Leading the race last summer at Daytona International Speedway, one of the best restrictor-plate drivers of his era dragged his brake ever so slightly, trying to stay hooked up with Greg Biffle on the final lap. It was a tactic born of experience, given that two months earlier at Talladega, Kenseth had chosen to not wait on his then-teammate -- and been freight-trained by Kyle Busch and race-winner Brad Keselowski as a result.
Later at Daytona, he was in an almost identical situation, leading another restrictor-plate race on the final restart with the No. 16 car on his back bumper. This time, Kenseth chose the opposite course -- he slowed ever so slightly, keeping Biffle behind him under the belief that two cars hooked together were faster than one. But nobody told Tony Stewart, who zipped by on the high side and passed both of them to win the race.
Two different races, two different strategies -- same result.
"One way I did it once and lost, and the second time I did the way I thought I should have done it the first time and lost, too," Kenseth said. "So, I think you've just got to not overthink it, and just try to take your best guess where the momentum is, and try to keep your car in the best spot you possibly can. You can't really control what everybody else is doing around you. You've just got to try to pay attention, and try to get yourself what you feel like at the time is the best spot."
Restrictor-plate races in NASCAR's premier series are often referred to as crap shoots or lotteries, as if the outcomes are decided by the pull of a slot machine handle. In reality, the determining factor is often one move -- a block, a lane shift, or a tactical decision made or not made, each of which can mean the difference between Victory Lane or watching a line of cars go by on the outside. It's a murky business, given the speed and unpredictability involved. There's no playbook, no course of action guaranteed to produce results. Only a winner, and many others left to second-guess themselves.
Just ask Stewart. The three-time champion of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has won 19 times across all series at Daytona, most recently in the Sprint Cup event last summer. His total is second only to NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt for most victories ever at the sport's most famous track. But he still lacks a Daytona 500 crown, and he still remembers 2008 -- when he led at the while flag, went low to block the onrushing Busch, and had Ryan Newman overtake him at the top to snatch away the victory.
"I wish over and over I could have ? tried something. Might have gotten wrecked doing it, but I wish I would have at least tried," Stewart said of that race. "There are times when I've tried things that didn't work, and there are times when I wish I would have tried things that may have worked. But a lot of it is instinct and trial and error. Anybody who sits there and says they know what to do at what time is pretty much lying to you."
"It's guesswork," added the driver, who has four victories in Daytona's July event, only one fewer than NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.
"A lot of it is the right circumstances at the right time. You can do the right thing as a driver, but there are still 10 guys or 20 guys behind you that, their decisions may be different and may alter what your decision was. I call it the (Denver Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning deal -- you're constantly calling an audible in those last two or three laps. It may work, it may not work. But you can't sit there and say, 'OK, this is the playbook, this is what we do, this is where want to be on that last lap.' There are no guarantees. It's just literally adjusting what you do based on what you see in the mirror and what you see in front of you."
Jimmie Johnson can relate. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has twice won the Daytona 500, but like Stewart, he can also remember one that got away. Entering Turn 3 in the lead, he drifted to the outside, expecting the field to follow him based on how things had played out earlier in the race. Instead, everyone else stayed in line, and Johnson was hung out. He had made his move too early -- looking back, he thinks had he waited one more corner, things might have turned out much differently.
"You are thinking about yourself," Johnson said. "Well, the guy behind me is like, 'Well, I'm going to push you to the lead, and then it's you and I stuck in the outside lane dropping like a rock. Why am I going to do that?' You need to have a vision in some respects where, why would somebody want to follow you? Why are they going to work with you? If you have from Turn 3 to the finish line, that is a long gap. You need to wait until you get over (to Turn 4) where it's a little shorter distance."
It can be like trying to wrap your arms around a ghost. Perhaps nobody knows that more than Kenseth, who also owns two Daytona 500 titles, and has been the driver to beat on plate tracks the past two seasons -- over his last eight races at Daytona and Talladega, he's led 508 laps and owns an average finish of 9.1. And yet, there were the back-to-back events where he and Biffle were unable to maintain a late lead. And there was the most recent plate race at Talladega in May, where Kenseth led 142 laps but was in the high lane when winner David Ragan and teammate David Gilliland came bursting through the middle on the final lap.
"Man, it's hard being the leader sometimes. It's even harder on those green-white-checkereds, because there are people hanging back, and there's people getting momentum, and you can only see so much around you," Kenseth said. "You can't tell. Like Talladega with David and David -- when they got teamed up, there was no way to know five rows back that they were going 8 mph faster than we all were. There is just no way to watch all that. There's really no way to protect that or really to do anything about it."
And that's coming from a former series champion with a proven track record in plate races built over a decade in the sport. So imagine being a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender -- as was the case at this year's Daytona 500, where Coors Light Pole-sitter Danica Patrick found herself third at the white flag. She stayed in line and wound up eighth, frustrated with herself for not bettering her position in the frantic rush to the finish. She felt better after speaking with Stewart and Johnson, both experts in the field, and who had each experienced their own share of second-guessing in the same event.
"I talked to Tony afterward. He said ? 'You could have just as well of been 20th in the end as opposed to where you did finish. You probably had more to lose,' so he thought I made the right decision on what I did," she said.
And Johnson "said that the two times that he has won now at Daytona were the two times he didn't have any kind of plan," Patrick added. "I suppose it is about being at the right place at the right time and having the right people behind you. There is luck that plays into it that way. Although a lot of times, good drivers win so you still need to know what to do. Probably more than anything, it just means have a little bit of experience so that you can handle whatever situation comes up best."
And yet, as last year's Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona showed, even experience can work against a driver trying to master the vagaries of restrictor-plate racing. Given Kenseth's recent history on NASCAR's biggest tracks -- he had the dominant car in the Daytona 500 until his engine expired -- the first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver may very well be in the mix to win again Saturday night. And off the final restart, it may once again come down to positioning and a move made or not made -- after which everyone will be wondering what they could have done better, save the one driver in Victory Lane.
"You can sit and second guess when it's over," Kenseth said, "unless you win."
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