Restrictor-plate racing has always been seen as the great equalizer in NASCAR competition. The Nationwide Series, with their roof/wicker aero package that the Cup Series used in 2001 (but for some reason abandoned) punches quite a big hole in the air, usually producing the kind of competition we have become accustomed to over the years. But while Daytona is more of a handling track, Talladega emphasizes pure speed. Or – as Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying in Talladega Nights – “…hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.” With its newly-paved surface and three stories of banking, the fastest car usually stands a better chance of winning at Talladega more than anywhere else.
So, during Saturday’s Nationwide Series event, it was really no secret as to who had the best car. Tony Stewart’s No. 20 Old Spice Toyota was the class of the field, winning the pole and leading 81 of 117 laps, including the final 52 circuits. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have run second for much of the race and even led for 14 laps, but he and the rest of the field were never able to mount a serious charge on Smoke and his candy-apple red Camry. Stewart’s win in the Joe Gibbs Racing machine (Tony did not acknowledge his car’s make of headlight stickers) was the sixth Toyota triumph in 10 races for the Nationwide Series. For those of you as poor at math as I am, that’s 60% of the races this year which have been won by a Toyota. The Camrys of Jason Leffler and Mike Wallace also placed in the top 10, cementing their position as a major player in just their second year competing in NASCAR’s “junior” division.
The Sunday race was again dominated by Stewart, who did so in remarkable fashion. With the Car of Tomorrow removing most of the aerodynamic subtleties from the equation – as compared to the old car we had become accustomed to – horsepower has become the primary factor in getting around a superspeedway. Well, Stewart and the rest of the Toyota brood had no problem with that. Sunday was the first time in a long time that cars had been able to get near, let alone eclipse, the 200-mph mark while racing at Talladega.
I used to snicker at ESPN’s Draft Track which, when two cars were shown drafting during the race broadcast, would display the words “Draft Lock.” In my 25 years of watching racing, I had never heard that term used until the four-letter network started plastering it all over the screen. To be honest, I still didn’t really know what it was trying to convey with colored “wind” that really didn’t seem to be doing anything besides obscuring my view.
With the cars of Stewart and Earnhardt hooked nose to tail, telemetry showed the duo running nearly 10 mph faster than the rest of the pack at certain points. It was drafting the likes of which had not been seen; a continuous bumpdraft through even the corners and trioval of this 2.66-mile behemoth. Two cars actually being able to separate themselves from the pack was not quite unlike, say, racing during the 1980s at Talladega or Daytona. Old excitement blended with new memories as the cars hooked up in two-car freight trains, resulting in bursts of speed that allowed them to work their way through the field with ease.
Denny Hamlin’s car was perhaps the best pusher of them all. While it was less impressive by itself out front (credit Earnhardt’s mastery of the side draft and that nifty outside move he kept using on Hamlin), he certainly had the power to make up nearly half a straightaway on the rest of the pack by remaining glued to the bumper of whomever he was working with.
“I had a car that just could do whatever it wanted to do,” he said after the race. “Whenever I wanted to pull up to somebody’s bumper, I would push him as long as my water gauge would let me, or as long as they could hang on to it.”
“That’s all you can ask for, to have a car as good as ours.”
And that brings us to the winner of the race. After Kyle Busch blew through pit road and missed his stall, he was forced to circle back around the track, putting him a lap down in the process with his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota. But once he finally got the lap back after a caution on lap 116 for Carl Edwards‘s second blown tire of the afternoon, there was really no question as to whether he would make it back to the front. Busch took the lead from Michael Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson virtually unassisted on lap 184 and held on for the win as the caution flag flew after the field had taken the white flag.
Busch’s win was Toyota’s third in nine races this year. If you consider that, by all rights, he or Stewart should have won the Daytona 500, and either Stewart or Hamlin would have won Bristol if not for late-race problems, it very well could have been JGR’s fifth win of the season. Now, keep in mind it’s still only April, Busch has only been with this group for a few months, and Hamlin and company are just hitting their stride. The only hiccup in JGR’s battle plan is their No. 20 Home Depot Camry entry, as it is becoming quite clear that Stewart’s future is most likely not going to include Toyota. If he’s not mentioning them by name in victory lane, it might have something to do with the relationship that Stewart has established with Chevrolet in the USAC Midget and Sprint Car series… one that may see him as a driver and part-owner of a Chevrolet Cup team in the near future.
But what is remarkable about what JGR has done this season is that this is Toyota’s second full year in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. Should the manufacturer land another established organization (any number of the struggling Dodge teams are fair game), future endeavors at superspeedways could turn out very similar to what we saw this past weekend. It means that two years after being the laughingstock at Daytona, Toyota could laugh everyone else out of the building in the Great American Race of 2009.
There is something that the Toyota teams have figured out between the fenders on the big tracks, and they seem to turn pretty well, too. Yes, there have been other teams and makes that have won this year in both series; but race after race, it seems as if the other cars come into play only after one of the Gibbs cars has done something to take itself out of contention. The bottom line is that these three cars by themselves could make for a very long summer for the 40 other teams they compete against each weekend. For as it stands right now, they’re the ones with more pure speed than anyone else.
And Talladega proved it.