In the opening stages of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, it was evident that the memory of the 2016 Daytona 500 was fresh in everyone’s mind. During that race, many of the Toyota drivers exhibited a highly-coordinated style of drafting that help Denny Hamlin secure the victory.
On Sunday, as in this year’s Daytona 500, all three manufacturers tried to employ a similar strategy. Particularly during the early stages of the race, drivers were frequently scrambling to draft with whatever pseudo-teammates they could find. The race’s handful of green-flag pit stops also offered the Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet drivers multiple chances to pit together.
Approaching the race with manufacturer teammates in mind is not bad strategy. However, the “one manufacturer, one team” approach went out the window in the closing laps of the race, and that should not be a surprise.
Obviously, the 16-car incident on Lap 169 prevented several teammates from finding each other as the race wound down. Yet more importantly, certain drivers emerged as the competitors who had the fastest cars and who could work the draft the best over the course of the race.
In other words, only Team Penske had each of its drivers in the top tier of contenders on Sunday, and that was prior to the Lap 169 crash shook up the field. The wreck knocked out Elliott and Logano, while damaging the cars of Keselowski and Harvick.
With fewer contenders left running, a few new faces emerged in the late stages to race for the win, including Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Aric Almirola. So, except for Johnson and Kahne, there were not many opportunities for teammates to help each other get the win.
The challenge of racing at Talladega is that there are so many variables outside of a driver’s control. Teams can plan all they want during the race, and often times it is advisable to do so. Yet competitors have to have enough flexibility in their strategies to be able to adjust with the conditions of the race. If teammates are not around, then a driver has to do whatever it takes to move forward.
Stenhouse and the No. 17 team are a good example.
Throughout the afternoon, Stenhouse was not constantly looking around for Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne. In fact, Stenhouse drafted with fellow Ford racers when he could, but otherwise seemed content to race with whomever he could.
Moreover, Stenhouse did not have much help at the end of the race as he was vying for the victory.
As Busch, Johnson and Kahne led the charge in the upper groove, Stenhouse was trying to pull the middle lane forward without much success. The knowledge that he was not getting a lot of help probably contributed to his decision to sweep around Busch on the backstretch with two laps to go. Since Stenhouse got out front early during the overtime laps, the rest of the field had to find a way around him, rather than him trying to gather enough drafting help to pass the leaders.
The closing laps were really the finishing touches of a weekend when everything went right for Stenhouse and the No. 17 team.
While he had a particularly fast car on Sunday, Stenhouse has shown plenty of strength on restrictor plate tracks before. Outside of a bizarre DNQ at Talladega in the fall of 2014, he has five top 10s at NASCAR’s longest track through eight starts. In fact, three of Stenhouse’s last four Talladega finishes are top 10s.
Credit Jack Roush’s team for making some substantial improvements over the off-season as well. RFR had a run of success on the restrictor plate tracks earlier in this decade before the organization’s level of performance dipped, so it is not surprising to see the team get back to victory lane at a restrictor plate track.
Roush Fenway Racing has a long way to go before the team can compete for wins the way it once did, but Sunday’s victory virtually locks Stenhouse into the playoffs. It will be his first appearance in the postseason and first for an RFR driver since 2014.
Ultimately, Stenhouse’s win proves that planning with teammates only goes so far in restrictor plate racing. The 2016 Daytona 500 is not going to become a new normal because it so uncommon to see so many teammates position themselves that well during an entire race.
However, fans should not write off Stenhouse’s victory as a random fluke either. Stenhouse has shown the ability to get the most out of restrictor plate races when given the right opportunity. On Sunday, Stenhouse had a plan, but he also had speed, opportunity, and a little bit of luck. That combination is often more valuable than a teammate with the checkered flag in sight.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.