Matt Stallknecht · Friday October 18, 2013
Talladega. A facility so infamous, it needs no introduction. Many in the NASCAR world hate its very existence. Another portion thinks it’s the greatest track in the sport. No matter where you fall on the spectrum when it comes to superspeedway racing, it is impossible to deny how much is on the line in this weekend’s race. We have what is shaping up to be a title fight for the ages between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. We have Chasers looking to make a last ditch effort to stay in contention. We’ve got non-Chasers looking to replicate David Ragan’s underdog run to the checkers in May. There are a myriad of items to address in this week’s edition of Four Burning Questions, so let’s not waste any more time and get right to it.
1. Will the 100% rule become an issue this weekend?
As much as it pains me to admit this, there is usually a lot of sandbagging that takes place in the Fall race at Talladega. Every year, a handful of Chase drivers will ride around at the back of the pack for the duration of the event in hopes of missing “the Big One.” As any astute student of superspeedway racing knows, this strategy is flawed due to the extreme difficulty in getting back to the front of the field in the waning laps of a race. It is, to put it lightly, the most idiotic excuse of a race strategy in modern day NASCAR, a strategy that is predicated on a theoretical accident that may or may not happen.
The sad reality is that a few Chase teams are going to employ this inane strategy once again. That is pretty much inevitable. The real question that many in the NASCAR world have been asking this week in regards to this strategy, however, is whether or not this strategy (along with a number of other superspeedway racing tactics) violates NASCAR’s vaunted 100% rule.
By the definition of the rule, the “lay back” strategy absolutely violates the 100% rule. So too does the common tactic of one teammate intentionally giving up spots on the track to help another teammate that has lost the draft. No one in the garage area truly knows where the line is in regards to any of these tactics, especially given NASCAR’s implication that big penalties will be served to any team that violates the 100% clause.
With an obvious fear of crossing the line held by many in the garage area, it would appear that only two outcomes could possible come of this whole ordeal. Either a) all of the drivers will race all-out in fear of violating the 100% rule, or they will b) ride around in a single-file protest in response to NASCAR’s officiating, a la Talladega 2009. Until the driver’s meeting is held, there really is no way to tell what will happen or what will be enforced. Not exactly the best way to kick off a race weekend, to be sure.
2. Will another underdog see Victory Lane?
Yes, David Ragan won the Spring Talladega event. Yes, it was a great feel-good story and a true triumph for the sport’s underdog contingent. No, it is not going to happen again this weekend.
I am sorry if I just burst some of your collective bubbles, but underdog driver/teams do not win superspeedway races with enough regularity to be considered viable/smart picks heading into a race weekend. It is not a smart way to forecast a race. I can’t tell you how many times this week I’ve seen fellow prognosticators pick drivers like JJ Yeley, Josh Wise, or Michael McDowell to win the race. It is, to be frank, pure lunacy. So let me set the record straight…
Talladega is NOT a roulette wheel. Do not act or be fooled into thinking it is. There is a careful and predictable formula for success at Talladega that rewards drivers who work the draft most effectively and have the most aerodynamic race cars. Underfunded teams generally have neither of these things. “Underdog” David Ragan won the Spring Talladega not due to luck, destiny, or “being in the right place at the right time.” He won because he is one of a small group of highly skilled superspeedway racers…a group that does not include any other drivers driving for underfunded teams save for MAYBE David Gilliland. Ragan is the only one worth his salt on plate tracks, and I’d still laugh at anyone who is realistically picking him to win this race.
The numbers all indicate that the guys who tend to dominate on “regular tracks” tend to own superspeedway races too. As such, do not be fooled into thinking Dave Blaney actually has a realistic shot to win. Pick plate race aces like Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, or Jimmie Johnson instead, and you will undoubtedly have a more accurate race forecast. Bank on it.
3. Will the race be a snoozefest or a sizzler? How hard will it be to pass?
In terms of forecasting what the actual on-track product is going to look like, superspeedway events are notoriously difficult to predict. No two superspeedway races are quite the same. As such, we can only go off of recent history when determining how the race figures to play out.
We know that it is much harder to pass with the Gen 6 car on plate tracks than it was with the Gen 5. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it rewards the drivers and teams who have better cars since they are better able to protect their on-track real estate, but it lessens the overall intensity of the event. Ultimately, the Gen 6 car does not suck up nearly as well as the Gen 5 did, which means more effort and skill is required to execute passes, similar to the way plate racing worked with the Gen 4 car.
That being said, there is reason to believe that Sunday will still be an exciting affair. The Spring race proved that three-wide racing and passes for the lead are both possible if the right cars are connected in the draft with one another. This current superspeedway package has come quite a long way since Daytona Speedweeks, so there’s reason to believe that raw passing ought to be more plentiful simply due to across the board improvements among the teams.
All told, I would expect it to look like a mid-2000s Talladega race with lots of shuffling in the middle of the pack, plenty of two and three wide action, and a propensity for the better cars in the field to stay at or near the front. This ought to reward guys like Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, both drivers who have feasted on this newly defensive-oriented restrictor plate aero package. It should be an interesting event nonetheless.
4. Will a championship contender have to use his mulligan?
At this point in the Chase, there are five legitimate championship contenders left with any hope of capturing the title: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. Of those five, it is safe to assume that at least two of them will employ the “lay back” strategy (which, by extension, means that those two teams will be losing points).
It is impossible, however, to predict which drivers will employ the strategy, especially considering the fact that the strategy itself is extra risky with this aero package due to the increased difficulty in passing. What we DO know is that Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are the two best drivers in the current superspeedway aero configuration. Both have shown a penchant for running towards the front in 2013 plate races, and if they do so again, they will very likely miss the Big One and thus protect their points advantage.
Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch, on the other hand, have not been quite as fast in the current superspeedway aero format. Gordon in particular has been a non-factor in the plate races this season, often finding himself stuck in the most dangerous part of the pack. Busch and Harvick have both shown a great deal of strength in plate races this season, but not enough to consistently keep themselves out of the hornet’s nest.
If a Big One strikes, Gordon would seem to be the one most vulnerable to getting caught up in it if recent history is any indication of what is to come. Kenseth and Johnson’s incredible strength in plate races this season make them good picks to miss the wreck, and as such, I am predicting that Gordon, Harvick and Busch will once again lose points this weekend.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Bank of America 500:
1. 20-Matt Kenseth
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
3. 99-Carl Edwards
4. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
5. 15-Clint Bowyer
6. 16-Greg Biffle
7. 29-Kevin Harvick
8. 1-Jamie McMurray
9. 22-Joey Logano
10. 34-David Ragan
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