Long: Sunday drive right move for three of JGR cars

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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.

Now it’s time to race.