Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: How Important Is Track Position?

A quick exam of the last few seasons shows that only the best restrictor plate drivers – Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski – have been able to get to victory lane. Is it still fair to say anyone can win at Daytona or Talladega, or has NASCAR finally put fate in the driver’s hands? 

Jerry Jordan, Contributor: Yes, anyone can still win at the restrictor plate tracks; however, it is getting tougher, because some drivers have figure out a good strategy to attacking those tracks. Regan Smith was in a prime position to pounce had something gone crazy when Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth began moving around on the final lap. Even Joe Gibbs said he thought they were about to take each other out, and that would have opened a hole for Smith or someone else to drive through.

Bryan Gable, Contributor: Races at Daytona and Talladega are still wide open.  There has always been a small group of drivers (a group with fluid membership) that tends to put up strong numbers at plate tracks over the course of a few years.  That said, there is so much outside of the driver’s control in plate racing that the door remains open for the occasional underdog winner.  The recent winners may be more frequent front runners, but you never know when that next surprise victory is coming.

Matt Stallknecht, Senior Editor: It has never been fair to say that anyone can win a restrictor plate race; that has long been one of the biggest misconceptions in the sport. Superspeedway racing is a separate skill unto itself that only a few extremely talented drivers seem to possess in great quantity, and the four mentioned certainly fall into that category. The current superspeedway aero package has been very much in the hands of the skilled drafters since it was introduced in 2013, it’s just that most of the media hasn’t caught on to the fact that superspeedway racing isn’t a proverbial crapshoot anymore until recently. Some must not be watching closely enough; fate is certainly in the drivers hands now, and with handling coming into play on superspeedways again, these races have returned to their former glory of being some of the most challenging, difficult and driver skill-intensive races on the schedule. That’s good news for all involved.

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Yes and no.  There are some really excellent plate racers without wins and some mediocre (at best) ones with — so no, not anyone can win, but if someone unexpected does, it’s because it’s at least more in their hands than anywhere else.  Is it in the drivers’ hands?  Sure, but with the strategy they’re playing these days, even drivers who want to make moves are stonewalled.  It will always be a crapshoot as long as they run in tight packs without throttle response, simply because their fate is still too much determined by the big crashes and not necessarily by their own talent.

Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: It’s hard to say. While the moments have been rare throughout the history of the sport – Hey, Greg Sacks – there’s always a chance that an underdog could pull off a win at Daytona or Talladega with the right circumstances. The keys seem to be attrition, track position and a car that handles well. It worked for David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports a few years ago, and, while fluke-y because of rain, Aric Almirola in 2014. With track position so important, the drivers that can get to the front with ease shine more than ever, but there’s still opportunity for any underfunded teams that can bring a good piece.

Track position has rarely been as important at Daytona as it was on Sunday. Is that a good thing or a bad thing, and if a change is needed, what should be done?

Stallknecht: It is definitely a good thing. Good superspeedway racing is predicated on handling being a big factor in the race, and whenever handling is a big factor, track position becomes important. When track position becomes important, drivers have to work harder to attain and protect positions on track, and that leads to great racing.

Track position and handling were the words of the day in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)
Track position and handling were the words of the day in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)

Bearden: It’s a GREAT thing. It may make things a bit boring at times for someone flipping through TV channels, but ill-handling cars force each driver to be more wary with their moves, and adds an extra level of risk vs. reward for those that dare to be great, both with moves on track and tire strategy on pit road. Don’t believe me? Ask Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Jason Schultz, Contributor: With track position mattering more than it has in years on plate tracks, the racing is more compelling. While the unpredictability factor in terms of anyone can perform well has decreased as a result, the level of strategy involved in Daytona and Talladega races is on the rise. Factoring in strategy during a plate race along with forcing drivers to work the draft in order to advance their position has created a very high quality product. If any changes are made to the package, they should favor the development of the higher lines but shouldn’t touch the increased importance of track position.

Henderson: I find it funny that the same people who bemoan the importance of track position on the intermediates are singing its praises at Daytona.  A faster car with a better driver in it should be able to pass, period.  We didn’t see that Sunday.  The best plate racing was circa 2000, when a driver could gain 10 positions in a single lap if he made the right move at the right time and was good enough to hold onto it. Dozens of authentic passes for the lead vs. most of the changes on pit cycles speaks for itself.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Track position should always be wildly important. No matter if we’re talking about Daytona or Martinsville, where you sit in the scheme of things is a top priority. I think we’re headed in the right direction in this regard with the new low-downforce package; making drivers more responsible for their car’s performance should give them more of a role in fighting for and/or keeping their position on the track.

The rule for tandem drafting in the XFINITY Series have become so poorly officiated that Joey Logano admitted to “latching on” to race winner Chase Elliott’s car before saying drivers “don’t really know the rules.” Should NASCAR just get rid of the hookup rule and let teams tandem? 

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: This has been a problem ever since NASCAR banned the tandem drafting.  Based on what I’ve seen over the past year and change, NASCAR can’t police it.  Or, if it can, the officials have a really bizarre standard for what is considered naughty.  At this point, they might as well quit trying; nobody understands their criteria, and it’s become a joke.  You just have constant questions all the time and everyone’s confused. NASCAR either needs to put it in black and white before the Talladega 300 in no uncertain terms and follow through on the penalties for anyone who does it, or dump it.

Schultz: I don’t believe NASCAR should allow tandem drafting to return in the XFINITY Series. While it’s more difficult to officiate the no bumping rule, tandem racing was phased out because it became too dangerous. It often led to large, violent multi-car crashes near the finish line as drivers made a last ditch effort to improve their position. If anything, NASCAR should change the NXS rule package to reflect the Sprint Cup Series style of drafting in order to take away the ability to lock bumpers for an extended period of time.

Sean Fesko, Contributor: Yes, absolutely, 100 percent, let NASCAR do this. Tandem racing is the new great equalizer, so of course it should be allowed. I never understood the hate that tandem racing got. Remember it was during those races that fans saw over 80 lead changes during races, and excitement at the finish didn’t diminish – Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer made sure of that in a three-way photo finish. Sure, one could argue that in tandem racing the pusher doesn’t have a chance at the win, but in recent pack racing only a handful of drivers had a chance to win.

This tandem led to a great finish on Saturday. Should NASCAR allow their return in the XFINITY Series? (Photo: Mike Neff)
This tandem led to a great finish on Saturday. Should NASCAR allow their return in the XFINITY Series? (Photo: Mike Neff)

Stallknecht: Absolutely freaking not. I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks, tandem racing was not racing and it needs to stay as far away from this sport as possible.

Bearden: I think this is one of the worst rules in NASCAR. If NASCAR doesn’t want drivers to tandem, it needs to set the cars up to overheat and blow up if they try to do it, or give the machines bumpers that don’t line up so they can’t. Trying to play this guessing game where one driver is penalized and another isn’t is just making the sanctioning body look bad.

With Daytona done, the series takes a step toward its usual fare with a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With good weather and an old racing surface, what do you expect from the opening weekend of the new low-downforce package? 

Howell: We’ll see a much-improved on-track product at Atlanta this weekend. The new car/tire/weather trifecta should make for competitive racing and happier fans. My greatest fear is what happens if the low-downforce package doesn’t pay the dividends we assume it will? Where will NASCAR turn for another fix? I only hope fans will tune in/go to the race after the attention we received with last weekend’s exciting finish. If the low-downforce car does what most think it will, we might be looking at the rebirth of NASCAR.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: One-third less downforce and a softer tire on a track that wears out rubber like Darlington? YES, PLEASE! It will be interesting to say the least, with multiple lines and groves being used and – gasp – perhaps an end to the bastardizing aero-push that has conspired to ruin almost half the races on the intermediate-laden schedule.

Allaway: You’re going to see a race in which there will be a lot of action for position.  I imagine that a number of drivers will likely stick to the high side as the tires wear.  There are a couple of drivers that I will keep my eyes on because they’re most likely to excel in such an environment.  The cars are likely to be quite the handful.  In-car cameras will feature drivers fighting to keep themselves under control.  Expect a number of cautions for incidents in which people spin out on their own because everyone will be loose.  Should be quite interesting.

Jordan: I expect rain in the next couple days. I also expect it to be cold, especially at night. As for the racing surface, it’s going to make tire wear very important to monitor and you’re going to see some of the top stars get loose and possible wad up some cars. The first Big One of the season, very likely, could come at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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I have no problem the way the Xfinity race ended. There should be a rule banning tandem drafting, but on the last lap, I’m ok with NASCAR having a light hand. My biggest gripes with the tandem draft is it cheapened the win and put the pushee in an indefensible situation. What I saw Saturday was heavy pushing on the last lap, but no tandem drafting. Xfinity might have been the best race of Speedweeks.

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