Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: What’s the Best Strategy to Survive Talladega?

1. With the final plate race at Talladega Superspeedway looming, what is the best strategy for the playoff contenders? 

Zach Gillispie:  The plate races are always chaotic and full of unknowns. In the previous format (before stage racing), we saw several playoff drivers ride in the back and have favorable results. But this was back when Talladega was an elimination race and stage points were not a thing. In the modern era of stage racing, the playoff drivers could actually employ either strategy and have a favorable outcome. A driver who stays out front and scores stage points and then gets taken out in a crash could still come out of Talladega with the same amount of points as a driver who rides around in the back. The choice should be left up to the teams.

Wesley Coburn:  If I were a team in the playoffs, I’d try to stay up front as much as possible to be sure to grab stage points. There is a risk of the leaders crashing and getting caught up in the carnage, but if you’re a playoff driver, the reward is worth it. If I’m a team outside of the playoffs, especially an underdog, I’d hang around in the back and hope to survive the first few crashes.

Matt McLaughlin:  I’d want my driver to go for it right from Jump Street and try to accumulate as many stage points as possible. Even if fewer drivers just drop to the back at the drop of the green flag, the intensity and insanity of a plate race typically ratchets up in the closing stages, and that’s when you typically see the field-decimating wrecks.

Amy Henderson:  As a playoff driver, you want to stay up front and hope to gather some stage points as insurance in case the Big One picks you off. In general, though, it doesn’t really matter where you are, because it’s pretty much a big crapshoot on wheels. Looking back a bit, but it still applies: Joe Gibbs Racing thought it was playing it safe in the 2001 Daytona 500, as Tony Stewart was running up front and Bobby Labonte was hanging out in the back. With a split strategy, one of them should avoid trouble, right? Wrong. Stewart got airborne, and while a few cars actually made it by under him, Labonte wasn’t so lucky. Stewart landed on Labonte’s hood. Nobody’s really safe, no matter where they run. Just throw a dart or something.

2. A handful of racers from all three national series are retiring or taking indefinite leaves from racing to pursue other avenues. Why do you think that is, should it be a concern and is there anything NASCAR can do about it?

McLaughlin:  Bobby Hamilton was once asked who he felt the best Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver was. Hamilton replied that likely an individual who had the most talent would never make it to the top tier of the sport and was probably driving a tow truck in the Carolinas to support himself because they weren’t good-looking or well-spoken as sponsors demand of their drivers these days. To get a top-notch ride these days (and thankfully there have been some exceptions lately), you have to be able to bring some sponsorship money to the table. Younger, less-experienced drivers will race for less money, and that’s important when there’s less cubic dollars to go around.

Gillispie:  There shouldn’t be too much concern. Cup drivers Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, XFINITY Series driver Elliott Sadler and Camping World Truck Series drivers Justin Fontaine and Wendell Chavous all seem to be stepping away for the same reason: family. Who can blame these drivers for wanting to spend more time with their family? The NASCAR schedule is long and grueling. This involves a tremendous amount of time away from home. However, any professional sport has grueling seasons. These are the challenges elite athletes have to face.

Henderson:  It’s absolutely concerning. These drivers would not be stepping away if they could make a living in the sport. It would be more of a worry if these were the big names in a given series, but even so, NASCAR needs to be carefully monitoring the health of its teams and find ways to improve their longevity in the sport. As for retirements, well, there’s a big population, particularly in Cup, that’s at that age, so it’s to be expected. It’s a hit to the sport to lose a lot of popular drivers in a short time, but when it’s due to age, it’s natural progression and nothing more or less.

Coburn: There are a lot of reasons — family stuff, stress, getting too old to race competitively, lack of sponsorship, or injury all spring to mind. The Cup Series needs to have more young winners like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney in addition to outspoken personalities like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, because the veteran retirements aren’t going to end soon. The Truck Series has fantastic racing but also a lot of problems, and this doesn’t qualify that highly as a concern.

3. Rick Hendrick announced after Sunday’s race that a Jimmie Johnson sponsorship announcement would be coming soon. Which companies do you think would be a good fit for the No. 48 team?

Coburn:  The most obvious answer is that PepsiCo funnels more money into its Hendrick Motorsports deal and promotes Gatorade on the No. 48. Under Armour has a deal with HMS too, and while NASCAR doesn’t exactly make sense from a demographic perspective, Nike has a division focused on skateboarding, so it’s not inconceivable that UA could experiment with racing. Visa was rumored to be a sponsor when Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined the team in 2008, and that probably won’t happen now either, but Jimmie Johnson seems like he could be a good fit for a similar company – maybe Capital One.

If a phone company like T-Mobile were interested in coming into the sport, the No. 48 might be a good team to start with, or Gillette, since Johnson was part of the Gillette Young Guns in the mid-2000s and is well-known for his beard.

McLaughlin: After Johnson’s last two races, it’s hard to imagine that well-heeled corporate types are storming the Bastille to sign on with the No. 48 team. So I don’t know. Might AARP sign on for Johnson’s waning years of his career like it did with Jeff Gordon in what had to be the most awkward driver/sponsor hookup ever?

Gillispie:  Unfortunately, the days of a full-time primary sponsor are pretty much gone. There probably will be a combination of worthy companies that will back the No. 48 next year. Gatorade, Kelley Blue Book, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, Alpinestars and Blue Cross Blue Shield are all current associate sponsors of Johnson, so it would not be surprising to see them as a primary sponsor. Other sponsors could be Suave for Men, Unilever or US Cellular, which have backed JR Motorsports, an XFINITY Series satellite team of HMS.

4. Cole Pearn told Jimmie Johnson he could make amends for his last-lap contact at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL by buying the entire team bikes. Johnson then had a large lot of little girls’ bicycles delivered to the No. 78 hauler. What is your favorite example of some shenanigans between racers?

McLaughlin: This story goes back to the years of yore well before most of you were born or certainly before you started following races. In his day, Fireball Roberts was the biggest star of the sport along the lines of a Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon. Before the GM factory racing ban, Roberts had his most success at the wheel of a black-and-gold Pontiac Super Duty, usually prepared by the legendary Smokey Yunick.

Despite their passionate denials, the Pontiac Motor Division was all in with NASCAR (and NHRA) racing. It gave Roberts a brand new Pontiac Catalina SD421 (gearheads will want to bow down here) painted in his trademark black-and-gold colors. Short of perhaps a fuelie Corvette, those Super Duty Pontiacs ruled the roost on the street. Justifiably proud of his fine new car, Roberts was surprised when Curtis Turner, the sport’s most legendary prankster, challenged him to a drag race.

But the race was run with a twist: it was in a motel parking lot. And it was to be held in reverse. Ever the gamer, Roberts said he was in. Unbeknownst to him, several telephone poles that bordered that parking lot had been clipped off at about a three-foot height. It was going to be a bit tough to see them drag racing in reverse after dark, especially since Turner had gone ahead and painted them black.

Legendary Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler rode in the back seat of Roberts’ car to call the winner. Roberts hit those telephones so fast going backwards the rear bumper of of that fine new Pontiac was knocked four feet forward, and Wheeler was blessed to escape without major injury.

Gillispie:  Sterling Marlin was the king of all pranksters in the garage area. I remember Jamie McMurray telling a story of Marlin’s shenanigans toward McMurray, who was then a Cup Series rookie. McMurray and some crew members got in a van to leave a track, but before the van started moving, Marlin had fireworks and sticks of dynamite booby-trapped underneath the van. McMurray and his crew guys got quite the surprise when fireworks started going off all around them while they were in the van.

Henderson:  It’s a tossup between two. Remember most races were day races not too long ago, and that included the deep South in mid-summer. So you can imagine it was none to pleasant for Rusty Wallace to climb in his racecar on a sweltering day only to find that Dale Earnhardt had left him a gift in the form of an open can of sardines under his driver’s seat. Grossed out, but not down, Wallace retaliated by stealing Earnhardt’s steering wheel while the cars sat on the grid pre-race and then watched Earnhardt panic as the car began to roll and he couldn’t find it, to the glee of Wallace. He gave it back… eventually.

The other also involves a stinky car, along with a couple of young guns and a veteran who thought explosives make great jokes. Here’s the story:

About the author

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

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