Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Nobody Can Control Racing at Talladega

Last Sunday’s (April 21) race at Talladega Superspeedway was pretty typical of NASCAR’s largest oval. Lead changes were frequent, though some drivers were more comfortable at the front of the pack than others.

The field shuffled around several times as drivers tried to make efficient pit stops and work with their manufacturer allies. But in the end, it all seemed to matter very little. When the race was over, the winner was someone whose plan had gone wrong, and nearly everyone else wound up with a wrecked racecar.

Tyler Reddick took home the trophy, emerging as the victor after Michael McDowell and Brad Keselowski got tangled up fighting for the lead on the last lap.

See also
Thinkin’ Out Loud at Talladega: Everything Is Going Well … Until It Isn’t

Reddick got to the front of the field after he and several of his fellow Toyota drivers made their final pit stop with 37 laps to go.

The plan was to have the seven Toyota drivers still in contention for the win make their last pit stop under green together, then get lined up as quickly as possible coming out of the pits. If they were successful, the Toyotas could run full throttle in a tight draft as the rest of the pack tried to save fuel. Once all the pit stops were complete, the Toyotas would then cycle to the front of the field.

For about four laps, it looked like the Toyota teams had outsmarted everyone. Then the plan backfired, dramatically. Going into turn 3, John Hunter Nemechek knocked Bubba Wallace out of line, who in turn got Erik Jones out of shape. Before you could say “Let’s go places,” Jones spun sideways across the track and slammed the wall, taking Wallace, Nemechek and Denny Hamlin with him. Reddick escaped the crash by being first in line, while Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Gibbs dodged the spinning cars. Yet at the time, it looked like Toyota had carelessly thrown away a potential race-winning strategy.

Reddick, Truex and Gibbs maintained their track position after the rest of the field pitted, but then it felt like the Ford drivers, especially McDowell and Keselowski, were the ones in control of the race. Not far behind them were Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Noah Gragson and Josh Berry, as well as McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland.

The remaining Toyota drivers were outnumbered.

It has been a rough start to the 2024 NASCAR season for Ford, which has not won any NASCAR Cup Series races this season.

However, drafting tracks have long been a strength of the Blue Oval teams, and Sunday was no exception. Austin Cindric and Joey Logano won the first two stages and as the race approached its conclusion, the No. 34 appeared to be a formidable opponent. McDowell started on the pole and was no doubt looking to take advantage of a type of racing that plays to his strengths, especially after mechanical gremlins took him out of the Daytona 500.

Keselowski, too, needed to seize the day at Talladega, a track where he has won six times before and a great opportunity to end a three-year winless drought.

See also
Stat Sheet: Ford's Worst Start to a Season Since 2010

As the laps ticked away, McDowell did an excellent job leading the draft, blocking Keselowski in the low lane and Reddick in the high lane. The Nos. 34 and 6 were certainly working together to some degree, making sure that they would maintain a good position for the final laps.

But the alliance between McDowell and Keselowski was one of convenience. Only one driver can win each race, and sooner or later they would have to battle for the victory, regardless of their manufacturer ties. Meanwhile, Reddick and Truex continued to lead the high line. Did Toyota still have a chance after all?

In typical Talladega fashion, the last lap decided the race. With Gragson in tow, Keselowski timed a great run on McDowell at the exit of turn 4. McDowell blocked Keselowski high and then the No. 6 cut to the low line. McDowell veered across in front of Keselowski again, but it was too much, too fast. After more than 30 mistake-free laps, McDowell lost control and spun in front of the pack, allowing Reddick to slip by Keselowski in the tri-oval.

Chaos broke out behind them as drivers tried to get to the finish line, spinning, smoking, and, in Corey LaJoie’s case, sideways against the wall.

In recent history, it often feels like teams and manufacturers try to execute coordinated plans among their drivers at drafting tracks. It is perfectly natural and expected that the race teams do this. No competitor or organization in professional sports should approach their craft without making a game plan. But the lesson from Sunday’s race is that control is an illusion at Talladega.

The nature of pack racing creates some scenarios that are completely out of the competitors’ hands. No matter how good you are at drafting, no matter how fast your car is, and no matter how consistent your pit crew is, there are things at Talladega for which you simply cannot plan.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Strategy Call Goes Awry for Toyotas at Talladega

In Toyota’s case, the manufacturer was successful in getting one of its cars to victory lane and the early pit stop was crucial to getting Reddick up front. But the only reason why the plan worked for Reddick was because he was the first driver off pit road. If Jones had gotten out of the pits in front of Reddick, would he have been the one to win the race? Would the crash among the Toyota drivers have happened at all if Reddick was the one directly in front of Wallace?

You could credit the No. 45 pit crew for a quick refueling, but it’s not like there’s much difference in pit crew performance when it comes to a gas-and-go stop. Reddick and Jones had the same overall game plan, but factors that nobody could plan for gave them wildly different results.

Meanwhile, McDowell and Keselowski, who looked like they had mastered the draft on Sunday, both came up empty. McDowell ultimately finished 31st, a brutal result after how well he drove in the closing laps. Keselowski wound up second and earned points that could be crucial to his playoff hopes this season, but was understandably disappointed by missing out on a win.

At Talladega, your friends are where you find them and good friends can put you in a position to win races. But when only one of you can win, sometimes the best plans fall apart, as the Ford teams learned on Sunday.

It may frustrate the competitors at times, but from the fans’ perspective, Talladega is better for its unpredictability. NASCAR always needs to be proactive with safety at a track with such high speeds and heavy impacts. Yet part of what makes auto racing compelling is seeing how drivers respond to the things they cannot plan for, how they dare to impose order on the things they cannot control. There are more factors than usually outside a driver’s control at Talladega, and those factors were the decisive ones in Sunday’s race.

As Talladega so often goes, the race is never truly over until the checkered flag falls.

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.

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Shayne

NASCAR got their Big One. Success.

John

A nice,”sanitary” assessment of the race. 500 mile long strategy races do not make for good TV. “Plate races” have become so predictable I just DVR them and play the last 40 laps. There is no passing anymore…in fact, no racing up
to the last pit stop. So maybe Talladega can become an All Star race. Just run a 40 lap sprint to the finish, no pit stops, and do what they do at the Chili Bowl and keep a flip counter (sorry, a Geico or Gatorade or Aaron’s flip counter) to give the fans what they want…crashes. Because the point system rewards wins above all else…including common sense and sportsmanship. Drivers now feel as immortal as teenagers (which several of them are) because the cars are so safe there is no risk of death. There is no need to respect anyone. You can’t even throw a punch at someone because all drivers have hired goons to protect them.
So the new car with its virtual elimination of innovation and at-track tuning brought 2 years of parity before the big engineering organizations picked enough fly poop from the pepper to gain an advantage.
I love racing, but I’m done watching every Cup race flag to flag. Its just not that good anymore. To generate stars there need to be have’s and have nots. This is not youth sports where “everybody’s a winner.” Nascar needs to rethink its strategy when viewers like me are thinking their product is no longer worth my time.

Christopher

They just signed a multibillion media deal; they won’t care what viewers think for another seven years.

Shayne

Ding, ding, ding !!! Folks, we have a winner.

John

Once again Talladega–and all the other plate races (that’s what they are, regardless of terminology) prove the be both wreckfests and crapshoots.

Joshua

I remember a time in the mid 90s and even the early 2000s when cars strung out a little on plate tracks. That was because there were lots of different engine builders and less rules. Unfortunately, NASCAR responded to the fans desiring wrecks and now the cars simply bunch together the entire race. The “winning above all else” mentality certainly costs a lot of money and cars…I loved the days where competitors would conserve their equipment and work for a good finish. I seriously think that if NASCAR did a huge rules reversal and went back to the rules they had in the early 2000s…(unfortunately guys, ratings begin a SLOWWWWWW decline with the advent of the Chase and then dropped off….who can forget the glory days of 18 million viewers for the Daytona 500? NASCAR needs to cut the gimmicks and go back to what made it unique-full season champions, room for innovation and creativity and cars that are more stock…(such as ride height) and less aero dependent. With ALL THE ABOVE SAID. I AM A TRUE FAN. As for fairweather fans that stop watching as the sport changes and advances (for better or worse) we are better off without you, go watch Max Verstappen win by 20 seconds every race.

DoninAjax

The drivers at the front of the lines control the pace. It is evident to anyone with a stop watch or who pays attention to lap times. The difference Sunday was up to FIVE seconds per lap. There is a difference between a 192 mph lap and 175 mph lap.

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