What matters at Talladega: Strategizing around big crashes


The threat of “The Big One” — a large, multi-car crash — looms large at Talladega Superspeedway. Such an accident, given the close-proximity racing typically seen on drafting tracks, is largely unavoidable; however, risk can be mitigated by avoiding the track’s hot spots.

Across the last 16 Talladega races (dating back to 2013), there were 35 crashes consisting of four or more cars. Based on inclusion rates for each position, there was a clear minefield in the middle of the running order:

With 17th place (an inclusion rate of 45.71%) acting as Talladega’s most collected spot, positions 12th-18th were the common nexus for the track’s large accidents. Containing varying degrees of difficulty, there are three viable paths to avoiding these mid-pack positions outright:

Running near the front

Contrary to recent Daytona races, the front of the field is respected at Talladega.

The car in the lead position was included in just 8.57% of crashes during the last eight years, with the three trailing positions seeing inclusion rates below 23%. It’s not pristine, but it’s offered amenability for forward-thinking strategy.

Stewart-Haas Racing pulled off a surprisingly disciplined Talladega race in the fall of 2018, with its four cars leading 155 of 193 laps and securing the win for Aric Almirola. This plan ran counter to the most obvious strategy — run in the back, safely distanced from the peloton — and was probably enacted given the procured starting positions of first, second, third and fourth via traditional qualifying.

Without that ideal initial track position and a four-car bulwark, holding off all comers, especially towards the end of stages or the race itself, is a difficult proposition. Driving from the middle or rear to those front running spots in particular invites risk, potentially jeopardizing the outcome of the race.

It is the perception of risk that will fuel or foil a team’s on-the-fly strategy. After 11 cars were eliminated within the first 15 laps of February’s Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin, who spent those initial laps running between 31st and 38th, inherited a lead after a bevy of pit stops following the rain delay and didn’t relent, leading 98 of the final 169 laps. This was a choice informed by a perceived reduction in risk, assisted by the elimination of having to pass his way through the most populated, crash-happy area.

At Talladega, the front of the field offers a safe haven from crashes, more so than Daytona, made safer with each subsequent accident.

Riding in the rear

Visible on the above chart are the single-digit crash inclusion rates of cars in the rear of Talladega’s field. Granted, those rates are inflated somewhat by cars that have already crashed, the slow burn towards the hot spots indicates it’s still a viable plan for lead-lap cars.

With other cars in on the plan — a single car would not only lose the draft, but also risk going a lap down — it’s the closest to a guarantee for avoiding crash inclusion.

What should be noted, though, is that when done successfully, riding in the rear offers a temporary relief. At some point, a driver will point towards the front in search of stage points or the race win; at best, this strategy is utilized to stay out of crashes in moments where riding in the pack is completely unnecessary.

The driver who arguably best epitomized this balance over the last four years isn’t entered into today’s race.

Ty Dillon, while not a race winner, was the only driver running at the finish in each of the last eight Talladega races. His 17.9-place average running position during that time suggests he was a fixture in the worst running whereabouts, but that’s wildly misleading. His lowest positions in all but one of those races were 29th or worse; his best positions in all but one were third or better. Despite just one top-five finish during this span, he collected the seventh-most stage points and the second most among non-winners, making effective use of the two most advantageous running tactics.

Using pit road to avoid the mid-pack morass

How might a team move from the rear to the front without mixing it up against dense traffic?

Pit road offers the path, especially in the first stage where a competition caution will fall. With minimal tire wear, Talladega is a fuel-dependent track and if a car has enough gas in the tank to last until a stage’s conclusion, there’s no point in pitting.

Teams will change tires, of course, but anticipate many choosing right sides only, then alternating on a later stop, because a two-tire stop lasts the length of a gas tank being properly topped off. The diminished need for tires gives crew chiefs flexibility in choosing track position above all. If timed properly, a team could avoid pit road under yellow and score pivotal risk-reducing positions.

Under green-flag conditions, this dance becomes more delicate but offers the same impact. As the above chart suggests, this year’s Daytona 500 was effectively flipped when the Fords, deeper in number and better in execution, leapfrogged Toyota’s most realistic potential winner on the final pit cycle of the race. Hamlin fell from first to 13th during this cycle, removed from observable contention. Eventual winner Michael McDowell moved from 15th to fifth, a position from which he capitalized on the last-lap accident between Penske teammates.

It’s ironic that both Daytona and Talladega, known for close racing and big crashes, are affected in this manner by pit-road maneuvering. But this is an essential part in reducing the heavy risk associated with competing for wins, machinations that put drivers and teams in rare control at NASCAR’s most calamitous, unpredictable racetracks.

NASCAR suspends Chase Elliott one race for incident with Denny Hamlin


NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one Cup race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600, the sanctioning body announced Tuesday.

“We take this very seriously,” Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition, said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The incident that happened off Turn 4, again after looking at all the available resources — in-car camera, data, SMT, which basically gives us (a car’s) steering, throttle, gives us braking — it was an intentional act by Chase in our opinion.”

Hendrick Motorsports stated that it would not appeal the penalty. Corey LaJoie will drive the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. Carson Hocevar will drive LaJoie’s car this weekend.

Hendrick Motorsports also stated that it would submit a waiver request for Elliott to remain eligible for the playoffs. Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “I don’t see any reason at this point in time why wouldn’t (grant the waiver) when that request comes across our desk.”

This weekend will mark the seventh race in the first 15 that Elliott will have missed. He missed six races after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident in early March. Elliott, who is winless this season, is 29th in points.

Elliott and Hamlin got together shortly before the halfway mark in Monday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

As they ran together, Hamlin forced Elliott toward the wall. Elliott’s car slapped the wall. Elliott then made contact with the right rear of Hamlin’s car, sending Hamlin into the wall.

“I got right-rear hooked in the middle of the straightway,” Hamlin said after the incident. “Yes, it was a tantrum. He shouldn’t be racing next week. Right-rear hooks are absolutely unacceptable. He shouldn’t be racing.”

Said Sawyer on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “In the heat of the battle, things happen, but they have to learn to react in a different way. … Our drivers need to understand that you have to handle that in a completely different way than hooking someone in the right rear and putting them in harm’s way, not only with just a major head-on collision like Denny had, but also other competitors.”

Sawyer also said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “nothing gave us the indication that on that particular contact with the fourth-turn wall … that anything was broke” on Elliott’s car and could have caused him to come down and hit Hamlin’s car in the right rear.

NASCAR also announced that Scott Brzozowski and Adam Lewis, crew members on Michael McDowell‘s team, had each been suspended two races after McDowell’s car lost a tire in Monday’s race.

Winners and losers at Charlotte Motor Speedway


A look at winners and losers from Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:


Ryan Blaney — Blaney stopped his winless streak at 59 races and gave team owner Roger Penske his second major race victory in two days. Blaney had the best car but had to fight through restarts late in the race to win.

William Byron — Byron, the winningest driver this season, barely missed getting victory No. 4. He finished second and scored his fifth straight top 10.

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex logged his third top five of the season.

23XI RacingBubba Wallace was fourth and Tyler Reddick fifth, giving 23XI Racing a pair of top-five finishes for the first time in a points race.


Jimmie Johnson — The seven-time champion admitted having problems adjusting to the Next Gen car on a 1.5-mile track. He crashed early and finished last.

Legacy Motor Club — It was a bad night for Jimmie Johnson and his team’s drivers. Johnson finished last in the 37-car field. Noah Gragson was 36th. Erik Jones placed 32nd.

Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin — Two drivers who had strong cars didn’t make it to the finish after crashing near the halfway point. Hamlin said Elliott “shouldn’t be racing next week. Right-rear hooks are absolutely unacceptable. He shouldn’t be racing.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series results: Justin Allgaier wins at Charlotte


CONCORD, N.C. — Justin Allgaier finally broke through for his first win of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season Monday night.

Allgaier stretched his last fuel load over the final laps to finish in front of John Hunter Nemechek. Cole Custer was third, Austin Hill fourth and Ty Gibbs fifth. Gibbs ran both races Monday, completing 900 miles.

The win also was the first of the season for JR Motorsports.

Charlotte Xfinity results

Xfinity points after Charlotte

Justin Allgaier wins NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway


CONCORD, N.C. — Justin Allgaier won a fuel-mileage gamble to win Monday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Allgaier stretched his fuel to outlast second-place John Hunter Nemechek. Following in the top five were Cole Custer, Austin Hill and Ty Gibbs.

The victory was Allgaier’s first of the year and the first of the season for JR Motorsports. He has 20 career wins.

MORE: Charlotte Xfinity results

After a long day at CMS, the race ended at 11:25 p.m. The race started Monday morning but was stopped twice because of weather before it was halted with 48 of 200 laps completed so that the Coca-Cola 600 Cup Series race could be run.

When the race was stopped, Gibbs, Nemechek and Allgaier were in the top three positions.

Gibbs won the first two stages.

Stage 1 winner: Ty Gibbs

Stage 2 winner: Ty Gibbs

Who had a good race: Justin Allgaier has had good cars in previous races but finally cashed in with a win Monday. He led 83 laps. … John Hunter Nemechek, in second, scored his fifth top-two run of the season. … Cole Custer scored his sixth straight top-10 finish. … Ty Gibbs lasted 900 miles for the day and led 52 laps in the Xfinity race.

Who had a bad race: Sam Mayer was running 10th when he spun off Turn 2. He finished 35th. … Sheldon Creed finished three laps down in 28th.

Next: The series moves on to Portland International Raceway in Oregon for a 4:30 p.m. ET race June 3.