The race is not always to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong….
– Ecclesiasticus –
Sunday’s Talladega race was not at all what many of us expected or dreaded in the week leading up to the event. There were no big, huge smoking pig-piles of wrecks and blessedly nobody got hurt. Whether that was the result of a kind and benevolent God who has decided we, as Americans have suffered enough during this presidential campaign or not is debatable.
I’m guessing it probably had more to do with the fact some of the fastest teams and drivers basically decided to sit this one out.
Naturally, those teams and drivers didn’t actually sit out the race. The rules state to be championship eligible a driver must start every event or at least attempt to qualify unless granted a medical exemption. But even before the green flag dropped the Nos. 18, 19 and 20 cars dropped to the apron and allowed the pack to pass them during the parade laps. Obviously, this fallback wasn’t the first time such a strategy has been used. The fact all three teammates had plotted to ride around together in the back of the field from the start, though then work together to get to the front was dirty pool in my book. (Curiously enough this same team, JGR, used the exact opposite strategy at the first plate race this season, the Daytona 500, flying in formation at the front of the pack all afternoon along with erstwhile teammate Martin Truex, Jr.)
Like I’ve said, this race wasn’t the first time a notable driver in a fast car dropped to the back of the pack at Talladega or Daytona. Such is the nature of plate racing, where huge wrecks often decimate more than half the field and the running order with three laps left to go is often turned upside down (along with various and sundry race cars) at the checkered flag. I think the Hendrick Motorsports teams even tried the trick en masse one time… but only once. The HMS cars were unable to get to the front when they decided it was time to go and a thoroughly peeved and frustrated Dale Earnhardt, Jr. insisted he would never go along with that strategy again. Earnhardt felt certain that the best way to stay out of trouble and win at a plate track was to run up front, preferably in the lead all day, and dent the floorboard below the loud pedal on the last lap. Given that Junior has won ten plate races his opinions on the topic hold some validity.
Somewhat comically, the NBC booth crew opined that the strategy the JGR cars was using wasn’t easy. One might think that it would be somewhat more difficult to be up in the front pack, running with traffic two and three-wide inches from all four corners of one’s race car but NBC felt otherwise. There was always the possibility that the less than intrepid threesome could lose scent of the draft entirely and go a lap down. What then? Well, perhaps Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth could have each removed the egg from the bottom of their throttle pedals and beat it.
What about pit stops? Wouldn’t they lose ground on green-flag stops? As Truex proved conclusively Sunday, no it wouldn’t hurt their efforts a bit.
But this particular Sunday the JGR team strategy, one people thought might only last a portion of the race played out differently. With Brad Keselowski’s dominant Ford sent to the garage with engine woes not long after Truex also blew one the Gibbs trio was virtually locked into the next round of the Chase, moving on even while they cruised around in the back of the field well off the pace and out of harm’s way. At that point, the teams’ strategists simply decided there was nothing to be gained by attempting to move forward. They’d done the math and realized that even finishing in the low to mid 30s in the running order wasn’t going to eliminate any of the three from the Chase. So Kenseth, Busch and Edwards never made an even half-hearted charge for the front toward the end of the race. In the end, Kenseth made the cut 10 points to the good, Busch had six points left to spare and Edwards four despite finishing 28th, 29th and 30th. With points not carrying forward to the next round there was no disincentive to playing it safe.
The fourth JGR driver, Denny Hamlin, had to be more aggressive. After losing an engine at Charlotte and finishing 30th, he arrived at Talladega six points behind the cutoff for eighth place. At the front of the pack Hamlin, forced by that blown engine to actually race to make the cut, was engaged in a cut-throat, teeter-totter of a battle with Austin Dillon for the eighth and final spot in the next round of the playoffs. After a questionable move to block while running third Hamlin had to count on a major solid from Kevin Harvick (already locked in the Chase by his win at Kansas) allowing him back in line which allowed the No. 11 to finish third by about two feet in front of Kurt Busch. That left Hamlin tied with Dillon but Hamlin got the nod on the first tiebreaker with his third-place finish in this round (that was better than a sixth for Dillon at Kansas).
You want to know why there was no big last-lap wreck on Sunday? It’s because Harvick didn’t need to win the race as he’d already made the next round. Had he not lifted to let Hamlin in they’d likely still be clearing debris from the track Tuesday morning. Kurt Busch must not have been kept current on the point totals because he was angry that teammate Harvick helped out another Chaser and cost Busch a position. After the race, Busch body-slammed Harvick’s Chevy on the cool-down lap which led to a confrontation on pit road after the race. One has to wonder where this sport is heading if there’s more passion on the cool-down lap than there is during the entire event.
As far as the results, it’s hard to argue with the strategy. All four of the Gibbs teams have made it to the next round of the Chase. Thus it’s four Toyotas, three Chevys and a single Ford still eligible for this year’s championship. And while the JGR squad was the most egregious in using the strategy it can be argued other teams did as well. Jimmie Johnson, for example clearly had a faster car than his 23rd-place finish indicates. But with Johnson locked into the next round, the result of a Charlotte win most of his race was spent prowling midpack trying to assist rookie teammate Chase Elliott in a quixotic effort.
“So what?” That’s what I know some of you are saying. You’re the one, Matt, who is always saying how dangerous plate track racing is, old dude. What the JGR guys did was smart. We’re talking perhaps a million dollars’ worth of race cars all returned to the transporters after the race with nary a nick on them. The exposure value to those four teams’ sponsors with all of them moving onto the next round are considerable. (NBC, once again decided to concentrate on the Chase (and Chase) more than the race so this might be the first time the driver who finished 28th got more air time than the fellow who finished second.) And of course, all four drivers left under their own power, never a given at a plate track. (Ask Kyle Busch. You can’t ask Dale Earnhardt.)
I can’t put any blame on Kenseth, Busch or Edwards. Clearly, based on their post-race comments they weren’t thrilled with how things played out; they just did what they were told.
So, yes it was a smart strategy and a valid one. What it wasn’t was sporting. Fans attend these races and watch them on TV to see the sport’s top drivers battle it out, giving everything they’ve got to claim the trophy. Fans of the Nos. 18, 19 and 20 who bought an expensive ticket to the race hoping to see their boy win instead watched in slack-jawed horror as they cruised at the back of the pack. Even if they were fans of another driver, say, race winner Joey Logano, part the thrill of seeing who you pull for win is that they beat the best in the business that particular afternoon — including the drivers you possibly don’t much care for.
Sunday’s race is a damning indictment of both plate racing and the Chase format. The nature of this style of racing is such that skill and a good mount don’t count for much. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you get taken out all the same by someone else’s miscue. I’m certain given a chance to simply sit out the race both Harvick and Johnson, who were already locked into the next round would have stayed home. The Chase format also negates the need to run as best as possible every race. Two of the drivers eliminated Sunday, Keselowski and Truex Jr. each won four races this season. The other two drivers eliminated have yet to win a Cup race in their careers much less this year. Kurt Busch, who continues to the next round has only won once through the first 32 events.
It would seem NASCAR has realized the folly of having a plate race also serve as an elimination event. In 2017 Talladega and Kansas swap places so Kansas will serve as the elimination race and it’s a lot less likely you’ll see teams adopting the “cowardly lion” strategy. Until then, Dorothy, thank God we’re not in Alabama anymore.
Wow, I guess there really is a drought going on in the Southeast (other than the Carolinas, of course.) With all that dead grass and dust at the track I was expecting to see Tom Joad at the wheel of an antique Ford as pace car driver. (Not trying to cause trouble here. Just passing this along because I thought it was funny.) In the upcoming election most Kyle Busch fans will vote for Donald Trump. Most Jimmie Johnson fans will vote for Hillary Clinton. Most Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans will vote for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Speaking of Dale Junior, how much clout does he have in the sport? Earnhardt was able to crash the broadcast booth at Talladega without having to wear a tie.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.