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.

 

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — It was a 1-2-3-4 finish until Erik Jones’ car failed inspection. Still the team scored a 1-2-3 finish and claimed its fourth consecutive win on a short track with Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph. Don’t forget, the organization also won Friday’s Xfinity race with Christopher Bell.

Ryan Newman His fifth-place finish tied his best result of the year and was his third consecutive top-10 showing. He was encouraged by the team running toward the front and noted: “You take away those four Gibbs cars, we were racing for the win. I know it doesn’t work that way, but if they would have had one bad meeting (incident) we would’ve been in the hunt.” Still, Newman moved into a transfer spot heading into this coming weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Brad KeselowskiHe finished fourth and was the only driver outside of Joe Gibbs Racing to lead Saturday’s race.

Bubba Wallace His 12th-place finish was his third top-15 result in the last five races. He had one top-15 finish in the first 23 races of the season.

Front Row Motorsports — All three of its cars placed 21st or better, the first time the team has accomplished that feat this season. David Ragan was 19th, rookie Matt Tifft placed 20th and Michael McDowell was 21st.

LOSERS

Erik Jones He was feeling good about his fourth-place finish that put him within three points of the final transfer spot to the next round only to later find out that his car was disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Now he’s 45 points out of the final transfer spot and is essentially in a must-win situation. He faces being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for a second year in a row.

William Byron Got lapped in the final circuits before the end of each stage and also had a pit road speeding penalty. That led to tying his season-worst finish of 24th. He holds the final transfer spot to the second round by two points on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman heading to the Roval.

Daniel Suarez sees playoff hopes end in chaotic race

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INDIANAPOLIS — After a chaotic 400 miles that included hitting a wall, hitting another car and fighting for the final playoff spot, Daniel Suarez keyed his radio after crossing the finish line for the final time and, in a resigned voice, he told his team: “I gave everything I had.”

Sunday, it wasn’t enough at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

His 11th-place finish left him four points behind Ryan Newman for the final playoff spot.

“I can tell you it wasn’t for lack of effort,” Suarez said of missing the playoffs. “We didn’t have things play our way. The last pit stop cycle, the caution came out after we pitted. That was unfortunate. I was not in the position I wanted to be. After that, we had only 28, 26 laps to go. I knew it was going to be tough, but I wasn’t giving up. I was driving extremely hard, three-wide. I was doing everything I could to get there.”

That frantic charge completed a wild day for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who entered the race holding the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Ryan Newman. With Suarez missing the playoffs, the final two spots were filled by Clint Bowyer and Newman.

Problems occurred early for Suarez. He hit the wall on Lap 11 of the 160-lap event and radioed his team afterward that he didn’t understand what happened to his car.

“I just got aero tight, loose,” he said. “I was not pushing the car too hard. I just got squared to (William Byron) and got too tight and loose and then I got to his right side and once you are on the right side of the car in his wake, it’s pretty much like being on ice. I couldn’t do anything.”

Suarez later had contact with Matt Tifft that caused Tifft to crash with 13 laps to go.

“I was loose into the corner and then tight on the exit of the corner,” Suarez said. “I was in a rush to try to get up front. He was racing on defense 100%. He finally gave me the line, very, very late and I got loose on entry and I got him.

“I feel bad for him, but at the same time he shouldn’t be racing like that when it’s for 15th or 18th or whatever that was. I think he’s smarter than that. I don’t know why he was doing that.

“I was way faster than him. I had fresher tires and a faster race car and he was blocking me for four laps.”

Tifft said of the incident: “I’ve got to go back and see the replay. If he did get loose like he said, that makes sense why he would get into us in the spot that he did. I tried to leave a little bit of a lane so he could actually go on. I was planning on trying to let him go at that point because I knew he was a little bit quicker and we had been racing hard and that was the first time he got close enough.

“For the comment of racing that hard, for the little teams that’s our livelihood. When we have good days like that, we have to capitalize.”

For Suarez, he couldn’t capitalize on his chance to make the playoffs.

“We’re still racing,” he said. “I feel like as a team we have to keep getting better. We’re not in the playoffs, but we have plenty of things to show. We can win a race. That would be like making the playoffs or even better.”

Retro Rundown 2019: Southern 500 paint schemes

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It’s here!

After all the waiting it’s almost time for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN).

The fifth year of NASCAR’s official Throwback Weekend celebrates the 1990-94 era of the sport but there are paint schemes from various eras that we’ll be seen competing on the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

Here’s your guide to the retro paint schemes that have been announced so far for this weekend, including schemes for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

Landon Cassill, No. 00 Chevrolet – The StarCom Racing car will honor Sterling Marlin with his early 2000s “Silver Bullet” scheme.

Kurt Busch, No. 1 Chevrolet – The Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s car will be made to look like his personal 1969 Chevy Camaro.

Chip Ganassi Racing

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford – The Team Penske driver will race Rusty Wallace’s 1996 Cup Series scheme.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet – Dillon will boast a paint scheme that was driven by his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress in the late 1970s.

Ryan Newman, No. 6 Ford – With Oscar Mayer taking the place of Valvoline, Newman’s car will take its cue from the scheme Mark Martin raced in 1993, when he earned Roush Fenway Racing’s first Southern 500 victory.

Via Roush Fenway Racing

Daniel Hemric, No. 8 Chevrolet – Hemric will drive a car inspired by the design of CAT equipment and the logo used on them from its launch in 1925 until 1931.

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet – Elliott will boast the scheme his father, Bill Elliott, claimed his first Cup pole with in 1981 at Darlington.

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota – Hamlin’s car will evoke Darrell Waltrip’s Western Auto paint scheme from the 1990s.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford – The Team Penske driver will have a scheme inspired by Michael Waltrip’s Pennzoil car from 1991-95.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota – Busch will pilot a Snickers-sponsored car based on Bobby Hillin Jr.s 1990 No. 8 Snickers scheme.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota – The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will throwback to himself with the Bass Pro Shops paint scheme he drove during his 2004 Xfinity Series championship campaign. That year he drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Chance 2 Motorsports.

Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota – To mark his 100th Cup Series start, Jones will boast a scheme based on his rookie late model car.

Paul Menard, No. 21 Ford – Wood Brothers Racing will pay tribute to late team founder Glen Wood with the paint scheme Wood drove himself in 1957, including in his only appearance as a driver at Darlington.

Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford – The Team Penske driver will have the Pennzoil paint scheme Kevin Harvick used to win the 2007 Daytona 500.

William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet – Byron will drive one of Cole Trickle’s paint schemes from the 1990 Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder.”

Corey LaJoie, No. 32 Ford – GoFas Racing’s car will be based on Dale Jarrett’s 1990-91 Nestle Crunch sponsored Xfinity car.

Michael McDowell, No. 34 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will have a paint scheme that pays homage to the career of long-time owner and driver Jimmy Means, who was once partnered with FRM owner Bob Jenkins.

Front Row Motorsports

Matt Tifft, No. 36 Ford – The rookie driver will pay tribute to his father. The car is based on a Dirt Late Model car his father owned, which was driven by David Hilliker.

David Ragan, No. 38 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will drive a scheme inspired by David Pearson’s 1969 championship car.

Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet – Larson’s car will resemble Ricky Craven’s Kodiak scheme from his Cup Series Rookie of the Year season in 1995.

Bubba Wallace, No. 43 Chevrolet – Wallace’s car will be a tribute to the late Adam Petty and his 1998 ARCA win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Richard Petty Motorsports

Ryan Preece, No. 47 Chevrolet – Preece will have a tribute to modified racing legend Ron Bouchard. The scheme is based on the No. 47 Majik Market/Hawaiian Punch car Bouchard drove at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in 1984.

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet – Johnson will throwback to his off-road racing days with a scheme from 1995.

Ally Racing Twitter

BJ McLeod, No. 51 Chevrolet – The car is inspired by one that Burt Reynolds’ character raced in the movie “Stroker Ace.”

JJ Yeley, No. 52 Chevrolet

Garrett Smithley, No. 54 Chevrolet – The Rick Ware Racing car will pay tribute to Lennie Pond’s 1976 ride.

Reed Sorenson, No. 77 Chevrolet – The Spire Motorsports car will pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Motor Racing Network and the 11 radio affiliates that have broadcast NASCAR races since its inception in 1970.

Motor Racing Network

Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet – Bowman’s Axalta-sponsored car is inspired by Tim Richmond‘s Folger’s Coffee scheme from 1986-87.

Matt DiBenedetto, No. 95 Toyota – The Leavine Family Racing car will be a tribute to the GTO Celicas that won the IMSA GTU title in 1987.

Stewart-Haas Racing – In celebration of co-owner Tony Stewart’s election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three SHR drivers will have paint schemes based on the cars Stewart raced to his three Cup Series titles. Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford will be based on Stewart’s 2002 car, Daniel Suarez‘s No. 41 Ford will be based on the 2005 season and Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford will look like the car Stewart drove to his 2011 title.

Xfinity Series

Cole Custer, No. 00 Ford – The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will have a throwback to Buckshot Jones’ 1997 Xfinity Series car.

Gray Gaulding, No. 08 Chevrolet

Garrett Smithley, No. 0 Chevrolet

Michael Annett, No. 1 Chevrolet – The JR Motorsports driver has Jeff Gordon’s Baby Ruth paint scheme from the 1992 Xfinity season when he drove for Bill Davis Racing.

Via JR Motorsports

Tyler Reddick, No. 2 Chevrolet – Reddick’s scheme is inspired by Kyle Petty’s 7-Eleven paint scheme from the late 1980s.

Richard Childress Racing

BJ McLeod, No. 4 Chevrolet – McLeod’s car is designed after the No. 44 Slim Jim car Bobby Labonte drove in the Xfinity Series in 1992.

Justin Allgaier, No. 7 Chevrolet – Allgaier’s scheme will be based on the No. 90 Truxmore Chevrolet Ricky Rudd drove in the 1979 season.

JR Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet – Earnhardt will pilot the scheme his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove in his first Cup start in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Justin Haley, No. 11 Chevrolet – Kaulig Racing will boast Jeff Burton’s 1994 rookie Cup paint scheme with matching sponsorship from brake parts company Raybestos. It also serves as a tribute to team owner Matt Kaulig’s father and team chief financial officer, Bob Kaulig, who served as a vice president of Raybestos from 1985-2008.

Via Kaulig Racing

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford

Stephen Leicht, No. 15 Chevrolet – The JD Motorsports driver’s scheme is based on Ken Scrader’s mid-1990s Budweiser car.

Denny Hamlin, No. 18 Toyota – Hamlin will have a scheme based on Bill Elliott’s No. 11 Budweiser car.

Brandon Jones, No. 19 Toyota – The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will have Bubby Baker’s “Gray Ghost” paint scheme.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Austin Cindric, No. 22 Ford – The Team Penske driver will race the paint scheme Roger Penske had for his one and only NASCAR win as a driver.

Joey Gase, No. 35 Toyota – Gase’s throwback is based on the 1997 Tabasco paint scheme raced by Todd Bodine.

Jeremy Clements, No. 51 Chevrolet – Like William Byron, Clements will pilot a “Days of Thunder” paint scheme. He’ll be using Rowdy Burns’ No. 51 Exxon scheme.

Brandon Brown, No. 86 Chevrolet – Brown’s scheme is inspired by Terry Labonte’s 1993 Kellogg’s Cornflakes scheme.

Chase Briscoe, No. 98 Ford – Briscoe will pilot a scheme based on the No. 98 Ford Parnelli Jones won the 1963 Indianapolis 500 with.

Stewart-Haas Racing

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Matt Tifft paying tribute to family’s racing roots for Southern 500

Front Row Motorsports
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Matt Tifft‘s throwback paint scheme for this weekend’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN) serves as tribute to two men: his father, Quinten Tifft, and David Hilliker.

The elder Tifft once owned a Dirt Late Model car that was driven by Hilliker, a Michigan Motorsports Hall of Famer.

Matt Tifft’s No. 36 Ford will be made to look like the No. 21 car Hilliker raced.

Front Row Motorsports“You could say David Hilliker was my childhood dirt track hero,” Tifft said in a press release.

“I’m really excited to recreate this paint scheme for Darlington. When I was little, my dad would bring home this car in the offseason and we’d tear it down together. That was where I first learned how to work on a race car.”

“My dad has been such a huge influence throughout my career, and I couldn’t have gotten to this point without him. I’m grateful for the opportunity to give him this kind of recognition and can’t wait to see his face when he sees the car in person for the first time.”

Sunday’s race will mark Tifft’s first Cup start at Darlington Raceway. He has two starts there in the Xfinity Series with a best finish of eighth.

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