Going By the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday April 30, 2013
The last time NASCAR’s national series visited a restrictor plate superspeedway, this column focused on the kings of the restrictor plate in NASCAR, and the drivers who should be called the best versus those that are popularly considered to be such.
This time, with Talladega in our sights, we’ll focus again on drivers who tend to finish well while plate racing. While it may be about the wins in the long run, it’s also rewarding to simply make it to the end of a restrictor plate race these days. With the introduction of tandem competition, the subsequent return of the pack and the always looming “Big One,” each turn is treacherous, every closing lap more harrowing than the last. Once it’s crunch time, you tend to see racers really going for broke.
It reflects in the finishes. A significant amount of the plate races’ final laps are marred by accidents, many of which take out a huge chunk of the field as it races to the checkered flag. Whether it’s a tandem trying to snake through a tight pack or a driver miscalculating a blocking move, one can be fairly certain that there’s going to be some fireworks at the end of a Daytona or Talladega race.
With every wreck, there has to be mangled cars, but with every wreck also comes a benefactor, someone or someones able to get through unharmed, either because he or she was in front of the incident, driving ability or sheer dumb luck. Sometimes the winner might be a shocker, like James Buescher’s improbable victory in the 2012 DRIVE4COPD 300 despite being far behind the leaders going into the final turns. That’s just part of the plate racing intrigue.
Someone has to be the last man/woman or men/women standing, not just as the winner but as the teams fortunate enough to finish without totaling their car in the final turn. Since 2010, that man has been Kevin Harvick.
Aptly nicknamed The Closer, Harvick won twice on the superspeedways in 2010 and finished second and seventh in the other two races. When it comes to not only finishing these races but also remaining in contention during it, there’s been no one better than Harvick since the turn of the decade. Starting at the 2010 Daytona 500, he’s racked up seven top-10 finishes, the most of any active driver entered this weekend at Talladega.
Top 10s are important because while drivers outside the distinction might have finished the race, the 10 best drivers are those who were able to come away with more than just an intact car. I’ve called Harvick plate racing’s new head honcho, and his ability to maneuver through to the finish at these treacherous tracks only furthers that distinction.
He’s not the only driver you might expect to be running toward the front when the racers cross the finish line Sunday. Hot on Harvick’s heels are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer, all of whom have scored six top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega since 2010. This crop of veterans has been able to keep their cool toward the end of each race to piece together some solid showings.
Barring Keselowski, the rest of that group, including Harvick, have been around the series a little longer. Perhaps their ability to both run well and avoid incident at these tracks is a testament to experience. Or maybe, again, dumb luck.
In all, 36 of the 45 entered drivers have made it through the Big One, if such a thing even occurs during the race, en route to a top 10 since 2010 at superspeedways. Nine entrants are still looking for that elusive notch on the scoring bracket, including Terry Labonte (who, make no mistake, has had better results earlier in his career), Joe Nemechek (same), Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, David Stremme, Landon Cassill, Josh Wise, Aric Almirola and Elliott Sadler.
It’s always tough to say for sure who will be running at the finish of a restrictor plate race, especially when a huge crash is involved, but if you had to make a bet on who will be around, Kevin Harvick, as well as Childress teammate Jeff Burton, who has been one of the better finishing drivers in the last two years, are great decisions if you want guys who will not only be around at the end, but will also provide a solid, if not fantastic finish in addition. Conversely, Petty teammates Ambrose and Almirola might be due for a good showing, but past statistics are fairly troubling.
Sometimes, merely getting to the finish is a victory in and of itself. These guys should pat themselves on the back for simply being there at the end more often than many of their peers, and when the closing laps hit Sunday, keep an eye on them as they traverse through the field on their way to the front, if they’re not there already.
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