Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.
“I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.
For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:
How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?
Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.
Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018.
The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.
“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.
Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.
The results were impressive.
Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.
Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.
“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”
2. How long should drivers work together?
This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?
Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.
It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.
“You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.
“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”
Until strategies change.
“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”
3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?
With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.
Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.
So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?
“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.
“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.
“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”
4. What about Toyota teams?
Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.
“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”
Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.
Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.
“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”
Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”
He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.
Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.
But it’s close: While Truex was a unanimous choice among the NBC Sports NASCAR writers last week, Harvick was not an all-in pick this week. In fact, Harvick beat Truex by two points.
Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval race winner Chase Elliott made the biggest jump in the rankings, going from being unranked to No. 3 this week, just three points behind Harvick and only one point behind Truex.
The biggest drops were Denny Hamlin (tied for second last week to tied for 10th this week) and Kyle Busch (tied for fourth last week to tied for 10th this week).
Here are this week’s rankings:
1. Kevin Harvick (35 points): Third-place run at Roval marked his ninth top 10 in the last 10 races. Last week: Tied for fourth.
2. Martin Truex Jr. (33 points): So much for him winning three or even four in a row. Still, had a strong run on the Roval. A win at his home track of Dover would lock him into the Round of 8. Last week: First place.
3. Chase Elliott (32 points): Honestly, could anyone have predicted he’d bounce back from his wreck with 44 laps left – which dropped him from first to 37th place – and wind up winning? One of the best comebacks NASCAR has seen in years. Could be the key motivating factor that sends him all the way to Miami. Last week: Unranked.
4. Brad Keselowski (29 points): Fifth-place finish at the Roval was his fifth top-five result in the last six races. He’s under the radar but should not be overlooked.Last week: Tied for second.
5. Alex Bowman (19 points): Charged from the rear to a second-place finish in a backup car while feeling sick after being involved in two spins. That deserves recognition. Last week: Unranked.
6. Clint Bowyer (17 points): Had strong run when he needed it to advance to the next round. Now can he and his team repeat that effort in the second round? Top 10 finishes in five of his last six races. Has potential to be Cinderella story of playoffs. Last week: Ninth.
7. William Byron (13 points): Top 10s in three of last four races, but has to pick up performance even more if he hopes to advance to Round of 8. Last week: Unranked.
8. Kyle Larson (12 points): Penalty hurt him at Roval but he’s moving on to the second round, so there’s that. With teammate Kurt Busch now eliminated, Larson is carrying the championship torch for Chip Ganassi Racing. Can he deliver? Last week: Sixth.
9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): Even though he has top 10s in three of last four races, he’s in same boat as guys like Byron, Bowyer, Bowman and Larson: he has to significantly pick up his performance if he hopes to advance to the next round. Last week: Unranked.
(tie) 10. Denny Hamlin (7 points): Not a memorable run at the Roval but it’s all about surviving and advancing in the playoffs. Sitting fairly pretty heading into start of Round of 12 this weekend at Dover. Last week: Tied for second.
(tie) 10. Kyle Busch (7 points): Winless streak has now hit 15 races. Roval mechanical failure not his fault. Saving grace was all the playoff points he’s earned, allowing him to be No. 1 in the Cup standings heading to Dover. But he needs a win desperately. Can it come at Dover? Last week: Tied for fourth.
Clint Bowyer— Raced into a playoff spot with a fourth-place finish that included a pair of third-place results in the first two stages worth an additional 16 points. Entered the race 14th, two spots out of a cutoff spot and safely made it to the second round.
Johnny Klausmeier —Crew chief for Aric Almirola had his pit strategy backfire and it played a role in the team failing to advance in the playoffs. Klausmeier didn’t pit Almirola under caution on Lap 90 while many others did. Almirola struggled on the restart and lost the advantage he had. He pitted for tires on a caution at Lap 94 but was far back in the field and couldn’t gain enough ground, placing 14th and finishing five points out of the final playoff spot.
While leading on a restart with 45 laps left and shortly after winning Stage 2, Elliott came into Turn 1 and drove straight into the wall. It appeared Elliott was carrying too much speed into the turn and also applied the brakes too late, missing the turn and going straight ahead into the tire wall.
“What a mistake,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “Talk about messing something up. … I pretty well blew it and had the cautions fall at the right time and we were able to bring it back home.”
Elliott’s tangle with the tire wall was very similar to how Brad Keselowski, also while in the lead, went into the wall in last year’s Roval race. However, several other drivers were collected in that wreck, while Elliott’s crash Sunday was a solo incident.
After repairs on pit road, Elliott returned to the race in 37th place, but flew back up to 14th 10 laps later, up to eighth on Lap 85, fourth on Lap 95, third with nine laps to go and second with five laps to go before overtaking Kevin Harvick in the closing laps to take the checkered flag.
Seven races now remain in the playoffs. Things now move on to the Round of 12 but will do so without Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch, who were all eliminated after being the lowest-scoring drivers in the opening round.
The eliminations began with three laps to go in Stage 1 when several drivers made contact going into Turn 1, including Kurt Busch, Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. All but Jones’ car were able to continue. Jones took his car to the garage with a punctured radiator, ending his hopes of advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s unfortunate,” Jones told NBC Sports. “We just had three really bad weeks, some of our own doing, today not really of our own doing. … I’d love to be moving forward and challenging for the championship … It’s just the nature of the playoffs. We’ll keep racing all year and next year come back and improve all we can.”
STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott (by winning the stage, locked himself into Round of 12 on points).
WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE:William Byron led 24 laps and finished sixth. … Martin Truex Jr., who won the first two races of the opening round of the playoffs, started from the back of the field due to an engine change but roared back to finish seventh.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: With 19 laps to go, Ryan Newman stalled his car after a pit stop, losing several positions and dropping below the cutline in the running points chart. … Being three laps down to the leaders and sitting in 37th place, Kyle Busch took his car out of the race during the red flag stoppage with seven laps to go. It’s the second time Busch has finished 37th in the last four races and the regular season champion has now dropped to seventh in the standings after the first three playoff races.
NOTABLE: Alex Bowman was taken to the infield medical center after the race, reportedly for exhaustion. … Ryan Blaney limped his car around the track for much of the second half of the race with a broken left rear strut. He was able to hold on to advance to the playoffs. … Two days after being hospitalized with a kidney stone, Michael McDowell had a strong race Sunday, including running in the top five at times before finishing 12th. … With seven laps to go, the race was red-flagged for 8 minutes, 22 seconds due to fluid that needed to be cleaned up on the race track.
WHAT’S NEXT: The second round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs – also known as the Round of 12 – will begin Sunday, Oct. 5 at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).