They say the Car of Tomorrow is built to withstand bumper-to-bumper contact far better than any stock car in history.
Well, I have two words to say to that: Thank God.
Sunday’s race at Talladega resembled the atmosphere of a short-track slugfest, with cars exchanging punches at a cool 190 mph across NASCAR’s fastest facility. While the restrictor plates were still in place, the excitement they produced was unrestricted, as drivers didn’t hesitate to bump and bang their way to the front in the third race with this current package. While a single-file freight train was a legitimate fear – the fall race resembled a parade for the first 300 miles until drivers started taking chances – it turned out there was no reason to worry as the car came into its own. 52 lead changes among 20 drivers illustrated that competition, not conservatism, had returned to restrictor-plate racing; and as drivers figured out the new style of drafting with this boxcar-type chassis, the buzzword to success spread quickly from the front to the back of the pack. Once vilified, the bumpdraft became a hero Sunday; after 188 laps of full-fledged contact, it proved that pushing and shoving was a necessity, not an option, in making your way to the front in this new world of the CoT.
“With these cars, we’re able to bumpdraft all the way through the corner,” said Talladega winner Kyle Busch. “So when you have two guys that know what they are doing and keep their car straight – and you don’t hit somebody too hard and just sit on them nicely, it really works. You can use it to your advantage really well.”
And use it they did; the pull out maneuver was the pass du jour on Sunday, with cars utilizing draft lock to come together and speed ahead of the pack in front of them. All day long, small-time freight trains would push back and forth through the yo-yo of restrictor-plate madness; after years of side-by-side lines that would stretch 10 or 15 cars, all you needed was two to tango and you could work your way to the front, regardless of whatever else was going on. With the difference the move produced approaching 10 mph, it made for less restriction and more racing between groups of cars that used to be stuck together like glue.
“A lot of it has to do the with fact when you get bumpers sealed together [with these cars], it’s becomes like a qualifying run for the car in the back,” said third-place finisher Denny Hamlin. “So, when you actually make contact, it’s almost like suction; it sucks up more than what it would normally, [and you gain speed].”
Of course, you needed a dancing partner for your train to leave the station; and that’s where irony parked itself a front-row seat as the laps counted down on Sunday. In a race where formerly risky maneuvers became a necessary evil, it was only appropriate that two of NASCAR’s most villainous drivers teamed up to make a name for themselves up front.
For with the checkered flag in sight, no one was mastering the push and shove style better than Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. The two drivers whose aggression is known more for biting them at this track more than anything else – neither driver had finished in the top 10 at Talldega prior to Sunday – the CoT threw their old problems right out the window. No longer do you have to play a game of chess to lead to restrictor-plate success, neither drivers’ strong point; instead, you just find your drafting partner, hook to their rear bumper, and charge from the rear to the front.
That’s exactly what both of them did in the closing laps.
“I really helped Kyle,” said Montoya afterwards, unabashedly taking credit for playing the caboose in their 1-2 finish. “When you could get into someone’s bumper, you could push him all the way around the lap and make up a bunch of ground.”
“Montoya, man he was pushing,” added Busch. “He didn’t want to get off the back bumper of this thing, so that was pretty awesome.”
Of course, both drivers had no problems pushing people out of the way in the process. While running in the top five, Montoya turned the No. 15 of Paul Menard in the rear quarterpanel with 27 laps remaining. Spinning through the grass, Menard saw the best run of his young career relegated to a 14th-place finish; leaving the track without comment, he likely wasn’t a fan of the bad boy tandem kicking butt and taking names.
Nor was Jamie McMurray, who nearly turned Busch straight into the wall during the same time frame. Fighting to establish a draft with the No. 18, Busch blocked McMurray, and the two made contact down the back straightaway in what appeared to be a wreck waiting to happen; but while the right rear of Busch’s Toyota was hooked towards the outside wall, both drivers recovered in an amazing save that’s likely to be on highlight reels for years to come.
“I thought I was going out of the park,” said Busch. “Luckily, somehow we got off each other and we kept it straight.”
A handful of laps later, Busch was in the lead and McMurray was wrecked, the victim of the restrictor-plate Russian Roulette game that Busch and Montoya usually lose. Instead, the No. 26 proved merely a spectator to the dynamic duo’s brilliance as the two dazzled the crowd heading to the checkered flag.
For both, the race represented an epic recovery. Busch fell a lap down early after being blocked on pit road during a green flag stop; failing to reach his stall, he had to pit a second time and took until lap 118 to get back on the lead lap. There, he eventually found Montoya, a mid-pack performer for most of the day until putting himself at the right place at the right time to hook up with first teammate David Stremme, then Busch to work through the field in the No. 42 Dodge. Now, both are Chasing larger goals; race winner Busch sits 22 points out of the top spot in the standings, while Montoya’s runner-up performance with new crew chief Jimmy Elledge left him clinging to the 12th and final spot. It was a day neither envisioned based on past history; but as the race unfolded, it fell right into their lap.
“It was an exciting race,” said Busch from Victory Lane. “There was times where it got a little crazy, but it all worked out.”
And with that, the Talladega race finished off its dramatic turnaround. Let’s hope it only gets better from here on out.
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