The race is not always to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong….
– Ecclesiasticus –
Sunday’s Talladega race was not at all what many of us expected or dreaded in the week leading up to the event. There were no big, huge smoking pig-piles of wrecks and blessedly nobody got hurt. Whether that was the result of a kind and benevolent God who has decided we, as Americans have suffered enough during this presidential campaign or not is debatable.
I’m guessing it probably had more to do with the fact some of the fastest teams and drivers basically decided to sit this one out.
Naturally, those teams and drivers didn’t actually sit out the race. The rules state to be championship eligible a driver must start every event or at least attempt to qualify unless granted a medical exemption. But even before the green flag dropped the Nos. 18, 19 and 20 cars dropped to the apron and allowed the pack to pass them during the parade laps. Obviously, this fallback wasn’t the first time such a strategy has been used. The fact all three teammates had plotted to ride around together in the back of the field from the start, though then work together to get to the front was dirty pool in my book. (Curiously enough this same team, JGR, used the exact opposite strategy at the first plate race this season, the Daytona 500, flying in formation at the front of the pack all afternoon along with erstwhile teammate Martin Truex, Jr.)
Like I’ve said, this race wasn’t the first time a notable driver in a fast car dropped to the back of the pack at Talladega or Daytona. Such is the nature of plate racing, where huge wrecks often decimate more than half the field and the running order with three laps left to go is often turned upside down (along with various and sundry race cars) at the checkered flag. I think the Hendrick Motorsports teams even tried the trick en masse one time… but only once. The HMS cars were unable to get to the front when they decided it was time to go and a thoroughly peeved and frustrated Dale Earnhardt, Jr. insisted he would never go along with that strategy again. Earnhardt felt certain that the best way to stay out of trouble and win at a plate track was to run up front, preferably in the lead all day, and dent the floorboard below the loud pedal on the last lap. Given that Junior has won ten plate races his opinions on the topic hold some validity.
Somewhat comically, the NBC booth crew opined that the strategy the JGR cars was using wasn’t easy. One might think that it would be somewhat more difficult to be up in the front pack, running with traffic two and three-wide inches from all four corners of one’s race car but NBC felt otherwise. There was always the possibility that the less than intrepid threesome could lose scent of the draft entirely and go a lap down. What then? Well, perhaps Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth could have each removed the egg from the bottom of their throttle pedals and beat it.
What about pit stops? Wouldn’t they lose ground on green-flag stops? As Truex proved conclusively Sunday, no it wouldn’t hurt their efforts a bit.
But this particular Sunday the JGR team strategy, one people thought might only last a portion of the race played out differently. With Brad Keselowski’s dominant Ford sent to the garage with engine woes not long after Truex also blew one the Gibbs trio was virtually locked into the next round of the Chase, moving on even while they cruised around in the back of the field well off the pace and out of harm’s way. At that point, the teams’ strategists simply decided there was nothing to be gained by attempting to move forward. They’d done the math and realized that even finishing in the low to mid 30s in the running order wasn’t going to eliminate any of the three from the Chase. So Kenseth, Busch and Edwards never made an even half-hearted charge for the front toward the end of the race. In the end, Kenseth made the cut 10 points to the good, Busch had six points left to spare and Edwards four despite finishing 28th, 29th and 30th. With points not carrying forward to the next round there was no disincentive to playing it safe.
The fourth JGR driver, Denny Hamlin, had to be more aggressive. After losing an engine at Charlotte and finishing 30th, he arrived at Talladega six points behind the cutoff for eighth place. At the front of the pack Hamlin, forced by that blown engine to actually race to make the cut, was engaged in a cut-throat, teeter-totter of a battle with Austin Dillon for the eighth and final spot in the next round of the playoffs. After a questionable move to block while running third Hamlin had to count on a major solid from Kevin Harvick (already locked in the Chase by his win at Kansas) allowing him back in line which allowed the No. 11 to finish third by about two feet in front of Kurt Busch. That left Hamlin tied with Dillon but Hamlin got the nod on the first tiebreaker with his third-place finish in this round (that was better than a sixth for Dillon at Kansas).
You want to know why there was no big last-lap wreck on Sunday? It’s because Harvick didn’t need to win the race as he’d already made the next round. Had he not lifted to let Hamlin in they’d likely still be clearing debris from the track Tuesday morning. Kurt Busch must not have been kept current on the point totals because he was angry that teammate Harvick helped out another Chaser and cost Busch a position. After the race, Busch body-slammed Harvick’s Chevy on the cool-down lap which led to a confrontation on pit road after the race. One has to wonder where this sport is heading if there’s more passion on the cool-down lap than there is during the entire event.
As far as the results, it’s hard to argue with the strategy. All four of the Gibbs teams have made it to the next round of the Chase. Thus it’s four Toyotas, three Chevys and a single Ford still eligible for this year’s championship. And while the JGR squad was the most egregious in using the strategy it can be argued other teams did as well. Jimmie Johnson, for example clearly had a faster car than his 23rd-place finish indicates. But with Johnson locked into the next round, the result of a Charlotte win most of his race was spent prowling midpack trying to assist rookie teammate Chase Elliott in a quixotic effort.
“So what?” That’s what I know some of you are saying. You’re the one, Matt, who is always saying how dangerous plate track racing is, old dude. What the JGR guys did was smart. We’re talking perhaps a million dollars’ worth of race cars all returned to the transporters after the race with nary a nick on them. The exposure value to those four teams’ sponsors with all of them moving onto the next round are considerable. (NBC, once again decided to concentrate on the Chase (and Chase) more than the race so this might be the first time the driver who finished 28th got more air time than the fellow who finished second.) And of course, all four drivers left under their own power, never a given at a plate track. (Ask Kyle Busch. You can’t ask Dale Earnhardt.)
I can’t put any blame on Kenseth, Busch or Edwards. Clearly, based on their post-race comments they weren’t thrilled with how things played out; they just did what they were told.
So, yes it was a smart strategy and a valid one. What it wasn’t was sporting. Fans attend these races and watch them on TV to see the sport’s top drivers battle it out, giving everything they’ve got to claim the trophy. Fans of the Nos. 18, 19 and 20 who bought an expensive ticket to the race hoping to see their boy win instead watched in slack-jawed horror as they cruised at the back of the pack. Even if they were fans of another driver, say, race winner Joey Logano, part the thrill of seeing who you pull for win is that they beat the best in the business that particular afternoon — including the drivers you possibly don’t much care for.
Sunday’s race is a damning indictment of both plate racing and the Chase format. The nature of this style of racing is such that skill and a good mount don’t count for much. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you get taken out all the same by someone else’s miscue. I’m certain given a chance to simply sit out the race both Harvick and Johnson, who were already locked into the next round would have stayed home. The Chase format also negates the need to run as best as possible every race. Two of the drivers eliminated Sunday, Keselowski and Truex Jr. each won four races this season. The other two drivers eliminated have yet to win a Cup race in their careers much less this year. Kurt Busch, who continues to the next round has only won once through the first 32 events.
It would seem NASCAR has realized the folly of having a plate race also serve as an elimination event. In 2017 Talladega and Kansas swap places so Kansas will serve as the elimination race and it’s a lot less likely you’ll see teams adopting the “cowardly lion” strategy. Until then, Dorothy, thank God we’re not in Alabama anymore.
Wow, I guess there really is a drought going on in the Southeast (other than the Carolinas, of course.) With all that dead grass and dust at the track I was expecting to see Tom Joad at the wheel of an antique Ford as pace car driver. (Not trying to cause trouble here. Just passing this along because I thought it was funny.) In the upcoming election most Kyle Busch fans will vote for Donald Trump. Most Jimmie Johnson fans will vote for Hillary Clinton. Most Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans will vote for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Speaking of Dale Junior, how much clout does he have in the sport? Earnhardt was able to crash the broadcast booth at Talladega without having to wear a tie.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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never thought I’d read the day that Matt would feel cheated by a plate race with no excitement and boring strategy. You are absolutely right. The ones who were cheated the most were the race fans whom paid hard earned money for those seats and may have seen their fave lolly gag all 188 laps.
In 2017, if they (NASCAR) would only run a Chase round of Daytona,Talladega,and road course Watkins Glen in that order, what a treat we would get! mmwwwwahhh!
earnhardt jr is allowed to basically do what he wants cause na$car needs him at these races. just his presence at the track means that his rabid fans will be happy he’s in the some zip code with them. i’m sure if the track had announced that he was in the tractor flying the large flag during the anthem, that the noise from the stands would had been deafening as jr. would had been leading a lap at ‘dega. i did find it interesting how he did not have a shirt on that had any sponsor logos, or the standard hendrick white button down shirt.
be interesting to see if he makes the trip to texas. if he’s got issues with the crowds and balance, martinsville might be a bit too much optical stimulation.
wonder if he’ll be the most popular driver this year, or if chase elliott will start his own groundswell of fans of the father.
I see where Chuck Norris (for whatever reason) will introduce the drivers at Texas. I’d prefer Billy Jack.
i saw that too and laughed to myself.
norris must have a new tv show, movie or infomercial coming out!
First off I believe your comment about Busch not knowing the points situation should have been about Harvick as if he does not let Hamlin in another competitor for the championship is now likely not in the round of 8 and a person with no realistic chance to win even if in the round of 8 is in instead. So in theory Busch had a point in Harvick “screwing up” and letting another JGR Toyota into the Chase.
Also were is NASCAR on the 100% “rule” obviously this was not enforced either.
Also one would have thought the Chevy drivers would have completely teamed up with both the 3 and 24 to try and get them into the next round. Here again in an attempt to deny JGR another spot or two.
Also looking at the bigger picture where would Logano have ended up in the chase if he was second and Scott (44) won the race? Would this have knocked out Hamlin, or Edwards based on actual finish?
Also here we are again on Tuesday now talking about this instead of the actual race and the people involved. The sponsors must have absolutely loved all the coverage being given to essentially back marker cars. No one will convince me the sponsors had a problem with the strategy due to this very fact. Also if I am RPM I would be knocking on NASCAR’s door to give them an earful due to the lack of coverage given to those that actually were racing.
Part of the TV ratings issue right now is people are fed up with the pre determined story lines, the we are going to cover x, y, z mentality even if they are 25th the entire race, and not showing the actual racing of the drivers that are giving a damn. This is a huge culprit that NASCAR and the media themselves are not acknowledging as part of the problem. How NASCAR get even believe the next title sponsor deal should be worth what was reportedly being asked for just shows how out of touch the leadership truly is with the nuts and bolts of NASCAR today versus 10 years ago.
I think the JGR cars (minus the 11) were waiting for the big one before moving forward. It never happened.
Commercial Breakdown of the ’16 Fall Dega race
Total number of laps: 192
Total number of ads: 258
– traditional ads: 96
– split screen ads: 26
– script/ghraphics ads: 136
….SERIOUSLY? SERIOUSLY! As an AVID life long Nascar enthusiast, I can not even sit thru these races anymore, & that is nothing new. This has been going on for a number of years, but the ad content is still ever growing. Such that now the integrity of the sport is OBLITERATED! No wonder ratings are on the slide!
The #2 of Super Brad Keselowski, who was the non-“chase” (straight season long points count) points leader going into Dega had his ENTIRE seasons thrown down the crapper on Sunday. Pretty much ditto for the #78. I’m sure Miller Lite & Bass Pro Shop appreciate the value of their year long effort & 100’s of millions of dollars of sponsorship toward the championship goal evaporating in a puff of smoke with 4 races left in the season, smh.
And the fun part is 3 of the JGR Yotas coast around all afternoon at 1/2 throttle …& “qualify” for “chase” “advancement”! Mind you, not so long ago, the Cup was the epitome of motorsports championships, yet last season NASCAR handed it to a guy who missed 11 RACES & finished the season -454 points behind the true points leader, smh… DITCH THE CHASE!
NASCAR confirmed that it confiscated #78’s “hollow” front jack screw during pre-qualifying inspection. As if a “chase” craps-shoot does not delegitimize the championship, the season & their brand enough, now they allow the #78, who just got busted blatantly cheating, to sit on pole. How it got there (intent or not) is irrelevant. Attempting to get a non-conforming part thru inspection (intentional or not) puts you in a WORLD of **it in any major race series in the World, EXCEPT Nascar. That DELEGITIMIZES their brand. END OF STORY! Nascar is it’s own worst enemy!
Nothing to see here….
Good points Matt. Always a pleasure to see your byline one more time. Funny thing though… I think this time you were kinder than I, but just a bit. My take will officially debut on Friday, but I bet if you were to stop by on Thursday afternoon, you just might find it there. (We take comments too, you know)
Thanks Darlin’! Don’t stop writing. The racing world needs Matt McLaughlin!
Quote from Steve O’Doodlehead:
O’Donnell said employing that strategy did not constitute a violation of NASCAR’s 100% rule. “I would say that they do not fall into that,” O’Donnell said when asked about the 100% rule. “The spirit of that rule is really to prevent somebody from intentionally allowing another teammate to do something that would not be really within the spirit of the rules of the race. In this case, we look at the strategy decision that the team made, and they executed it. … In this case, that wouldn’t be something that we look at that violated that rule.”
Makes sense to me! NOT!
Points and plates, what to do?