TALLADEGA, Ala. — It went against every tenet a sport of speed is built upon.
It went against every instinct drivers have.
It worked just as Joe Gibbs Racing planned.
Run at the back of the pack.
With three JGR cars not needing a top-20 finish to clinch a spot in the Round of 8, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch fell to the back Sunday before the green flag at Talladega Superspeedway and stayed there until the checkered flag.
“The easiest thing in the world is to just say, ‘Hell with it, we’re going to go race, we’re going to do everything we can and not worry about it,’ but that’s foolish,’’ Edwards said after finishing 29th, sandwiched between Kenseth (28th) and Busch (30th). “This is the format. We have to do what it takes to advance.’’
Kenseth, Edwards and Busch joined teammate Denny Hamlin, who had to race his way into a transfer spot with a third-place finish, as among the eight drivers left competing for the Sprint Cup title.
Among those who failed to advance Sunday were Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Each has won four races, tied with Busch and Kevin Harvick for most victories this season. That doesn’t matter. Blown engines kept Truex and Keselowski, who led a race-high 90 laps, from advancing.
So two drivers who raced at the front Sunday no longer have a shot to win the title, and three drivers who ran at the back still do.
Don’t blame Joe Gibbs Racing for a strategy that some fans will view as a travesty. After eight crashes at this track in the May 1 race, Edwards, Kenseth and Busch did the smart thing by riding in the back, looking to avoid the massive pileup that often happens but didn’t this time.
Even if they had run at the front, there was no guarantee they would avoid trouble. More than half of the crashes that took place in the previous five Talladega races started within the top 10 of the field.
“It wasn’t really the most fun way to race, but it’s kind of what we had to do,’’ Kenseth said.
“Honestly, it’s probably one of the unintended consequences of the way this Chase works with eliminations, especially being at Talladega. Most tracks, except restrictor-plate tracks, you’re as safe riding in eighth place and racing pretty hard as you are in 25th place. It’s really just unique to Daytona and Talladega.
People upset with what the JGR cars did should be upset that a restrictor-plate race is in the Chase.
Of course, that’s not going to change. Talladega is in the Chase for a reason — many fans like it.
They like the close racing, the sense of danger and the unknown that can lead to a surprise winner or chaotic finish. While there wasn’t a surprise winner — Joey Logano won this event for a second year in a row — and there wasn’t the chaos a last-lap crash can cause, there was close racing throughout.
So, what’s the solution to the Sunday drive by Edwards, Kenseth and Busch?
It might come next year when Talladega is no longer an elimination race. It swaps places with Kansas Speedway and will be the middle race in this round.
“It will change the dynamic a little bit,’’ Hamlin said of the move. “Being the second race, it for sure will entice those guys to race all day, I think.’’
Hamlin concedes that some drivers still might want to run at the back for part of the race next year, but that has happened for years.
“That’s the way they want to play the game,’’ he said. “Everyone can play it how they want. You just got to get to the checkered flag in time.’’
Edwards, Kenseth and Busch did.
Asked if it was the greatest 30th-place finish he ever had earned, Busch smiled as he stood on pit road: “Pretty much. We accomplished all we needed to accomplish. We’ll take it and move on. We didn’t get paid very well today, but we’ll get paid very well in about four weeks when we’re hoisting a (championship) trophy.’’
Now the series heads next to Martinsville Speedway. There will be no hiding in the back there or the rest of the Chase.
The most important line in NASCAR lately doesn’t involve when the checkered flag waves and definitively determines the winner of a race.
No, this line is much hazier: The apparently nebulous border between being regarded a well-heeled, responsible citizen of NASCAR Nation who still gets a point across and (gasp!) an irresponsible scofflaw who indiscriminately commits revenge in the least noble of ways.
If you are traveling roughly 50 mph and lightly pin another car against the wall and cause so much “damage”, that car still finishes on the lead lap, that is mostly OK the first time (but probably not the second).
It helps if you also finish well behind that car (which ruined your shot at winning with a rookie mistake).
You know, as you would for any sort of physical assault in the real world.
If you scream at another guy and get held back by your team in a shoving match without much violence that goes viral, your sponsor might give you a bonus for the millions of extra impressions. But don’t expect any residuals from the tracks that incessantly use those highlights to sell tickets.
For some, it prompted the memory of a heated exchange between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin after a dustup in a 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying race.
“You don’t have to actually hit me,” Patrick said. “I like you, Denny. You’re my friend.”
“I know, you’re my friend,” Hamlin said. “I get it.”
There’s no removing the friendships formed in the motorhome lot from modern-day NASCAR, where most of the drivers in the Cup series are raising families on the road, and teams want to simplify and streamline their lives outside the car.
But how much of a Chinese wall needs to be built between the personal interactions of the motorhome lot and the professional workings of the garage?
At the very least, Letarte’s idea is worthy of being considered by tracks. There’s enough time for socialization throughout the course of a race weekend, and it probably is best done outside the view of the public.
When drivers walk out of their motorhome lot and underneath signs such as this one on the left at Texas Motor Speedway (“The greatest drivers and mechanics in the world work here!”), everyone’s gloves should go on, and their guards should go up.
–Monster Energy is based in Corona, California, about a 30-minute drive to Auto Club Speedway, and the new series title sponsor made its presence felt at the 2-mile oval.
Monster erected a major hospitality display in the infield, and Clint Bowyer was among the drivers who took a tour of company headquarters.
“We had a ton of fun over there,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “The brass there was eager to meet us and bench race, which is always fun with any organization you meet.
“When the brass (wants) your perspective on the job they’re doing and what they can do to further enhance the impact, it’s a breath of fresh air. We definitely had that. I do think you’ll continue to see a bigger splash as we go on.”
There were some misgivings that Monster might have made too big a splash, however, with a drivers meeting entrance at Fontana that resembled the sort of club found in nearby Hollywood (minus the midday sunshine).
I'm sorry but this is so weird. Drivers are heading to work. Not the club. This would be awesome entering a nightclub! #awkward 🙈😂😂😂 https://t.co/978DIfME3C
Late Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR PR executive Jim Hunter played football and baseball at South Carolina, and NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett was offered a golf scholarship there.
Among those active in NASCAR who hail from South Carolina: Kerry Tharp, Darlington Raceway president; Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler (and an active Gamecocks fan on Twitter); Jason Ratcliff (crew chief for Matt Kenseth);
Donnie Wingo (crew chief for Landon Cassill); Steve Addington (longtime crew chief);Michael Nelson (vice president of operations at Team Penske); Jeremy Clements (Xfinity driver for family’s Spartanburg-based team).
–It might have been prompted by being the leadoff to his media availability Friday, but the answer had the sort of edge unaccustomed from Jimmie Johnson.
“People are questioning your performance this year. Are you guys at a point where you could get that seventh win here?” asked Kickin’ The Tires.net editor Jerry Jordan (in a blunt but fair question).
“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean, come on,” Johnson immediately responded with a slight laugh, before telling Jordan, “I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever. I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run.
“We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to. Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point. Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”
Of course, those turned out to be famous last words on a lost weekend in which Johnson crashed in practice, didn’t make a qualifying lap in a backup car and finished a nondescript 21st.
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is right that it’s too early to ask too many questions about his lack of results. But his answer made it natural to wonder whether some questions have crossed his mind, too.
—Buried in the multimillion-dollar countersuitKurt Busch filed last Friday against his former management agency was this nugget: When he entered into a 2010 contract extension with Sports Management Network, the firm received 4% of Busch’s base salary at Penske, or $250,000.
Kudos to colleague Dustin Long (who has more than two decades of experience combing through legal documents with these sorts of details) for noting that means Busch’s base salary was $6.25 million at Penske. Such driver compensation rarely comes to light.
—The best racing of the weekend was in the Xfinity race, which featured a stirring duel for the lead between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and then another fierce battle at the front in heavy traffic between winner Kyle Larson and Logano (who rallied three times from deep in the pack).
Yes, all those drivers are full-time Cup regulars. There are some who will make the case that should disqualify the Xfinity race from being evaluated as stellar, but it’s impossible to deny it delivered the highest entertainment value (regardless of who was racing the cars).
–NASCAR’s Snapchat account Sunday was filled with Hollywood types pledging their allegiance to stock cars, and roughly four dozen celebrities were in the pits for the Auto Club 400.
This isn’t new for Fontana, which has a long history of trying to attract the beautiful people from the west side of Los Angeles (with mixed results). But it’s good to see NASCAR actively leveraging their attendance into something tangible (even if in the most ephemeral of social media mediums).
NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Martinsville Speedway
With NASCAR’s “West Coast Swing” over, the sport returns east this weekend with a visit to Martinsville Speedway.
While the Xfinity Series takes a week off, the Camping World Truck Series returns for its first race since March 4 at Atlanta.
Here are the preliminary entry lists for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Truck Series.
Cup Series – STP 500
There are 38 cars on the entry lists for the first Cup race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. A full field would be 40 cars. The last four races have had 39 entries.
Jimmie Johnson won in the Cup Series’ last visit to the half-mile track last October. Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the STP 500. Busch led 352 of 500 laps to earn his first Cup win at the short track.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” about Kenseth’s incident and the angle that Kenseth’s car hit.
“We’ll download all the data, in this case from the incident data recorder, we’ll talk to Matt, we will inspect the car for sure with all of our safety engineers and kind of combine all that data and look at the angle and the speed and scrub and look at all that data to make sure that we have the best possible outcome,’’ O’Donnell said.
“One of the things you pointed out was the angle of the wall. It’s positioned that way for the safety equipment, but are there tweaks we can make? We’ve done that numerous times in terms of you see a crash that you never thought would happen and it kind of opens some eyes and (you) say, ‘OK is there a better way to potentially angle this wall?’
“So that is something we’ll work with the speedway and our safety engineers and the race team to look at, thankful that everything worked out. There was a SAFER barrier, Matt got out and walked away, and as you guys said, you never want to see that angle, and if we can prevent that, we certainly will.’’
Martin Truex Jr. will never know what might have happened if he had pitted for four tires late in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Cup race.
“I’d like to find out,” Truex told Fox Sports afterward.
By not pitting, Truex wound up finishing fourth after being the top challenger to winner Kyle Larson for most of the 404-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.
“It was definitely not the situation we wanted to be in, but we thought more guys would stay out there,” Truex said. “It was definitely a disadvantage at the end and just really tight. Holding on for fourth was good for points.”
Even though Truex fell to fourth, it was pretty much him vs. Larson for most of the race.
“We were right there all day long,” Truex said. “I felt like (Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air.
“Towards the end we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end.”
It still was a strong day for Truex, who led 73 laps. It just wasn’t a strong enough finish that kept him from a second win of 2017.
“We had a big disadvantage at the end, playing defense more than offense. We played offense all day, and I was able to run first or second most of the day.
“At the end of the day had a disadvantage on tires and that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you make the call and it’s right and sometimes your call is wrong. We made the wrong one today, but to come home with a fourth after all that, definitely a good day for us.”
One of the few not so good things that happened Sunday was when Truex was involved in a tangle with Matt Kenseth on Lap 184 that sent the latter driver into the inside SAFER Barrier.
“We got together with the 20 on that one restart and I feel awful about that,” Truex told Fox. “I don’t know whose fault it was. I think we were both kinda moving at the same time.
“I was still coming up and he started to come down and we got together. Obviously, I’ve got to go talk with him about that. I feel terrible.”