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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?
There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.
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.
It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.
“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?
“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.
“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”
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.”
5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns
Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.
Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.
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.