NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Drivers Need More Incentive to Make the Move

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.

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janice

you could tell that no one was willing to risk being sucked back those last 5 laps of the race. these cars are like watching an iroc race. and why on earth isn’t chevy screaming loudly. i mean didn’t toyota get help a few weeks after their new model was a dud?

Bill B

If someone like Harvick and Kyle Busch won’t take the chance then changing the points structure isn’t going to do anything. These drivers both have 3 wins and are basically locked into the chase, additional points aren’t going to be that big of an incentive. You’d think that with 3 wins each they’d have nothing to lose by trying. A 5th place finish vs a 20th place finish shouldn’t matter to them but apparently it does for some reason.

Echo

It was Kurt Busch, not Kyle. If Kyle had been up there i have NO doubt that he would have gone for the win regardless the outcome.

Bill B

I know it was Kurt up front but I was just using the two drivers locked into the chase (Kyle and Kevin) as examples to question why they won’t take a chance when it comes to the end of the race.

Speaking of Kurt, I do believe they ran extra warm up laps to allow his team to fix their issue. And then, they let him have his starting place as if nothing had happened. Personally the race should start when it’s supposed to start. I don’t think the green flag should be held up for anyone (would it have been held up if it were Landon Cassill?). Secondly, if you can’t keep up with the pace car on the warm up laps you should have to start at the back.

SmarterThanYo

Agree completely about Kurt, first delaying the start of the race and then getting his original starting position back. If a driver has to start in the back because of a flat tire during qualifying, then a driver who pits for any reason during the warm-up laps should be forced to join the field at the back.

djrichiep

I am not defending Kurt’s starting position after his delay getting off pit road but, the delay was a bad radio, no communication with his crew chief or spotter. Perhaps a safety thing that NASCAR was willing to overlook? From the stands at the track, we thought he was playing a fuel mileage game but, he actually came on the track and took as many laps as the cars that were already out. Either way, I think he should have started in the rear, not that that matters at Dega or Daytona.

Echo

Once again, I repeat that I have never seen or questioned Kyle Busch trying to win every single race he is in. Everyone sees how pissed he is when finishing second, and for that he is called baby and a whiner. You can say that about Harvick if you want, but not Kyle. He was going for four in a row, if he had been in Kurt or Kevin’s position he would have pulled out of line by himself if necessary and given his all and cared less if it caused him to finish twentieth. Like him or not, he’s a true racer, not a driver or point racer.

bud sudz

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they had surveyed a Restrictor Plate race and wanted to bring the car home in one piece without any busted sheet metal or injuries.

When Dale Jr. was at the top of the Restrictor Plate Mountain, there would be racing until he made it to the point. After that, it was single-file, follow-the-leader and everyone was ok to finish second or third.

We don’t have to have carnage and drama at every retrictor plate race (or every race in general)

janice

oh i never want to see carnage at a race, especially plate tracks. they had enough of that just in practice on friday when jamie mac went flying.

SmarterThanYo

If plate racing means no passing without carnage, then why have plate races at all? Remember, the plates are just a “temporary safety measure” in the immortal words of Mike Helton. Take Dega and Daytona off the schedule or make them non-point exhibition races.

bud sudz

But that’s not going to happen because Dega does a better job of filling their seats than most other tracks. Every race is not going to be a perfect race. I went to a single file Dega race in the early 90’s and sat in 95-degree temps with only 3 cautions in the race. It happens. Why race at Indy? Why race at any of the 1.5 miles after a repave? It wasn’t a great race, but every race isn’t great. Thankfully, NASCAR didn’t manipulate the race with a GWC or a ton of waver arounds at the end (like at Richmond)

Upstate9fan

Maybe they should bring back the roof wickers? My thought on Sunday is that teams under estimated the importance of handling. Those cars looked evil to drive and it made it very hard to organize run, especially on older tires.

SmarterThanYo

If these drivers need “more incentive to win,” NASCAR is truly dead. Elliott and Busch tried to pull out in the closing laps but got no help. Harvick and Stenhouse clearly had no intent of trying to win. It was a boring and embarrassing debacle of a “race,” even by plate racing standards.

Russ

The drivers are employees, if the teams were unhappy with their effort they could be replaced by someone with a little more drive. Wait, that would impact all the advertising and sponsorships wouldn’t it? Guess we will keep getting what we are getting.

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