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Staying up front - not winning - is real ‘crapshoot’ of plate racing

Aaron's 499

TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 04: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 4, 2014 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

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For Tony Stewart, nothing has changed at restrictor-plate tracks.

“You look at the guys that are really good at these places and it is guys that are good at both Daytona and Talladega and they know how to work the draft,” Stewart said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Of the three drivers who have won seven of the last nine plate races - Dale Earnhardt Jr. (three), Joey Logano (two) and Denny Hamlin (two) - only Earnhardt’s name is consistent from at least 10 years ago. Not too long, Stewart was one of the top hands at the series’ two plate tracks, combining for five Sprint Cup wins and 18 top-five finishes during his prime.

“I think it’s kind of a second wave of drivers since Dale Earnhardt has been gone that have really figured it out,” Stewart said. “I think Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and I had a pretty good run together when we were doing tandems together. It seemed like we always got hooked-up at the end of the races here. The unfortunate part is that I always got the lower end of the deal, finishing second, but he always won.”

It’s a widely held belief that anyone can win in any given plate race. But who wins isn’t the “crapshoot” as much as who survives to the end to be in contention.

“If you ever get shuffled out at the wrong time and the big wreck happens and you’re in it, there’s nothing you can really do about that,” said Martin Truex Jr., who finished second in this year’s Daytona 500. “We see guys ride around the back all day trying to miss it. We see guys that say, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to stay up front all day and hope that it’s behind me.’ That’s really the crapshoot part of it, but to win these races consistently, you have to have a fast car and you have to have really good skills at drafting.”

Truex and his cohorts at Joe Gibbs Racing, which has a technical alliance with Furniture Row Racing, were a rolling fort at the front of the field in February’s Daytona 500. All five cars combined to lead 156 of 200 laps, with Denny Hamlin winning. Keeping your friends close at the front increases your chances when the white flag drops.

“We’ve seen Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. over the years just really show everybody how it’s done and that’s because he has a really good understanding of the air,” Truex said. “The way it works and knowing how to use that to his advantage.”

If winning a plate race was truly a lottery and any of the 40 cars could win, Carl Edwards would have likely won at least once in his 46 starts at Talladega and Daytona.

“I don’t need to see my stats at these places because they’re not good,” he said. “I think it’s an average finish of about 20th.”

Talladega (20.8) and Daytona (19.6) represent the worst average finishes for Edwards on the Sprint Cup circuit. Edwards learned the importance of knowing how to survive after getting caught up in a wreck at Talladega that Stewart didn’t.

“I wrecked one time here and I got out, went down and sat in the garage talking to Jack (Roush) and I said something like, ‘Man, there’s just nothing I could do to miss the wreck,” Edwards recalled. “And he said, ‘You might want to go look at the tape because you drove right past Tony Stewart into the wreck and he somehow missed it.’

“I went back and watched and I learned from that. You really have to be watching ahead and you have to pay attention. I think that’s the thing that separates the guys that win from my perspective.”

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