Once the dust had settled at Talladega Superspeedway, Chase Elliott’s post-race thoughts probably echoed what a lot of fans were left thinking.
“I got to the end (of the race), and those guys around me were working together so much,” Elliott said. “I thought for sure one of them wanted to win a little worse than what they did. They were being very patient with one another, and I was surprised by that.
“If it was me, I feel like I would have wanted to try, or do something,” Elliott added. “Those guys weren’t having it. I was trying to move forward, and make a lane, and push, and they were not interested in advancing.”
To clarify, “those guys” are the other top four finishers: winner Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. In the closing laps of the GEICO 500, Busch and Harvick rode behind Logano as the laps ticked away, unwilling to make a move that might risk their advantageous spots in the draft. Therefore, it is easy to understand Elliott’s frustration about drivers who seemingly did not want to win.
Even so, one driver talking about others not wanting to win seems like a serious charge. Harvick and Busch have reputations as hard-nosed, gritty competitors, the kind who seemingly would be unhappy with settling for second when the victory is on the line. So, what happened from their point of view?
“It just felt like I needed to do something different,” Busch said after the race. “I needed a run from behind. The No. 17 (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), once he broke up Kevin and I – I wanted to stay with Kevin. My plan was to roll with Kevin till the last lap and then slingshot by them on the outside. The No. 17, percentage chances say he was gonna be the strongest guy there at the end. He was there, I just needed him closer to my rear bumper to get that draft and to get that run.
“It just didn’t quite materialize,” Busch added. “I got outfoxed, I didn’t quite make the right move, and it’s a shame.”
Busch’s comments reflect the indecision that drivers face while racing at Talladega. Drafting strictly with Harvick probably would have increased Stewart-Haas Racing’s chances of winning, and it would have guaranteed that Busch would be within reach of a drafting partner until the last lap. However, he seemed to recognize after the race that he needed Stenhouse’s help as well and that the move should have happened before the last lap.
Harvick’s comments are a little more perplexing.
“The problem is, the Fords are so fast we had five or six of ‘em lined up down there on the bottom,” Harvick said. “Kurt went to the outside a lap before I was ready to go and wound up getting hung out there.”
Restrictor-plate racing has always included an element of finding the right allies to work with at the right time. As Harvick notes, the Ford teams had a plan at Talladega, and they executed it to perfection from the manufacturer standpoint. Many of the Ford teams pitted together and ran in long drafts throughout the day. The game plan was very reminiscent of how the Toyota teams approached the 2016 Daytona 500. Comprehensive manufacturer drafting schemes are not easy to pull off, but Ford did it as well as Toyota did it at Daytona two years ago. Manufacturer teammates were not the cause of Sunday’s anticlimactic finish.
What is more troubling is how Harvick and Busch both mentioned a plan to team up and draft past Logano on the last lap. Even as teammates, such a move seems like it would have a small chance of working. What if a wreck happened on the final lap before Busch and Harvick made the move? The race could have easily ended before either of them really tried to pass Logano.
More importantly, the last lap slingshot has been difficult to master with the Gen 6 car. Unlike the Car of Tomorrow restrictor plate package, being the leader is an advantage under the current rules. Part of the reason that Logano has been successful at restrictor plate racing in recent years is because of his willingness to make aggressive moves that put him in the lead throughout the course of the race. After Logano broke away from the pack on the lap 172 restart, he pulled a half-dozen drivers with him in the low line, separating himself from the driver leading the high line. From that point on, it was Logano’s race to lose.
Any serious attempt to pass Logano needed to be happening before the last lap. Given that Busch and Harvick are the ones driving the cars, they had to have known that they could not wait until the last minute. Yet it was understood that they would wait until the final lap anyway. Why?
Unfortunately, the aversion of the SHR drivers to risky gambles is a part of plate racing. Drivers who jump out of line in the closing laps might be able to draft up to the lead if they get enough support behind them. They might also fall all the way out of the top 10, completely ruining any chance to win.
Busch and Harvick could have tried to make a move with 10 or five laps to go, but if nobody had gone with them, they would have been sunk. Also remember that they were at the end of a 500-mile race at Talladega, a mentally and physically taxing contest that just as easily could have ended with them getting swept up in a crash. Essentially, for a driver in Harvick or Busch’s position, the risk of throwing away a good finish does not outweigh the potential reward of a victory.
Looking at the end of Sunday’s race from Harvick’s and Busch’s point of view helps us understand why they were unwilling to make bold moves. However, empathizing with them does not change the problem of the optics being bad. Even if fans understand why drivers do the things that they do, the fans want to see drivers fighting for wins until the last second. Talladega presented fans with another scenario showing how drivers and fans approach the sport with different values, as well as the conflict between how drivers do their job and what fans want to see in a race.
The simple solution to this problem would be to increase the base number of points awarded for winning. Not counting stage points, Logano received 40 points for winning while Busch earned 35 for second. What if the race winner received 20 or 30 more points than the second-place driver as a base total? A larger point payout for the winner would encourage drivers to make those risky moves in the name of earning a bigger reward. It would also give more credence to NASCAR’s assertions that winning is most important for the drivers.
Until then, we will only get more drivers at plate tracks who are happy just to have a chance at victory. And if drivers who will do anything to win is going to be part of NASCAR’s marketing strategy, being happy to finish is not good enough.