastest Track."

Just how fast could Nextel Cup cars be running there by now, if not for restrictor plates?

At today's qualifying for Sunday's Aaron's 499, it might take a lap average of 235 mph to win the pole. Maybe more.

Reality, with plates, is that the pole will be somewhere in the usual 190 range. Maybe lower.

Last June, Rusty Wallace, to get an idea, ran a test at Talladega without a restrictor plate on his Dodge's carburetor. He clocked laps at 228 mph. And that was after an 18-year layoff from development of unrestricted engines for the track. Had the development been ongoing, along with matching aerodynamics, who knows -- 250?

That's what's so annoying about all this "need for speed" baloney as applied to NASCAR. This is a realm of close competition and entertainment, but the pushing of speed frontiers has long been bridled, stifled.

It was 18 years ago this spring that Bill Elliott set what remains the all-time NASCAR qualifying record, 212.809 mph, at Talladega. Three days later, in the race, Bobby Allison's car went airborne, almost got into the grandstands, and disaster was narrowly avoided.

It could have been worse than Le Mans in 1955, when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes went into the stands, killing him and 81 spectators.

NASCAR had seen enough at Talladega. Above all else, the paying customer must be protected. To keep the cars from flying, speeds must be kept under 200 mph.

The first race back at Talladega after the near disaster, in August '87, Tim Brewer, a tough crew chief for legendary team owner Junior Johnson, stood and listened to the garage-area debate. The first stopgap was smaller carburetors, and for '88, plates would be mandated.

Brewer took in all the talk, grinned, and began, "Tell you what: You could announce a race here where everybody gets to run what they want. No restrictions. You could pay $500,000 to win, and not a dime from second place on back.

"You could sell tickets for $200 apiece, and tell every spectator that on his way in, he had to sign a complete waiver of liability. And on race day, the traffic would be backed up to the state lines in every direction, trying to get in."

No doubt about. At the Allison wreck scene on that fateful day, reporters were interviewing Dale Earnhardt fans who'd actually moved into seats closer to the track, right up against the ripped-down fence, seats that had been vacated by their original occupants. One reasoned for them all: "We figure that if our man Earnhardt can get out there and take a chance to put on a show for us, we can take a chance by being as close to him as possible when he comes by."

And there's no doubting it now. Such is the adventurism, the appetite for risk-taking among NASCAR fans themselves, that Brewer's ultimate showdown would sell out today.

Earnhardt was all for taking off the plates and letting 'em rip. And now his son wouldn't mind giving Talladega an all-out workout. Most drivers, publicly or privately, would like to try it.

"Absolutely, I'd be the first one to jump out there," says Tony Stewart, who is the only NASCAR driver who actually knows what it feels like to go 230-240 mph. As a rookie in the '96 Indianapolis 500, Stewart clocked race laps in the mid-230s before the Indy Racing League went on a slowdown campaign of its own.

"It would bring the driver back into it," Stewart says. "Instead of teams working so hard to build cars that are slick (aerodynamically), they could build cars that actually handle again.

"There's always talk about why we get into these big crashes (at Talladega and Daytona), and it's because there's 40 of us running in one big pack and we're so close you could throw a blanket over us."

Even increasing speeds into "the 215 to 220 mph bracket," Stewart maintains, "you wouldn't be able to run that close to each other because you'd have to move around on the racetrack to find clean air."

Fans always howl that they love plate racing because it's so close. Most don't realize that unrestricted racing at Talladega was even better. There was a draft, but the cars were nimbler in it.

Take the Winston 500 of 1984, which still claims the NASCAR record for lead changes, an astounding 75. And that's only the official ones, at the end of laps. It doesn't count the two or three times the lead might change hands down the backstretch alone.

Winner Cale Yarborough and the other leaders were in control of their own destinies that day, with sheer horsepower and nerve, rather than riding the capricious pushes and pulls of drafting lines.

Those heady days of a wilder NASCAR won't return. It's all more civilized now, and the precautions are understandable.

Still, you drive through that tunnel and behold that enormous banking, and you can't help thinking it's all kind of a pity, really.

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