Ford has won every race at Talladega Superspeedway since fall 2015. Why do you think that is, and who is most likely to end their streak?
Mark Kristl: I lack the engineering background, so my answer is this: Ford teams work extremely well together. They bring fast cars to the track, they draft together in practice, they draft together in the race, they pit together and they work together to ensure the Fords stay up front. As for who is most likely to end their streak, Denny Hamlin. He won the Daytona 500, he has bounced back this season and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also work together extremely well at superspeedways.
Adam Cheek: Maybe it’s just me, but Ford always seemed to have the sleekest body on the Gen 7. That’s not at the forefront of reasons whatsoever, though. It also goes back to the drivers themselves. We see less-funded drivers like David Ragan and Michael McDowell do well. They have a knack for superspeedway racing and work well together; we saw the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers stick together last fall, and Team Penske tends to do well together there.
Vito Pugliese: Two words: Doug Yates. Carrying on the tradition established by his late father, the FR9 has been a superspeedway monster ever since it arrived on the scene. Remember Matt Kenseth winning the 2012 Daytona 500 with virtually no water left in his car? This has allowed Ford teams to get more aggressive with tape, air flow through the grille and under the car, and still keep it from burning up after 500 miles. This coupled with the fact that there’s one engine supplier for all Ford teams, and you have quality control, repetition and consistent data points from testing and post-race postmortems. Consider this: as a lifelong Ford racer and having built an engineering business with the Blue Oval as its centerpiece, Jack Roush followed the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em model after 2003, merging his operations with Yates. It’s been a wildly successful partnership, winning 19 plate races since its full scale rollout in mid-2010.
Amy Henderson: Ford’s success overall has a lot to do with the way teams work together to improve what they all get and the close factory support they get. As for Talladega, a couple of things: there are a handful of excellent superspeedway drivers in the Ford camp, and they’ve gotten lucky in not getting taken out in the inevitable big wreck. Superspeedway racing as it stands now is dependent on both skill and blind luck. Who could end it? Just about anyone in the field with enough skill to navigate the field and enough luck not to get wrecked.
Christian Koelle: One thing that helps Ford vs. the other manufacturers is that it works together. Whether it’s the Stewart-Haas Racing or Penske combination, Ford just seems to work together better than the others. The amount of Fords doesn’t hurt, either. Add one more Ford in the form of Matt Tifft in the No. 36, and Ford is a fairly unstoppable force. Also, those Mustang noses lock better than the Toyotas and Chevrolets, whose noses have a point, while Ford’s noses are rounded almost flat. If anyone could break that streak, Joe Gibbs Racing might be able to. After all, it’s part of the only other manufacturer to go to Victory Lane on a plate track recently (Erik Jones at Daytona International Speedway in July 2018 and Denny Hamlin at Daytona this year).
Which produces a better plate race show: pack racing or tandem drafting?
Koelle: Depends on what style pack racing we’re talking about. Four-wide? That’s exciting, but the pack racing that turns into train racing at the top just isn’t exciting. I was a huge fan of tandem drafting, but it had its flaws, especially when NASCAR took out the radios for the drivers to talk to one another.
Henderson: I was a huge fan of the tandems. Those pairs were able to do two things very well: make passes and avoid wrecks. Sure, there were still crashes, but they took out fewer cars in general. A duo that worked well together could make moves and both close on and pass the leader; remember the Front Row Motorsports win a few years back? Ragan and David Gilliland ran down the leaders on the final lap and passed them. That’s something that’s generally missing these days. Even a freight train of cars struggles to catch and pass the leader recently. The lead should be the worst place to be at the white flag, and with the tandems, it was.
Kristl: Pack racing produces the better race show, but it also produces a more expensive race. Look at the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series opener at Daytona, plus the Daytona 500. Both were pack racing, yet both featured plenty of carnage. On the flip side, the Duels and the NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener consisted of a follow-the-leader mentality, which kept more cars intact, albeit for a boring race.
Pugliese: Pack racing is fine if the cars are going fast enough to be able to break the draft occasionally or back up and try to make a run. Plate races the last couple of years at Talladega have been less than what we’ve come to expect, like Brad Keselowski‘s weaving and snaking up through the front in the 2013 fall race to make the playoffs.Tandem racing was fun, too, and made for some dramatic 210 mph passes on the TV telemetry, but there was always something a bit defeating if a team car was deemed the pusher and relegated itself to helping its teammate. A bit too Formula 1-esque for myself and many fans brought up on barely hanging onto 1980s unrestricted mayhem.Did a cr almost take out the flag stand and the first few rows? Eh, patch it up and let’s get going before it rains! Crazy times.
Cheek: Better show is pack racing, but both have interesting aspects and strategies. Pack racing provides three-wide, 10-deep racing, while tandem drafting has a lot of strategy and teamwork involved. I’d side with pack racing, though. Everyone is on the edge on control, trying to work with people around them, pass, side draft and fight their way to the front all at once.
NASCAR announced Gen-7 parts will be used in the 2019 All-Star Race. Is this exhibition the right place to create a testing opportunity for future packages?
Cheek: If it has to be anything, I guess it’s best to do it there, but that should probably be reserved for actual testing events.
Pugliese: It depends what is being tested. If it’s to shake down pieces for durability a general feel in traffic, then it makes sense. I guess it’s a better live testing environment than the orchestrated post-season tests that have happened in years past that would make everyone think they’ve found the magic combination, only to find out it’s the same result, only slower.
Henderson: Yes, absolutely. Ever watch an open test? You rarely see anybody race each other. The All-Star Race allows us to see things under race conditions. Also, a lot more fans see the All-Star Race than a test session, which, in theory at least, allows fans to have a voice because they have actually seen the product on track, not just read and speculated about it. Winner all around. While I don’t like either of the changes being tried out (there needs to be more attrition, and cooling engines more won’t make that happen, and the splitter needs to go away, not just get revamped, on the next car), I’m happy to see NASCAR trying something with enough time in the game to change it if it doesn’t work and to try it in a public forum.
Koelle: I’ve said for years that NASCAR needs to lift the testing ban. The product has been kind of jumbled together and thrown on the track, which results in things that just don’t pan out well. How many packages have we had since NASCAR put the testing ban in place? I understand the reasoning behind it, but if we allowed teams and drivers to openly test with the next year’s package or even the package from the current year, then it would be better, because then teams wouldn’t look like chickens with their heads cut off whenever we get to a track with a new thing. There’s a reason why the Advance Auto Parts Clash and All-Star Race have lost their luster.
Kristl: Because NASCAR lacks pre-season races, the All-Star Race and the Clash are NASCAR’s two opportunities to test new packages. The Clash takes place at Daytona International Speedway, so the racing product isn’t necessarily an indicator of the package. The All-Star Race is at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, so the racing product better showcases the package results.
The Xfinity Series has seen the regulars take charge after Kyle Busch has been sent back to the sidelines. Who’s impressed you the most so far and stands out as an early title favorite through eight races?
Cheek: Christopher Bell. Bell’s won two of the few races that didn’t have a Cup Series winner and is looking just as consistent as he did last year. Other drivers, like Ryan Sieg and Cole Custer, have impressed me, but Bell runs well just about every race and looks to have even more early momentum than he did last year.
Kristl: Sieg has stolen the show in many races, and for good reason. He has won a stage and is poised to make the playoffs — and is doing it for his family team, RSS Racing. Regarding the championship, Bell and Custer are the favorites, but don’t forget about Tyler Reddick. The reigning champ hasn’t won a race, but he has been steady and is my pick to win the Xfinity Series race this weekend at Talladega.
Koelle: I always like looking at underdogs, and Sieg has been by far one of the most impressive. Sieg has been running with giants, and that first win has to be just around the corner. I also like what I am seeing out of the SS-Green Light Racing crew of Ray Black Jr. and Gray Gaulding. Both of those drivers have been running inside the top 15 every weekend, and I feel like that those three plus a few more underdogs could compete for the win this weekend at Talladega.
Henderson: Right now, I’m seeing a pair of contenders emerging, Bell and Custer, and rightfully so. Really, Bell should have won last year’s title. Both of these drivers are setting themselves apart from the field on a weekly basis. Justin Allgaier had a great 2018 also, but he fell apart at the end of the year and hasn’t quite found that same mojo yet, so right now, it looks like Bell and Custer. But there will be four in it at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the best all year won’t necessarily win the title, so it’s anyone’s guess right now.
Pugliese: With his season opening win at Daytona, Michael Annett has been one of the brighter stories this season, not to be overshadowed by Kyle Busch and the ill-conceived 200-win plateau. It’s clearly going to be an extension of the Cup Series, with the title favorites being the SHR and JGR teams of Custer and Bell. Reddick has the early-season points lead, but Custer and Bell are going to be the cars to be beat down the stretch. Let’s give a call to Austin Cindric sitting in fourth place in points as well. He’s had a bit of a dart-with-no-feathers vibe about him since coming up through the Truck Series, but with only one finish out of the top 10 in the last five races (an 11th at Texas Motor Speedway), he’s been consistent this year and shows signs of becoming a real contender to win by the end of the season.