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From the Marbles

Hot/Not: Race hard or race safe? Neither worked consistently at Talladega

Two-car drafts were the name of the game again for NASCAR's restrictor plate racing, but this time they had real Chase implications. How did the Chasers play it, and how well did it work? Jump in to find out:

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NEUTRAL: A fundamental key of NASCAR restrictor plate racing since the device's introduction more than two decades ago has been survival. The reduced horsepower within the engine has produced racing in which drivers rarely earn separation thanks to the draft.

As a result, tactics unbecoming of true racing have become commonplace at NASCAR's two restricted tracks — Daytona and Talladega. Drivers would often opt to settle in at the back of the pack and away from the potential calamity of The Big One, or the large crash that so often defined the pack racing.

The tactic has worked, too. Several drivers have secured wins or high finishes thanks to working the back of the room for much of the race before surging to the front as the checkered flag was in sight. Jeff Gordon's 2007 Talladega win in the Chase proved it the most, after Gordon led only the final lap after spending just 23 percent of the race in the top 15. His average running position that day? A paltry 28th.

But NASCAR's plate racing has substantially changed this season, with pack racing evolving to two-car tandem racing. The speed is in the push, and the push isn't just a bump draft here and there. It's about keeping the nose of one car squarely planted against the rear of another.

Despite the change in the style of racing — one that carries more risk of error thanks to the consistent touching — teams haven't completely changed their strategy. Some still like to hang around in the back and hope to miss potential carnage, while others choose to pace the field hoping the largest incidents happen behind them.

Decisions like that by a race team are often made on a gut feeling. They've seen contenders get wiped out long before the checkers are flying, while those who played caboose have snuck through to a decent finish — or in Gordon's case, a win. After all, it's much easier to remember the violence and implication of a crash than to remember the ho-hum drive of someone coming from the back. {ysp:more}

Using NASCAR's loop data, I decided to take a look at how those decisions played out in Sunday's pivotal race for the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. After Talladega, we're down to a likely four-car fight to the finish in Homestead. The decisions made at Talladega had a lot to do with it.

Matt Kenseth spent the most amount of time in the top 15 of any Chase racer, logging 148 of the 188 laps. After getting shuffled during the final restart, Kenseth wound up 18th. Tony Stewart was in the top 15 for 72.3 percent of the race (2nd most) and picked up an seventh-place finish.

The next four Chase drivers spending the most amount of time in the top 15 (Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch) all failed to finish on the lead lap despite racing 34-50 percent of their respective races in the top-15.

Brad Keselowski played the wait-and-see game the best, spending 26 percent of his race in the top 15 but ending up with a fourth-place run.

Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports made a concerted effort of staying at the back. Their three Chase drivers of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon spent between 13 and 20 percent of their Talladega Sunday in the top 15. The method ultimately bit them at the end when Gordon lost his tandem partner in Mark Martin and the Earnhardt/Johnson combination never pushed to the front.

Finally, Carl Edwards, who emerged from Talladega with a healthy 14-point lead thanks to an 11th-place finish played the backmarker card the best. Edwards spent just nine laps in the top 15, but rallied to an 11th-place finish.

The results from Talladega seem to tell one thing: nowhere on track is actually a safe play to secure a good finish. Of the six Chase drivers who spent the most time in the top 15, just two finished on the lead lap. The guy who came out with the best chance for the championship raced in the back — further back statistically, even, than the three drivers ahead of him who took much worse finishes.

Racing at Talladega has long been the luck of the draw, and teams that feel like they can control the beast are nothing new. Sunday's race, however, proved just how wrong they were in thinking they could stack the deck in their favor.

HOT: Let's give a call to the lack of team orders in the Richard Childress Racing camp at Talladega. Clint Bowyer's move exiting Turn 4 on the final lap was a bit a surprise in the tandem drafting world we live in. The contact between him and teammate Jeff Burton in the tri-oval was risky. Still, the two veterans made it work — and made the finish a memorable one.

NEUTRAL: The novelty of this two-car stuff has worn thin on me. What was once an interesting game of cat and mouse has seemingly faded. NASCAR seems closer to making non-contact drafting just as fast as the current form. Here's to hoping they continue that pursuit.

NOT: Jack Roush's edict that his Ford teams were not to help non-Ford Chase teams during Sunday's race wasn't necessarily a problem. (Roush has since denied any such orders existed, however, we'll stick with what Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne told Yahoo! Sports Jay Busbee immediately after the race.) However, it opens the door for future problems involving team orders. Let's hope we don't get there.

HOT: Give Trevor Bayne a hand for being outspoken about not getting to make a driver decision on who he works with. If anything, he should be the most perturbed that not getting the opportunity to work with Gordon on the final restart likely cost him a top-10 finish.

NOT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson — should they be tandem partners again in 2012, should race up front all day. Talladega marks two straight races where the backmarker method failed them.

HOT: The next time someone says NASCAR is too safe, please show them the video of Regan Smith's crash. People don't come to watch Smith get hurt. Those people — the ones who like to see carnage — want to see Smith get out of that car, no matter what you think of those who like crashes.

I held my breath when he hit that wall. I was relieved when all of the safety devices worked. That's the way racing should be.

HOT: Dave Blaney finished third. Read that again. It made me smile.

NOT: Kyle Busch's paranoia meter got a little high Sunday, didn't it? Did he really believe Juan Pablo Montoya hit him on purpose during the large frontstretch crash? You know, the one where Montoya was sliding sideways with the brakes locked?

Odd.

NEUTRAL: All signs point to Jimmie Johnson's title hopes being done. I can't bring my head around that point quite yet.

NOT: Why, again, is Red Bull Racing closing their doors at the end of 2011? The fifth for Brian Vickers and sixth for Kasey Kahne at Talladega mean that the team has had at least one top-10 car in the last five races.

FINAL: It seems like ages since NASCAR has been in Martinsville. The track is one of Carl Edwards' worst by average finish, and Matt Kenseth isn't much better. Expect the title fight to tighten up one more time.

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