Friday 5: How to race teammates at Talladega is question with no clear answer
Ryan Blaney eased up the track to block the charging car as the Cup field came to the checkered flag last June at Talladega Superspeedway.
When that car behind dived low, Blaney, who was leading, cut down two lanes to stop its rush on the frontstretch.
The trailing car then moved alongside Blaney’s No. 12 Ford. Blaney drifted up the track to side draft but made contact, sending the car into the wall within sight of the finish line. Blaney won the race.
The car Blaney dueled with was that of Erik Jones, who was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing at the time.
But what would Blaney have done if that had been one of his Team Penske teammates?
“That’s a good question,” Blaney said.
The question has become more relevant as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on Fox).
Teammates could play a key for Team Penske this weekend. The organization has won eight of the last 13 Talladega races. Blaney has two wins, Brad Keselowski three and Joey Logano three in that stretch. Although Keselowski’s last Talladega victory came in 2017, his five career wins there are the most among active drivers.
Talladega also marks the first superspeedway race since the Daytona 500, which saw Logano and Keselowski wreck as they raced for the lead on the final lap. The incident cost Team Penske a chance to win and destroyed three cars (Austin Cindric also was collected in the fiery eight-car crash).
Car owner Roger Penske talked to Keselowski and Logano individually about that incident afterward and spoke with his four drivers (Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing) this week to avoid a repeat of the Daytona 500 finish.
Keselowski said that Penske “talked through some different scenarios. I don’t think there’s any perfect answers, but there is good spirit, and I’m looking forward to this weekend.”
Still, Blaney can’t say if he would race his teammates much differently than he did Jones last year in a similar scenario.
“Until you’re in that situation, you don’t really know what you’re going to do and what the circumstances are,” Blaney said. “The deal with me and (Jones) last year, yeah, we made contact coming to the line. Trying to side draft and making contact and just a wild end of the race.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if that is (a teammate), I don’t know what I do. You’re trying just to block any lane you can. That’s a tough one.”
A common philosophy among teammates at Daytona and Talladega is that they try to help each other until the final laps and then focus on winning.
“Everybody has their own definition,” Keselowski said of how to race teammates. “I know it’s not fun for anyone at Team Penske to have two cars, first and second and another one (13th at the time of the crash), so three cars in the top (15) in the biggest race of the year, and all three of them come back on a hook. That’s probably not what anybody would say is acceptable, but I think there is a spirit of ‘Hey, we should all be trying to win the race for sure.’ ”
Asked if nothing changes, Keselowski said: “I don’t think so, but I don’t know if I have a great answer to that.”
2. Looking ahead, not back
The last time Cup raced at Talladega, Matt DiBenedetto led on the final lap but crossed the finish line second, again just coming short of his first career series win.
NASCAR penalized DiBenedetto after the race for forcing William Byron below the yellow line on that final lap. DiBenedetto was dropped to 21st in the results. He was placed ahead of Chris Buescher, who was penalized for forcing Chase Elliott below the yellow line on the last lap. DiBenedetto and Buescher were the last two cars scored on the lead lap.
As NASCAR returns to Talladega and DiBenedetto has had time to reflect on that finish, is it time for the yellow line rule to go away?
“You would think I would be strongly opinionated about it, but honestly, I am not,” DiBenedetto said. “I don’t know that there is a perfect solution. It is a tough call, a tough situation.
“If you say ‘Screw the yellow line’ and run wherever, you may encounter other problems where people are way down the apron and it is just wild and makes the racing worse. I don’t really have a solution or a good answer. It is just kind of part of it and those are the rules. We just have to be aware of it.
“That was the risk I took last year when I went to make that block. It was a split-second (move), less than a quarter of a car length too late, and I got penalized. It is out of my control, and it just was what it was.”
NBC Sports analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett both said after last year’s race that NASCAR should abolish the penalty for going below the yellow line.
“Nobody really wants to see the races come down to these types of decisions,” Earnhardt said then. “I don’t think it’s going to crash more cars than we crashed today.
“It’s kind of frustrating to have to make the decisions. I know NASCAR doesn’t want to be put in this position, so let’s just get rid of it from here on out. Just let these guys race it out, at least in the last few laps.
Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said after the race that the rule won’t be changed.
“I mean, outside of putting a wall there, I don’t really know what more we can do,” he said. “I do sincerely believe we need the rule. You see all the real estate that’s around here. If we started having cars running 12 wide down the back straightaway, imagine what would happen when you get to Turn 3.
“I think it’s important that we continue to have a rule. You get out there in the heat of battle, things happen. It’s hard when there’s all that real estate down there, but you just can’t do it. I don’t think that we can eliminate it. I think it would be a mess. We kind of are where we are.”
3. Another rule to examine
One of the differences between the Xfinity and Cup race at Daytona and Talladega is that Xfinity drivers are warned not to lock bumpers in pushing another car. There is no such restriction in Cup.
But is it time to do away with the rule in the Xfinity Series? Would it be better to take that decision away from series officials — who penalize the car doing the pushing and the car being pushed — and not worry about the rule?
Daniel Hemric says there are legitimate reasons to have the rule.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the Xfinity Series. “I can tell you from the driver’s seat on the Xfinity side, the cars cannot physically get to one another’s back bumpers as easily as you can in the Cup cars. The bubble seems way bigger in the Xfinity cars, so one, having a car that will even allow you to do it is tough. Then you can work really hard to get your car to do it through practice – which obviously we don’t have – and you can get those big runs and be able to get closer for sure.
“It propels energy forward. It can move a lane forward better, but then you run into the point where you have guys that can bust that bubble – well, if he’s shoving that guy forward, and (the driver being shoved has) to lift because he doesn’t want to hit the guy in front of him and get in trouble, then you see an accordion effect. That’s what happens when you see a guy get turned in the pack and crash.
“There’s that side of it, and then there’s the pure fact with the ride heights of these cars, obviously, everyone’s splitters are on the ground when we start the race. With the ride heights, the backs are so high and the fronts are so low that when you get to another guy, as soon as you do touch them, a lot of times it’s just shooting the back of his car up. So the ride heights are a thing that for sure makes it tough for the Xfinity cars, even when you break that bubble, to line up correctly.”
4. Comparing to Cup drivers
Harrison Burton has run against Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series, can examine their data and study video of what makes them successful. So he has an idea of what to expect in his Cup debut Sunday at Talladega for Gaunt Brothers Racing.
Still, there are some things that the 20-year-old son of NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton can only discover by racing against those drivers in a Cup race.
“I think the biggest thing that I want to try and take away from this isn’t analytical, it’s more decision-making based,” Harrison Burton said. “You look at guys. They decide to be aggressive at times, and they decide not to be at times.
“Sometimes, you think they have like a sixth sense. They know when the wreck is going to happen. Denny Hamlin is huge in that, (superspeedway) racing in particular. He knows when things are going to happen. He pulls out of the pack and they wreck. Then he’s racing for the win again. It’s crazy.”
Hamlin won last year’s Cup playoff race at Talladega. He has placed in the top five in the last six races at Daytona and Talladega. That ties Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough for the most consecutive top-five finishes on a superspeedway in Cup history.
Harrison Burton finished third at Daytona to open the Xfinity season, giving him top-five finishes in all three series starts there. He has not finished in the top 20 in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega.
5. Leader of the pack
After a quarter of the season, here is a look at how Cup teams rank in laps led:
1,108 - Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin team leader at 694)
652 - Team Penske (Joey Logano team leader at 314)
601 - Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Larson team leader at 379)
74 - Trackhouse Racing (Daniel Suarez team leader at 74)
57 - Roush Fenway Racing (Chris Buescher team leader at 57)
30 - 23XI Racing (Bubba Wallace team leader at 30)
18 - Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick team leader at 17)
15 - Richard Childress Racing (Austin Dillon team leader at 8)
12 - Spire Motorsports (Corey LaJoie team leader at 12)
12 - Kaulig Racing (Kaz Grala team leader at 10)
Among the teams not in the top 10 in this category is Chip Ganassi Racing. The organization has led three laps this season, all by Kurt Busch.