One of the first things Kyle Larson said after winning last weekend at Dover was that “everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing at Talladega … except me.”
Talladega is here and it’s time for many drivers to stress. Except Larson, of course.
The playoff standings could be jumbled by the time the 500-mile journey at Talladega Superspeedway ends. Who will be collected in a crash? Who will get through the carnage and contend for the win?
Here is all the info for today’s race:
(All times are Eastern)
START:Edward Graham, assistant VP of Operation Christmas Child for Samaritan’s Purse, will give the command to start engines at 1:48 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:03 p.m.
PRERACE: The Cup garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at noon. Driver introductions are at 1:15 p.m. The invocation will be given at 1:41 p.m. by Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. The National Anthem will be performed at 1:42 p.m. by the 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Alabama.
DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500.08 miles) around the 2.66-mile track.
STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 55. Stage 2 ends on Lap 110.
TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race at 2 p.m. Coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.
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.
Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.
Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.
“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”
“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”
With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.
Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.
“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”
In fact, Chevy cars have gone to victory lane 781 times in Cup competition, most recently with Alex Bowman at Chicagoland Speedway.
But among all the active tracks the Cup Series has visited multiple times, there is one that continues to elude the bow tie: Kentucky Speedway, which the series returns to this weekend (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).
The Cup Series has visited the 1.5-mile track in Sparta, Kentucky, eight times since 2011. Each time Chevrolet came up empty.
The winners of those eight races have been divided among Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and the now defunct Furniture Row Racing, which won the last two races.
Two facts put Chevy’s lack of Kentucky win in perspective.
The Cup Series has been going to Kentucky long enough that three manufacturers have won there. That would be Toyota (five wins), Ford (two wins) and … Dodge.
Yes, Dodge claimed a win at Kentucky in 2012 with Brad Keselowski. That was its final year of competition before leaving NASCAR.
Also, remember Jeff Gordon? The four-time champion and winner of 93 races won at least once on every track he raced on in Cup competition … except Kentucky. Gordon never led a lap on the oval and his best result in five starts was fifth in 2012.
How close has Chevy come to winning in Kentucky?
It’s finished second three times, with Kasey Kahne in 2012, Jamie McMurray in 2013 and Kyle Larson in 2017. None of them led a lap in their efforts.
Johnson 182 laps in 2013, but finished ninth after he spun on a restart on Lap 248 while defending second place from Joey Logano.
Three years later, Harvick started from the pole and led 128 laps but he lost the lead to Keselowski on a Lap 200 restart. Keselowski went the final 67 laps without pitting and won. Like Johnson, Harvick finished ninth.
Austin Dillon swept the Xfinity Series races there in 2012.
“Kentucky is one of those places I’ve always been pretty decent at, going back to the NASCAR Truck Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series days,” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “We were able to win there, and any time that you head into a track that you’ve been successful at in the past you go in with some confidence.
“The repave is a few years old now (2016) so it should be fun to see how that’s shaping up. We will look forward to Kentucky as one of those places that we feel like we can run well at. At this point, we need a win in order to make it into the playoffs and that is our goal.”
Ty Dillon and Byron have one win each there in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series. Dillon won in 2013 and Byron in 2016.
“Kentucky has lost a lot of grip quickly,” Byron said in a media release. “They repaved it less than five years ago and it has really gotten grayer and grayer each year. I’m sure it’s going to be even more slick this year when we go back. It’s one of those tracks that takes a while to get rubber, so you just have to almost wait for that process to happen and make sure you tune your car to the rubber and not the clean track. That’s really all I’m worried about is once the rubber lays down you know it’s going to be a different race track.”
While Chevy hasn’t found victory lane in Kentucky, its drought comes up short of Ford and Toyota and the tracks those two manufacturers took the longest to win at.
Ford’s longest stretch occurred at Martinsville Speedway.
From the track’s opening in 1949, it took 24 races before the blue oval finally won on the short track with Fred Lorenzen in April 1961.
For Toyota, which debuted in the Cup Series in 2007, the track that plagued it the most was Auto Club Speedway.
It took 11 races on the 2-mile speedway before Kyle Busch won there in March 2013. The race total before his win was helped by Auto Club hosting two races a year from 2004-2010.
Here are the tracks Chevrolet has its fewest Cup wins at courtesy of Racing Insights.
Jerry Bonkowski: Kevin Harvick (but Kyle Larson is a very close candidate to also do so).
What do you predict will happen in the month of July in NASCAR?
Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 driver lineup will be solidified.
Dustin Long: Something surprising from the garage. Stay tuned.
Daniel McFadin:Martin Truex Jr. gets one last monkey off his back and wins his first superspeedway race at Daytona.
Jerry Bonkowski: I think we’ll see some clarity on the Joe Gibbs Racing situation vis-a-vis Christopher Bell and Erik Jones. I also expect to see at least one more first-time winner in 2019, and at least one winless driver in 2019 finally cashes in. I also expect to hear at least one driver being announced he will not be returning to his present team for 2020.
Chevrolet teams worked together at Talladega and the result was Chase Elliott winning. Will this newfound togetherness lead to a Chevy winning at Daytona this weekend?
Nate Ryan: No; teamwork seems to matter less in the night race at Daytona (and if there’s as much attrition as last year, it probably won’t matter at all).
Dustin Long: It will help them early in the race but attrition and circumstances will make it matter less at the end.
Daniel McFadin: It’ll be a challenge. Ford will probably fight fire with fire and Toyota will put up a fight. But plans only work until they don’t. I don’t think Chevy wins in Daytona.
Jerry Bonkowski: Given how dominating Toyota has been, Chevrolet has to rip a page from Toyota’s notebook to get itself back in the middle of the hunt not only for the manufacturer’s championship, but more importantly, to get several more of its drivers back in victory lane and put pressure on Toyota.
Clint Bowyer has finished 35th or worse in two of the past three races and then this week he was stung by wasps in a barn. What would you suggest for Bowyer so that his bad luck might end?
Nate Ryan: The man known for amateur pyrotechnic skills should host his own personal fireworks show Thursday night above Lake Lloyd, soaking in the goodwill from the infield campers that he will dazzle on the Fourth of July.
Dustin Long: Blow something up. Even if it doesn’t work, you’ve blown something up and got to feel good.