Ryan: Even without plates, Talladega still served up a spectacular show

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Better plate than never?

That was a major question entering this year’s Daytona 500 — and particularly after a pair of lackluster races at Talladega Superspeedway last season.

The 2019 season opener marked the last superspeedway race before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates permanently were removed and replaced by the (similarly shaped) tapered spacers used to choke down engines at the rest of the tracks on the circuit.

The plates defined some of the most indelible moments, both tragic and triumphant, in NASCAR over the past three decades

So what would the post-plate era look like in NASCAR?

The 26 Hours of Talladega provided a definitive answer: A lot like most of everything that transpired on the biggest, fastest tracks in NASCAR for the previous 31 years.

Incessant chaos, crushed sheet metal and costly errors.

In other words, insanity on four wheels (as Marcos Ambrose infamously dubbed it) for 500 miles at a time.

It’s the bedrock upon which superspeedway racing happily has rested for three decades in the interest of entertainment (and, ostensibly, safety in ensuring speeds are manageable enough to prevent cars from sailing over catchfences with disturbing regularity at Daytona and Talladega).

After an off-year in 2018, NASCAR found its sweet spot in Sweet Home Alabama this season.

The most arbitrary form of racing delivered by NASCAR’s premier series again felt as predictably unpredictable as it ever had since the restrictor-plate era began in 1988. There were colossal crashes, double-crossing duplicity and razor-tight finishes.

That was great for fans. It wasn’t necessarily good for Cup drivers.

Of course, it rarely is in the finicky and violent environs of Dega, which was unusually tame last year with only two wrecks of at least a half-dozen cars across 1,013 miles (this year, there were three times as many).

The knock on plate racing in 2018 was the lack of driveability. It’s hard to make passes when cars aren’t stable at 200 mph-plus in the draft.

That put the leader at a huge advantage of being able to tow lines at will and control the front of the pack in a decidedly un-Talladega-esque manner. It was most evident last October when Stewart-Haas Racing led 155 of 188 laps with cars that (stunningly) were built for handling instead of speed.

NASCAR addressed this by raising spoilers to 9 inches with the advent of the spacers. That didn’t do much for handling, but it did punch a bigger hole in the air that caused massive acceleration in the draft and eradicated the “aero bubble” barrier that drivers said made it difficult for trailing cars to pass last year.

So the ability to catch the leader improved … even though handling didn’t nearly as much (look no further than Joey Logano’s in-car camera, which was a furious blur of hands manhandling the steering wheel on every shot).

That was a recipe for the return of the huge wrecks that felt like Dega of yesteryear. Holes in the draft vanished much more quickly, and blocking became futile as drivers scrambled (and often failed) to adapt to the higher closing rates.

If there was a theme, it was that misjudgment on blocking and bumping made the racing much more treacherous – particularly in the rain-shortened July 7 wreckfest at Daytona and the extravaganza Sunday-Monday.

As analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in the NBC broadcast, though the bumpers don’t line up as well with the Gen 6 as in the previous iteration (which spawned the nefarious tandem drafting), the bump-drafting has become even more aggressive in the era of stage points and playoff berths tied to wins.

With bigger runs coming from every direction, an increased susceptibility to being passed and cars just as unstable when in a pack, the lead no longer was the place to be at Talladega.

There were more lead changes Sunday-Monday (46, up from 38 in the April 28 race) than the combined total (40) for both 2018 races. There were 22,214 green-flag passes (59 per lap) at Talladega in 2019, up from 13,294 last year (35 per lap).

A NASCAR without restrictor plates?

Talladega still served up the action for fans — on a silver platter strewn with twisted sheet metal, of course.


The situations weren’t entirely analogous, but NASCAR’s non-call on the final lap Monday was reminiscent of its controversial non-call on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning pass of Matt Kenseth in the April 6, 2003 race at Talladega. In both instances, officials claimed the spirit of the yellow-line rule wasn’t violated even though the letter clearly was.

Here’s how the rule was presented in the drivers meeting at Talladega: “Drivers, this is your warning. Race above the double-yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you go below the double-yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you force someone below the double-yellow line in an effort to stop someone from passing you, you may be black-flagged.”

It’s indisputable that, just like Earnhardt did in passing Kenseth 16 years ago, Ryan Blaney went below the yellow line before taking the lead for good Monday from Ryan Newman. It’s possible that contact with Newman caused Blaney to dip below the boundary, and that seems to be NASCAR’s explanation in why no call was made.

But it also seems like the rule demands that (as it did in 2003) a penalty should have been called on either Blaney or Newman. NASCAR can rule that “in its judgment,” Blaney didn’t intentionally go below the yellow-line to improve his position … but if that’s the case, it means he had to have been forced there, right?

Regardless, NASCAR officials say they are happy with the language of the rule.

Given that it affords them tremendous leeway to turn every yellow-line pass into a ball and strike call, it’s easy to see why.


As many have noted, manufacturer alliances at Daytona and Talladega were invented long before the 21st century. In the 1990s, Chevrolet and Ford drivers regularly worked together – when possible — to try to ensure their makes won the race.

But there were some glaring differences about the tempest that sprung forth last weekend and sparked major disgruntlement among fans and media.

Chevrolet’s decision to call an in-race meeting at Garage Suite 3 in full public view was ill-advised, at best. The references afterward to shilling Corvettes and watching PowerPoints were too clever by a factor of maybe 100, and they also were indicative of why the optics were problematic.

Chevy’s extremely disciplined approach felt too corporate, and it seemed micromanaged to the point of making Michael Scott blush. Chastising drivers for racing three wide instead of single file while still in Stage 1 is hardly palatable to anyone in NASCAR, which has an appealing undercurrent of cutthroat intensity (especially at Daytona and Talladega).

It’s understandable why Jim Campbell demanded his Chevy drivers stay on script. The heat from GM headquarters in Detroit surely was unbearable after Hendrick Motorsports essentially helped Toyota win the Daytona 500. And Ford and Toyota drivers surely were given virtually the same marching orders at Talladega – just much more discreetly.

That might be the right line to choose next time.


The focus on manufacturer alliances wasn’t all bad, though.

It forced some good discussions on awkward topics into the open, and it raised important issues about how much influence manufacturers and teams should have in effectively determining race winners. If younger drivers for midpack teams essentially are told to subjugate themselves for the greater good (or risk being stripped of perks), is that a just sacrifice at a track that might offer their best opportunity at winning all year?

That conversation got shoved to the forefront by the weekend’s manufacturer debate. And it was nice that none of it actually mattered at the conclusion of a race that featured a passel of unheralded underdogs vying for the checkered flag.

It also could be indirectly good for NASCAR while continuing to court new manufacturers to enter with its next generation engine (which probably won’t happen until 2023). With the overall decline in the corporate sponsorship spend over the past decade, there are few entities investing as much in stock-car racing as the automakers.

At least they got good bang for their bucks at Talladega, particularly if you ascribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Ryan Blaney still isn’t a favorite to reach the Championship 4 this season, but Monday might be remembered as a turning point if the No. 12 driver eventually wins a Cup title.

Ryan Blaney receives congratulations from teammate Joey Logano (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

There is enormous pressure on the 25-year-old to perform at Team Penske, which has been enjoying a worldwide results bonanza well beyond NASCAR that is impressive even for this storied organization. Never mind championship teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Blaney also is competing against winners of the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000 and Rolex 24. If he makes the playoffs but still goes winless this year, it gets noticed more than it would at a less successful team.

It was important that his 2019 breakthrough happened at Talladega after a string of plate failures the past few years. Blaney’s Fords led four of the past six races at Talladega but didn’t finish higher than 11th in any of them. He finished seventh in the 2018 Daytona 500 despite having the best car and leading a race-high 118 laps.

The confidence-booster of making every right move over the final two laps (including the bold decision to choose the outside for the lead on the final restart) should go a long way toward making Blaney feel his place is secure at one of racing’s greatest teams.

 

Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “Saw it happen to other drivers. I had a few make that move on me as well. It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to, but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

How many drivers have won Cup races since Jimmie Johnson’s last victory?

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When the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Dover International Raceway this weekend to begin the second round of the playoffs, several statistics stand out.

Among them:

* This will be the 100th Cup race held at the 1-mile oval since it opened in 1969 (and the 50th since it switched from asphalt to concrete in 1995). As of Sunday, the Monster Mile will be just the 10th track in the nation to have hosted 100 or more NASCAR Cup Series events.

Jimmie Johnson‘s most recent Cup win came June 4, 2017 at Dover. (Photo: Getty Images.)

* With 11 wins there in his Cup career – the most he’s earned at any NASCAR track – seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest Cup driver at Dover. However, following his 83rd and most recent Cup career win there on June 4, 2017, Johnson has failed to return to victory lane at any track since.

* While no one needs to remind Johnson of the length and scope of his career-long winless streak — it is now at 88 races — 19 different drivers have won a Cup race since Johnson’s last visit to victory lane, according to Racing Insights.

Here’s the full list (and how many wins each driver has since June 2017):

Kyle Busch 17
Martin Truex Jr. 16
Kevin Harvick 13
Brad Keselowski 7
Denny Hamlin 6
Chase Elliott 6
Joey Logano 5
Kyle Larson 3
Ryan Blaney 2
Kurt Busch 2
Erik Jones 2
Clint Bowyer 2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1
Austin Dillon 1
Aric Almirola 1
Alex Bowman 1
Kasey Kahne 1
Matt Kenseth 1
Justin Haley 1

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Bump and Run: Should NASCAR address Alex Bowman wrecking Bubba Wallace?

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If NASCAR officials are upset with Bubba Wallace for splashing liquid on Alex Bowman after the Roval race, should they be just as angry about Bowman hooking Wallace in the right rear in the chicane and wrecking him?

Nate Ryan: Absolutely. It was a low-speed corner, but hooking a car in the right rear to send it driver side into the wall is serious at any speed. Bowman should be sat down at Dover by NASCAR officials (who have suspended drivers fo similar moves) and receive the same stern warning as Wallace receives.

Dustin Long: No. If NASCAR is going to be upset about that, then it should have addressed Austin Dillon turning Alex Bowman at Richmond, the cars of Bubba Wallace and Kyle Busch beating on each other down the frontstretch at Watkins Glen or any of several other instances in the past. Those weren’t addressed. NASCAR only reacts to the extreme cases (i.e. Matt Kenseth wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville in that playoff race).

Daniel McFadin: It’s understandable NASCAR is upset with what Wallace did. Bowman was somewhat incapacitated and unable to defend himself while being tended to by a medical worker. Their on-track incident is much more in line with “boys have at it.” But regardless of how mad NASCAR is about either issue, they’ll undoubtedly use both to promote the sport.

Jerry Bonkowski: Two different things.

Alex Bowman finished second earlier this season in all three races that are in the second round of the playoffs (Dover, Talladega and Kansas). What odds do you give him of advancing to the third round?

Nate Ryan: Ten percent. It’ll be virtually impossible for any of the drivers who barely made it out of the first round to advance because 1) they start at a massive points deficit; and 2) the next eight guys and their teams are so good. Likely will take a win by Bowman, Ryan Blaney, William Byron or Clint Bowyer for any of them to advance.

Dustin Long: 40% chance. He faces an uphill climb because of how few playoff points he has, meaning he likely needs to win in this round. Just because something happened earlier this year doesn’t mean it will repeat.

Daniel McFadin: I’d say there’s a 75% chance Bowman advances. If he can avoid the chaos that Talladega clearly will incite, I think he has a better chance of advancing over William Byron if neither of them wins a race. But it should be noted that at Dover Bowman qualified fifth but had to start from the rear due to an inspection infraction and then charged to his second-place finish. Sound familiar?

Jerry Bonkowski: The way I see it, and given the uncertainty of Talladega as a wildcard, Bowman has to have at least top-five finishes at both Dover and Kansas to advance to the third round. Anything less and it’s unlikely he makes it to the Round of 8.

After some questions about when officials called a caution and when they did not call a caution in Sunday’s Cup race at the Roval, do you know what a caution is?

Nate Ryan: It wasn’t abundantly obvious what constituted a yellow Sunday, and that’s something NASCAR will need to address before the 2020 return to the Roval.

Dustin Long: I do know what isn’t a caution — when there is an incident on the last lap or so and the car(s) can continue. In those cases, NASCAR’s preference to finish a race under green. It can be confounding when a caution is called and when it isn’t, particularly in a playoff race. The pressure isn’t just on the teams and drivers in the playoffs, it’s also on the officials to be right.

Daniel McFadin: To borrow a phrase from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I could never succeed in intelligibly saying what warrants a caution, but I know it when I see it. I saw a lot of it Sunday that wasn’t called (Daniel Suarez‘s last-lap crash) and some that I could debate over whether the caution was merited (Ryan Preece‘s chicane spin). But I’m glad I’m not actually in a position to have to make the call on a track like the Roval.

Jerry Bonkowski: A caution is a race stoppage when a car that has wrecked, spun or stopped on the race track potentially impedes or puts in jeopardy other cars and drivers around him. I think part of the reason why there were questions about cautions at the Roval is because NASCAR officials didn’t know if cars – particularly those that spun – could get going again fast enough without being an obstruction or hazard to the rest of the field. By throwing a caution in those instances when it did, NASCAR erred on the side of caution – no pun intended.

Indy is last chance for bubble drivers on Cup playoff quest

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INDIANAPOLIS — On the cusp of failing to make the Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson prefers to look at what he could accomplish Sunday with a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said of an 84-race winless streak that dates back to 2017. “To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”

Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman are battling for the final two playoff spots in today’s race at Indy (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Suarez and Newman. Suarez holds the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Newman. Johnson is 18 points behind Suarez and Newman.

That Suarez and Newman are tied in points adds a layer to their duel. Newman spun in last week’s Southern 500 with Suarez closely on Newman’s left rear.

Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around,” Newman said. “I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around. It is just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like (Matt) Kenseth did to (Joey) Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air off me or whatever, it is racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best that I can for our team.”

Suarez contends there was no contact between the cars at Darlington Raceway.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Suarez said of Newman. “He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive. People know that. Sometimes we race hard and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him.”

Suarez also faces the possibility of competing against Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a playoff spot.

“Clint and I, we are good friends and we know that if we can help each other, we will, but at the same time we will race hard,” Suarez said. “That is what we do. We’re smart. He’s got plenty of experience, and I’m not dumb.

“I know what I have to do, and he knows what he has to do. We are going to go out there to do what we do best and try to beat each other but, at the same time, without trying to kill each other. Hopefully things work out in a good way for both of us.”

Bowyer, who is coming off top-10 finishes the past two races, says that is what his team can do if it can avoid the issues that have plagued it this season.

“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”

Johnson and the No. 48 team know Bowyer’s pain. Johnson’s team has struggled much of this season. That lack of performance led Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kevin Meendering with Cliff Daniels as crew chief in late July.

Johnson enters this weekend with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15. His performance last weekend at Darlington was his best in recent weeks. He was fast in practice, qualified sixth, scored points in both stages and was in the top five when he was collected in a crash that he couldn’t avoid. His team was headed for one of its best performances of the season.

“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Last weekend we did perform well through practice and qualified well and ran well. We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time, is just how important the team is.

“I’ve known it. I’ve lived it. And, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. And, I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey. And through it all, I’ve learned a ton. I really have. And, I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone and that we’re starting to show up and perform.”

But even if Johnson’s team has a flawless performance Sunday, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be among the 16 drivers to race for a championship.

“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”

It was 2016 when Johnson didn’t have the best car in the championship race in Miami but circumstances fell his way and he won his record-tying seventh title. That crown came a day after Suarez won the Xfinity championship.

That Xfinity title has been something Suarez has reflected upon this week as he prepared to race for a playoff spot.

“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Suarez said. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”

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