High above crowd, spotters play key role in who wins and who doesn’t at restrictor-plate tracks

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STATESVILLE, N.C. – How the word popped up, spotter Joey Meier isn’t sure. Somewhere within his brain, as Meier described the madness around Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at Talladega Superspeedway in an auctioneer’s call, the word emerged.

Energy.

Meier used the word midway through the May Sprint Cup race to alert Keselowski to a surging line of cars behind him. Keselowski moved to block the lane. Meier kept using the word. Team members began counting. The total reached triple digits.

Meier said energy 11 times in the race’s final two minutes. In sync, Keselowski’s car drifted to block whatever line charged. During the final lap, a 14-second snippet featured this Meier soundtrack:

Energy behind you. Up top. 

Energy up top. Energy up top.

Behind the 18. 24 bottom lane one back. 18 is clear. Two-wide behind him. 18 is clear. One back behind him, two-wide. No energy up top. 

Meier’s fast-paced traffic report helped Keselowski win the most recent restrictor-plate race.

As the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night’s race on NBC, the role of spotters again is magnified. Originally employed as a safety feature, spotters have become a strategic element, studying race tape, analyzing pit road and surveying the competition, to give their driver and crew chief insights from above the stands.

It’s little coincidence that eight of the last 10 restrictor-plate races have been won by four drivers. All four — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Keselowski — have been with their current spotter since at least 2013.

“My spotter is definitely an all-star,’’ Keselowski said. “He’s been part of three of the four Talladega wins (Keselowski has had), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.’’

BUILDING TRUST

Meier first started spotting for Keselowski in 2006, and T.J. Majors has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s spotter since 2007. That familiarity is important to a driver.

“You get to working with the same guy for a long time and you sort of get to where you speak the same language and he knows what you want and don’t want,’’ said Earnhardt, who won last July’s Daytona race, leading 96 of 161 laps. “As a driver, it just gives you confidence having somebody that you trust and believe in and you know is going to give you good information. You can drive the car with more confidence.’’

It often takes time to get to that point. Eddie D’Hondt was Jeff Gordon’s spotter from 2012-15. He guided Gordon to a record fifth Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Gordon’s 93rd and final triumph last fall at Martinsville Speedway during that time. This season, D’Hondt is rookie Chase Elliott’s spotter, a role D’Hondt also performed when Elliott was in the Xfinity Series.

Still, there have been challenges meshing, especially in restrictor-plate races where so much happens at once.

D’Hondt admits it took about 10 restrictor-plate races to “click” with Gordon and that didn’t come until they watched tape together. D’Hondt said that he and Elliott “really didn’t click at all” during the qualifying race in February at Daytona. They discussed what could be better afterward.

Two days later, Elliott won the Xfinity race after he jumped to the top lane to block a line of cars off Turn 2 and held off Joey Logano at the finish line. Elliott called that experience a big “trust-building day” with D’Hondt.

It’s not easy for a driver to hear a different voice in his ear. Regan Smith joined Tommy Baldwin Racing a month before the Daytona 500. He had never worked with spotter Doug Campbell until Daytona. They watched tape ahead of time so Smith could hear Campbell call certain situations.

“You know pretty fast how aggressive you can be with a spotter and how aggressive they’re going to be with you, so by the time we got done with the (qualifying race), I knew kind of where his aggressive points were and where they weren’t,’’ Smith said. “We sat down after the (qualifying race) and said, ‘Hey … this could be a little different, this was really good. You almost know as a driver if it is going to work with a spotter pretty quick.’’

PAINT A PICTURE

There are numerous challenges and many things drivers want from their eye in the sky. It’s not so easy.

“He’s got to paint a picture in my mind what is going on back there,’’ said 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano of spotter Tab Boyd. “You got to collect all the data before you make a decision. If you’re not getting all the data, you’re going to make poor decisions.

“I think about that when I’m up there (on the spotters’ stand) watching races. I act like I’m spotting a car sometimes. Most of the times … it’s ‘Oh my God, look out!’ That’s what it would it be if I spotted. That’s why I don’t spot. They’re good at it.’’

Billy O’Dea, now Paul Menard‘s spotter, was Kevin Harvick’s spotter for years before Harvick left Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. One of O’Dea’s proudest moments came when Harvick nipped Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega in April 2010.

During practice that weekend, O’Dea watched Gordon make a late move along the frontstretch to beat Jeff Burton to the finish line. It showed O’Dea where the winning move needed to be made and he told Harvick that.

On the final lap of that race, Harvick was second, pushing McMurray. In turn 4, O’Dea radioed Harvick:

“You know what you’ve got to do.’’

With the start/finish line beyond the tri-oval at Talladega, there was still a long way to go. Harvick started to make his move off Turn 4. O’Dea stopped him.

“Not yet. Just keep coming. You’ll get him.’’

As Harvick went through the tri-oval, O’Dea was like a jockey telling his horse what was needed.

Stay on him … Go!

Harvick cut to the left, got inside McMurray and won by 11-thousandths of a second.

After screaming on the radio, Harvick said: “That played out to the T.’’

TROPHIES AND TROUBLE

Trophies adorn Meier’s office at the hanger for Brad Keselowski’s plane. Meier, a pilot, can look around and see all the success he’s had with Keselowski.

Still, Meier’s mind flashes back to a time he made a mistake and the consequences.

“I can instantly remember wrecking Robert Richardson at Talladega,’’ Meier said of an Xfinity incident years ago. “It’s one of those things that we carry with us. (Spotters) are important and our mistakes are magnified at these restrictor-plate races.’’

As he thinks about the incident, he sees Richardson on the inside of another car in Turn 4.

“I was being real aggressive,’’ Meier said. “We were coming around the corner and we were on the bottom and we had momentum. I figured the momentum was going to clear us and we didn’t and we stalled out. By the time I said ‘clear high’ we had stalled and he came up to get in that lane and we just wiped out five or six cars.’’

Afterward, Meier went to the garage and apologized to Richardson and the crew chief.

“You know for that split-second, even though the driver trusted you, that you broke his trust,’’ Meier said. “What it taught me, after that incident … I’ll tell Brad this all the time, I won’t tell you where you can go more than I will tell you can’t go. If I’m saying outside and you think it’s clear, go out there, but I won’t tell you clear unless I know it’s clear. That’s what I learned.’’

Sometimes, the difference between winning or a good day and failing to finish can be one call from a spotter, especially when cars run inches apart at Daytona and Talladega.

For such lessons, though, there can be rewards. D’Hondt thinks back to when Keselowski had to win at Talladega during the 2014 Chase to advance and did so.

“I went to Joey (Meier) after the race and you would have thought someone had handed him a million dollars because he made the difference,’’ D’Hondt said. “I understand that. It’s very rewarding.’’

It can be if one can handle all the stress.