The Frontstretch: Side By Side: Should Talladega Have A Spot In The Chase? by Matt Stallknecht and Tom Bowles -- Wednesday October 16, 2013

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Side By Side: Should Talladega Have A Spot In The Chase?

Matt Stallknecht and Tom Bowles · Wednesday October 16, 2013


Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both to you, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!

This Week’s Question: With its reputation as more of a crapshoot than a race and the potential to cost a deserving driver the title, should Talladega Superspeedway continue to have a race date in the Chase?

Talladega, Trickier Than It Seems, Should Stay In
Matt Stallknecht

Should Talladega have a spot in the Chase? Is that even a question? Of course it should have a spot in the Chase! That is an incredibly silly thing to ask, in my opinion. To me, that is tantamount to asking whether or not Martinsville should be in the ten-race playoff. God forbid somebody dare ask something like that!

Superspeedway racing (I choose not to use the term “plate racing” due to the fact that the basic style of racing at the two superspeedways would be largely the same with or without the plates, no matter what anyone will tell you) is a unique form of competition. As such, it requires a unique skill set just like road courses and short tracks. Well, guess what? The Chase is supposed to test every skill that a driver and team possess. Talladega tests a variety of skills that the other nine Chase tracks do not (I have listed some of those skills a few paragraphs down). By not including a superspeedway race, like Talladega in the playoffs then many critical components to driving would go untested. That’s pretty much your answer in a nutshell right there.

Does Talladega, and the pack racing it brings with it, belong in the Chase…

The real question in my eyes is why do fans and media members have this strange and, dare I say, ignorant belief that Talladega doesn’t belong in the Chase? For some unusual reason, some in the NASCAR world have this idiotic idea in their head that Talladega is “not real racing” or that it is in some way a “lottery.” Both of those statements are laughably inaccurate. Superspeedway racing, in contrast places an emphasis on skills that drivers don’t readily use in typical races.

What are they? Almost too many to list. Talladega puts a premium on passing, drafting, teamwork, thinking, defensive driving, raw wheel-to-wheel ability, quick reflexes, and a boatload of other skills that go largely untested in your typical intermediate track events, where the drivers largely hot lap over and over again. Superspeedways put a premium on the ability of the driver. It’s the reason why one of the most skilled superspeedway racers in modern day NASCAR, David Ragan, can win in an underfunded Front Row Motorsports machine at Talladega. That can’t happen on an intermediate track because the car itself is too important. At Talladega, it’s the driver, his bravery, his drafting skills, and his decisions that make the biggest difference — not the aero numbers or how sealed off his car is to the ground.

Some fans and media members do not seem to understand this point, though. The only aspect of superspeedway racing that makes it “crapshoot-y” is the propensity for the big wreck. In a theoretical superspeedway race that has no “Big One,” the “crapshoot-y” element would be removed, leaving the race to be decided by which drivers can work the draft the best and execute the correct defensive moves. Yes, the “Big One” is a factor, but avoiding that accident and knowing how to put yourself in a position to not get involved in it is just another factor that a driver is tested by at Talladega. Yes, you need some luck to miss the big wreck. You also need a hell of a lot of luck, especially in an underfunded machine to have success at other tracks.

In fact, I believe that is the misconception we are dealing with here. Just because big wrecks happen at Talladega does not make the actual “racing” at the facility a crapshoot. It makes it a “wild card,” for sure, but “the Big One” does not change the fact that a team needs a skilled superspeedway racer to find superspeedway success. It does not change the fact that a driver’s ability to perform at superspeedways should be a part of the skill set that the Chase is meant to test.

So as you watch the race at Talladega Sunday, I implore you to watch it in a different way. Instead of whining about the big wreck, pick out the drivers who are good superspeedway racers and learn to appreciate their craft. Take time to marvel at the beauty of a well-executed slingshot pass for the lead (something you won’t see at any other track, save for Daytona). Watch in awe as a veteran driver coordinates a group of others in a draft train headed towards the front. Learn how to appreciate a tactical block. Enjoy each unique superspeedway strategy that a driver employs. Appreciate the spectacle of 43 men and women somehow running effectively within inches of the cars and the walls.

I urge you all to look at this type of racing in a new way, enjoying it for what it is. Once you realize that a superspeedway is absolutely this unique and high-energy form of racing, separate from all other tracks that NASCAR visits, you will no longer view it as a crapshoot. Once and for all, you may even just realize why Talladega belongs in the Chase.

Wreck-A-Race To Decide A Series Champ? Thanks, But No Thanks
Tom Bowles

If there’s one thing this Chase has taught us, in 2013 it’s that there’s parity amongst the two top contenders. Halfway through, Matt Kenseth has two wins, paired with an average finish of 4.6 that’s kept him on top. Jimmie Johnson, in some ways is even better: his average is an eyebrow-raising 4.0. Both, if maintaining their success throughout the next five events, would set new records for NASCAR’s postseason era. While fans may hate the concept of a Chase itself, along with its consequences they can’t argue the way in which it’s being decided. Every week, both potential titlists (along with Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch) are running up front, leading laps and trading blows, punch-for-punch in a race that should come down to the wire.

Let me put the emphasis there on should. For on Sunday, at Talladega the battle for the championship really comes down to Russian Roulette. Will the big wreck start? Where? And in what helpless position will both Kenseth and Johnson be in when that 190 mile an hour gun goes off? The restrictor plates, combined with advancing technology have made cars at that track stick together, in a full 43-car pack like glue. Strategy plays a small part, along with drafting expertise but in this day and age, with so many competitors and no real way to let off the gas each driver finds themselves at the mercy of Lady Luck.

… or is the potential carnage better off for the regular season?

In the midst of such an even title race, it’s a shame that someone else’s silly mistake, setting off a 20-car wreck could end up deciding it. Right now, it’s clear both Johnson and Kenseth are primed to post top-10 finishes, if not top-5 it at every other track on the circuit; a 30-point loss would be near-impossible to make up without help. Sure, Chase disaster could also occur at Martinsville, the shortest track on the circuit where brakes and patience take center stage. But even there, where tempers flare, drivers have some sort of control over their fate. You can keep from hitting a rival’s rear bumper. You can conserve brakes and equipment over the course of green-flag restarts and long runs. Mentally, staying focused can still remove someone from most potentially dangerous situations there.

A driver has no such ability at Talladega. In fact, their ability is as meaningless as the brake pedal, each car running wide open like a trained monkey while simply waiting for the “roll the dice” moment where its drafting pack will either pull ahead, fall behind, or wreck itself. Hopefully, that dangerous hunk of metal they’re helpless to control doesn’t flip in the process.

Letting a playoff race hang in the balance like that is like playing a game of “rock, paper, scissors” after nine weeks of exceptional effort. It’s like flipping a coin, at the 50-yard line after watching a three-hour football game. Is that really what you want your fan base to remember? That this Chase was decided for one driver because everyone else got swept up in a wreck? It’s bad enough phantom debris cautions and “Spingate” have clouded integrity. This third possibility creates a carnival-like atmosphere.

It’s already too late to remove Talladega from the Chase slate come 2014. I still understand the importance of plate races; they’re unique, the fans love the fact underdogs can win and there’s an addiction no one can shake to seeing cars run death-defying speeds, four abreast. I just think you can run those two ‘Dega races in the regular season, in April and July so if anything, it gives one of those “David vs. Goliath” stories a chance to earn two wins and get in position to make the Chase. It’s a far better “steal,” in my opinion than pinning the championship trophy on some wild, last-lap 35-car dash where the ending is out of everyone’s hands. The best racers in America, at the top of their craft don’t deserve that.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Bill B
10/16/2013 07:16 AM

Boy Matt you really are on the losing side of this argument. You don’t think the Talladega/Daytona race is more of a lottery (aka, crapshoot) than the other 32 races. Just look at the top ten finishers at those tracks and compare them to the others. Guys (and girls) that normally are lucky to finish on the lead lap routinely get a decent finish at these crapshoot races.
I won’t say one RP race doesn’t belong in the chase but to not acknowledge that there is a crapshoot factor at work that isn’t present at other tracks it to piss on our heads and tell us its raining. We get enough of that from NASCAR leadership.

10/16/2013 08:07 AM

As long as there’s a Chase, any track where being lucky (or unlucky) can have such an impact shouldn’t be in the final 10 races. I’d much rather see a road course where individual driver skill can be displayed rather than the lack of skill by “surrounding” drivers that can occur at restrictor plate tracks.

10/16/2013 09:08 AM

“Instead of whining about the big wreck, pick out the drivers who are good superspeedway racers and learn to appreciate their craft. Take time to marvel at the beauty of a well-executed slingshot pass for the lead (something you won’t see at any other track save for Daytona).”

The last time I saw a slingshot was in the first Truck race at Daytona. How many cars does it take to pass the 48? Who tries?

The driver you pick to watch better be one of the few who get air time.

JD in NC
10/16/2013 12:03 PM

Matt’s wrong on this one. Let’s look at Tom’s Russian roulette analogy in a different way. There’s a bit of Russian roulette at any track but in more of a one small caliber bullet and five empty chambers sort of way. At Talladega its like a one shell in a double barrel shotgun type of Russian roulette. More of a 50/50 chance at getting taken out.

I guess one could argue it is a team sport and Talladega tests the crew’s ability at piecing a destroyed car back together with 50 pounds of bear bond and some new parts, so the driver can get back out on the track and gain a few points.

Plate racing is exciting, but doesn’t belong in the chase. Replace it with a road course.

10/16/2013 12:18 PM

Matt, I completely disagree with you. You are right that plate racing does require a specific skill set, but their is very little opportunity to control their own destiny. Getting caught up in someone else’s mistake is far more likely at Daytona & Dega than anywhere else due to the pack racing.

It is a crapshoot. Unfortunately NASCAR is apparently floating the bright idea that the season should begin and end at Daytona – oh joy, the beginning & ending race can both be chaos personified.

No, I don’t believe it belongs in the chase – I’d far rather have a road course.

10/16/2013 12:41 PM

the chase is a lie.
does talledega belong in the chase? sure. does it give the chase any integrity? nope. does it potentially change the chase’s out come? in my mind JD in NC’s bullet comparison is pretty accurate except that i say it makes no difference if it’s in the chase or not. what else can change the outcome of the chase? a fuel mileage race, a blown tire/engine, a broken leg, a dive bomb move into the first corner at phoenix, a deperate car trying to stay on the lead lap, a rain shortened race…

i repeat, the chase is a lie. the current championship does not reward the best driver. it rewards the team that can best play within and manipulate the ridiculous rule package that nascar has set. demonstrated on two ends of the spectrum by MWR and the 48 team. a Talledega “big one” does not change that.

10/16/2013 01:24 PM

Talladega absolutely belongs in the Chase. Superspeedway racing is what distinguishes NASCAR/Stock Car racing from all other forms of auto racing. The Chase should test drivers/teams on all disciplines of racetrack. That’s why the Chase needs a road course. Luck may be a big factor, but it is at every race to some extent. To me this is Chess at 200 MPH, and most of the time the best “plate racers” are the ones who find victory lane.

Richard Petersen
10/16/2013 02:33 PM

You people are crazy, Talladega belongs in the chase! The 10 race shootout should be all the tracks we go to (Mile an a half, short track, superspeedway, AND road course). If you wanna win this championship and get threw all the races, you gotta be pretty talented and able to contend for wins at those tracks.

Talladega brings excitement to and anything can happen. It can ruin someones championship hopes, or it can make someones year…which makes it really fun to watch too! Those that don’t want Talladega in the Chase are just crazy. If your driver wants to win a title, hes gunna have to perform at his best as ALL tracks, not just intermediate tracks.

Matt Stallknecht
10/16/2013 02:36 PM

As always, your comments are much appreciated and are certainly expected on such a hot button issue.

I think many of you are conflating the actual racing at Talladega with the “big wreck”. Anytime I talk to fans about Talladega, they never say the actual “racing” is a crapshoot, they invariably point to “the Big One” making the race a crapshoot. I don’t really disagree with this point. Missing the Big One requires some luck, but in order to truly understand superspeedway racing (which is what I have been urging you guys to try), you have to separate the “Big One” from the actual racing.

In terms of the actual racing itself, Talladega is in no way a crapshoot. It may appear that way, but it is not. It is a thoroughly unique form of racing that requires different skills and has different methods needed for success. The margins between 1st and 43rd Talladega are simply laid out over a smaller scale.

In order to be successful at Talladega, there is a very predictable formula of success that the top plate racers invariably follow. You need a fast car that can suck up well, and beyond that you need a very skilled drafter who is adept at outworking other drivers in the draft. On top of this, a driver has to stay up front.

This is a predictable formula that guys like Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have used over and over again for the past few years to yield plate racing success. THIS is why it is not a crapshoot. THIS is why it belongs in the Chase.

My ultimate goal for you guys with this column was to get you to think outside of what you have been led to believe about superspeedway racing. Look deeper. There is a much more complex form of racing going on outside of what fans normally perceive in a typical plate race.

In fact, you all should watch some old plate races in succession. You will see the patterns. You will see what it takes to be successful. You’ll see some of the nuances that go unnoticed when you haven’t seen a plate race in awhile. You’ll see the same cast of characters running at the front of the big packs.

Ultimately, there is just way more to this form of racing than luck and the Big One.

10/16/2013 03:17 PM

The last time I watched a ‘dega race from start to finish was the one that was on the Dale SR. box set DVD. I can’t remember the last one I watched on live TV.

I used to HATE road courses and now wish there were ten of them…with two in the dreaded chase.

Leave ‘dega in the chase…if only to maybe shake up the chase gimmick. It’s all about the show anyway.

Bill B
10/16/2013 04:04 PM

I do think Talladega belongs in the chase but the crapshoot factor goes well beyond the “big one”. Guys like David Ragan, David Gilliland, Scott Speed and even Danica can keep up with the big boys due to the restrictor plates creating false parity. At most tracks there are 20 cars that might be able to win. At the RP tracks there are at least 40. Even without a big one, cars that usually go a lap down in the first third of a race can stay with the leaders. If you don’t think that adds to the crapshoot factor then you aren’t looking at it from a probability and outcome point of view.

Bill B
10/16/2013 04:09 PM

One last thing,,, go look at the top ten finishers in the RP races for the last two years and tell me there aren’t some names in there that usually are multiple laps down at non-RP tracks. That’s what I call a crapshoot.

JD in NC
10/16/2013 10:38 PM

Oh I don’t disagree that there is a unique skillset that is involved with being a successful superspeedway racer. The whole Earnhardt being able to see the air and all, but you cannot decouple the big one from the racing. At the end of the day they only award points based on where you finished, not on how well you raced.

Let’s take Charlotte for example, by the last lap you race your way up to 7th. The leaders tangle and wreck…woo hoo! you finish 5th! Same situation at Talladega, you’re 7th,the leaders wreck each other the next thing you know you and 22 other drivers are sitting in a smoking heap in the infield and you finish 20th.