Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Track Position Is King … at Talladega?

It almost sounds blasphemous. Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s biggest, baddest and widest oval, a track synonymous with action, thrills and three-wide pack racing, has become a battle of track position.

With the Next Gen car, that’s exactly what Talladega has become.

Last Sunday’s (April 21) GEICO 500 featured a whopping 72 lead changes, the most in any NASCAR Cup Series race since 2011. That’s an incredible number on paper, but simply watching the race would show that the number was heavily inflated by the field running half-throttle to conserve fuel.

The first two stages of Sunday’s 188-lap, 500-mile event almost looked cartoonish, as cars were running in a three-wide formation while slowing to as much as five seconds off the pace. Ross Chastain worked his way from 32nd to second in just four laps because no one was going 100% throttle, while BJ McLeod went from starting shotgun on the field to taking the lead by lap 10.

Having a three-wide pack may look aesthetically pleasing to the viewers and the fans in attendance, but it’s not real. It’s like watching traffic.

Chastain and McLeod were effectively running late to their jobs in uptown Charlotte at the start of the race, so they were weaving in and out of morning rush hour traffic on Interstate 77 at 80 mph as they made their way to the office. Meanwhile, all the other drivers were in no rush, and they were content with running the speed limit and taking it easy as they inched closer and closer to the skyscrapers in the distance.

Why was there the urge to take it easy? The fuel saving. With the first two stages being 60 laps apiece, drivers could not make it to the end of the stage on one tank. They had pit once under green, and that led to drivers backing off and saving as much fuel as possible so that they would emerge with the race lead or the best track position possible at the conclusion of the green flag pit cycle.

Could shortening the first two stages so that drivers could go the distance on one tank deter the amount of fuel saving that we saw on Sunday? It would give everyone the same opportunity to fill up, and drivers would theoretically be incentivized to go all out with the 10 stage points and one playoff point on the line. That may not be a perfect fix, however, as some drivers running toward the back may elect to save fuel under green so that they could leapfrog the leaders under the stage caution by taking less fuel on pit road.

See also
2-Headed Monster: Should NASCAR Make Changes to Deter Fuel Saving at Talladega?

Shortening the stages doesn’t solve the issue of fuel saving in the second half of the race either, and that’s because the fuel saving seen on Sunday is a symptom, not the disease; it’s a symptom because gaining positions in the Next Gen car while running full throttle is almost a hopeless cause.

Take the final 10 laps of Sunday. The entire time, it was Michael McDowell leading the line of Fords on the inside and Tyler Reddick leading the line of Toyotas on the outside. The cars running directly behind the leaders made no moves, and they were stuck pushing the car in front of them. A brief attempt at creating a third line ultimately went nowhere, and a driver pulling out of line was a guaranteed one-way ticket to the back of the running order.

For the final 10 laps, the field was essentially running pace car laps at race speed, with no changes in position from where they started. Look at any Talladega race from the Gen 6, Car of Tomorrow or Gen 4 eras where they weren’t running single file, and it would be damn near impossible to have the exact same running order 10 laps apart. But that’s the way it was on Sunday, and it wasn’t until the final lap when the Fords pulled clear of the Toyotas on the outside that anyone was able to make a move for the win. And Brad Keselowski’s said move to win the race only ended with an ill-timed block by McDowell that allowed Reddick to sneak by and take the victory.

The importance of all that fuel saving and all that pit strategy was put on full display in the closing laps of Sunday, as the cars at the front of the field stayed at the front of the field once it was go time. Pit strategy is what gave Reddick his position at the front of the field in the first place, as he and all the Toyotas pitted early in the final stage. Their plan was to run full throttle after the stops and jump the rest of the field, as everyone that stayed out would lose too much time saving gas to retain their positions at the end of the pit cycle.

See also
Corey Heim Replacing Injured Erik Jones at Dover

The strategy nearly backfired when John Hunter Nemechek, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones (who fractured a vertebra and will sit out this weekend at Dover Motor Speedway after a vicious head-on hit) all crashed while running in their full-throttle draft. But the resulting caution put Reddick and Martin Truex Jr. — the two Toyotas who avoided the wreck — at the front of the field for the final restart, as they were good to go on fuel while all the cars in front of them had to pit. And for the final 15-ish laps, it was Reddick leading the outside line with Truex pushed right behind the entire time.

Bottom line, the drivers wouldn’t have to go into max fuel save or have a flawless pit strategy if they were able to make moves to the front of the field. No one in Sunday’s race had an average running position higher than 11th, which to me shows that the fastest cars were unable to work their way back to the lead as they could in years past. The running order is effectively locked in once the field begins going all out, and with the current car, the first 150 laps have become a battle of strategy to be at the front of the field once everyone can go the distance on fuel.

At most tracks, pit strategy is a great thing, as it adds another layer of intrigue to the battles on track. But fans don’t show up to Talladega to see pit strategy, they show up to see cars reach 195 to 200 mph while the drivers push their cars to the absolute limit — even if it means some stints of single-file trains interspersed with two- and three-wide packs.

Give the drivers the ability to control their own destiny and make those moves toward the front of the field again, and the fuel-efficient economy runs of this year’s Daytona 500 and last week’s race at Talladega will become a thing of a past. But as is the case with most issues regarding the racing of the Next Gen car, the fix is easier said than done.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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