Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Making Moves – Winning, Losing & Surprising

ONE: Brad Keselowski’s Race-Winning Move Biggest Change to Plate Racing

Talk will undoubtedly swirl until Daytona later this summer about water pressures, engine temperatures and ambient heat proving to make both driving and sustaining a viable engine extremely difficult. The rule changes that NASCAR has put in place to bring back pack racing to the plate tracks have proven largely successful, drastically changing the restrictor-plate events from what they were a season ago, a two-car tango.

Though the rules have had a dramatic impact and will continue to pose challenges when NASCAR next plate races in the humid summer heat of Florida, the biggest change that this drafting package will see came not courtesy of the rulebook, but one Brad Keselowski.

After breaking free from the pack coming to the white flag courtesy of a huge push from Kyle Busch, fans and viewers alike were biding their time on the final lap, waiting for the tri-oval and Kyle to make a slingshot move for the win.

Only Brad broke the script, swinging high entering turn 3 and making a move that, while subtle, effectively killed the draft between he and Busch. Keselowski cruised unmolested to the win by several car lengths, a marathon margin of victory at Talladega.

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It’s hard to understand what took NASCAR’s racers so long to figure that one out. The slingshot move at Talladega has proven all but impossible to defend, yet time after time the leader of the breakaway two-car tandem has played the good soldier and stayed in line, all but serving up victory to their partner on a silver platter.

Keselowski took that draft and broke it up. A simple move, an understated move and one so obvious it took over a year for someone to actually use it.

This is good news for plate racing in that it further devalues the two-car tandem, a practice that is all but the antithesis of no-holds-barred racing for the win. The field now knows full well how to break the tandem when the race is on the line.

It’s gone from a certain 1-2 finish to a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Will my drafting partner stay in line to the end? Do I need to make a move earlier? The more doubt in a tandem, the more likely they’re going to break sooner. They break sooner on the last lap, the field has time to catch up.

And suddenly pack racing will extend to the final two laps as well. Farewell tandems, you will not be missed.

TWO: The Polar Opposite at Penske Racing

While Keselowski scored win number two for 2012 and did a lot to cement his Chase chances less than a third of the way into the season, Talladega proved the latest shortcoming for Penske teammate AJ Allmendinger.

A front-row start and avoiding attrition for the majority of Sunday afternoon (May 6) proved all for naught on lap 184, when trying to block Denny Hamlin on the restart the ‘Dinger clearly came across the nose of the No. 11, starting a melee that ended up caving his left-front fender in and destroying much of what was left of the field.

Allmendinger was visibly irritated post-race after yet another disappointing finish in a series that has produced only one top 10 finish and 20th place in the standings.

Here’s the rub. Unlike Jeff Gordon, who has run like gangbusters and run into every type of misfortune imaginable thus far in 2012, Allmendinger’s issues on Sunday were self-made. Coming across Hamlin’s nose was both a reactionary move to getting jumped on a restart and one careless enough to take a car that started on the front row from contention in the closing laps.

That frustration visible on Allmendinger’s face post-race was nothing to do with bad luck or misfortune. It was a big-time, costly mistake in a race that Penske Racing had the field covered. There’ve been plenty of struggles for the No. 22 team the first three months of the season, but Talladega may have been the most costly yet.

THREE: To Borrow Your Words, “Yeah Right”

In case some of our readers out there haven’t emerged from under a rock 5,000 miles away yet, Danica Patrick wrecked Sam Hornish Jr. on the cool-down lap in turn 1 at Talladega after contact between the two put the No. 7 car in the fence coming to the checkers. And not surprisingly, NASCAR was quick to confirm that no penalties were coming for the incident.

Here are the details. Hornish says he hit Danica because he had a flat rear tire in the tri-oval that forced his car up the track. The video is fairly conclusive that his story is accurate, largely because, as the far-more-accomplished open wheeler noted, there is no reason for a driver to force their way up the tri-oval at Talladega.

Hornish went further to note that Danica quipped “yeah right” when he went over to apologize immediately following Saturday’s race.

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Patrick was indignant in her post-race interview, yet by Monday afternoon was apologizing, claiming she never meant to put Hornish in the fence, but just to tap him. She went further to note she had no idea he had even hit the wall until later.

To borrow her own catchphrase, yeah right. The video is fairly conclusive that the No. 7 did more than make a love tap with the No. 12 car post-race. Couple that with Patrick’s apparent frustration that she found trouble getting drafting help in the closing laps and its hardly a stretch to see that a frustrated driver pulled a very bush league move after the Aaron’s 312 was over.

FOUR: Is Furniture Row Racing a Lateral Move for Kurt Busch?

Furniture Row Racing has obviously turned some heads as they approach the first anniversary of their stunning Southern 500 upset win in 2011, the first Cup win ever for the organization. Heading back to Darlington, they’ve been linked to talks of outside investor, a second team with 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch and the potential to become Dodge Motorsports new flagship for 2013.

Obviously, for Kurt Busch, even the slight prospect of getting back behind the wheel of a factory flagship (like he was with Dodge a season ago) has got to be tantalizing, given the limitations Busch is having to adjust to driving for Phoenix Racing in 2012. But a move to a second team at FRR is far from sure-fire.

Regan Smith has done some fantastic work in the No. 78 car and the team has paid their dues in becoming a competitive presence in Cup racing. But face the facts; more often than not, they’re not challenging to win. That Southern 500 win a season ago was a tire strategy win, as exciting as it was.

Over the course of their existence, they’ve secured little in the form of outside sponsorship and in this climate, relying on “outside investors” is hardly a reliable business development model. The point here? Funded by Furniture Row or not, money is not suddenly growing on trees at FRR.

The other point being Dodge’s flagship is hardly a guarantee that competitiveness is going to follow. One shouldn’t forget just how far off the mark Penske Racing was, especially on intermediate ovals, when Busch first moved to the organization in 2005. That a Dodge flagship team had to resort to running old model year noses, as they did that season, is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Racing has been more competitive, both with and without plates, simply for having Busch behind the wheel. Busch, however loosely, is in the Hendrick umbrella right now. And should he manage to pull a Smith or steal a plate win at any point in 2012, Busch is a race-winning driver in Hendrick-backed equipment. Who wouldn’t take that over a Dodge? And perhaps more importantly, who wouldn’t want to try selling that to sponsors instead of a Dodge?

FIVE: David Ragan Proving This Writer Wrong

After an ugly start to the 2012 season in the Bud Shootout left David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports with an early exit and a mangled racecar, I openly questioned in this column the hiring of Ragan by the organization. Now, coming off a top-10 finish in the same No. 34 at Talladega, it’s time for this writer to eat some crow.

Ragan hasn’t had a DNF since Daytona, owns the operation’s best Cup finish in 2012 and is ranked ahead of FRM veteran David Gilliland. Perhaps more importantly, Ragan has been landing sponsorship for Front Row. In short, he’s done everything one could ask thus far, leaving that Bud Shootout result in the rearview mirror.

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