TALLADEGA, Ala. NASCAR drivers are in constant search for clean air, which basically means relative solitude on a race track.
Thats true everywhere but in Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor-plate racing means cars must run in packs. Where packs go, crashes follow.
Thats always been true for restrictor-plate races. Now its true as well in qualifying in the group format Sprint Cup adopted this season. So just trying to start near the front for Sundays Aarons 499 becomes a new gamble.
I think there will be a wreck within (Saturdays) qualifying session just because of the closing rate youre going to be catching up to some of these guys, said Ford driver Joey Logano. Oh, shoot, youre going to get in a crash. So youve got to be on your toes throughout the whole session.
If just qualifying becomes a game of risk/reward, then imagine how that will multiply during the race. Talladega often makes for unlikely winners Front Row Racings David Ragan won here a year ago because the frequent crashes dont play favorites with the sports stars. Since everyone must run in packs to effectively draft, the first two-thirds of any race are as much about survival as competition.
The new wrinkle is the change in Sprint Cups scoring system, which puts greater weight on winning individual races this season than in the past. Win a race and a driver is virtually assured of qualifying for the Chase, the sports season-ending playoff, regardless of what might otherwise be a spotty season.
So drivers like Ragan, who dont have resources comparable to Hendrick or Roush teams, have extra incentive to go for it at a restrictor-plate race or a road coursein order to slip into a Chase slot.
Its a unique race, Ragan said Friday. I wouldnt enjoy running this type of race 36 weeks a year, but (restrictor-plate weekends) fit our style.
One win and youre in the Chase. You dont want to be overwhelmed by that, but we do (think about it) and every other team that hasnt won thinks it, too.
Since drafting is obligatory to compete at Talladega, drivers have to cooperate with opponents. That creates the freight train effect; long lines of cars pulling each other along to go faster. Eventually one driver makes a bold move from the pack that could win the race, drop him 10 spots back or wreck 20 competitors.
Its very much a crap shoot, a roulette wheel, because youre dependent on other drivers to pull you along, Ragan said. Youre looking to be in the tire tracks of someone who is fast and thats the very opposite of what we do other weekends.
What youre not able to do is predict what 42 other drivers will do. How aggressive will they be?
Restrictor-plate weekends tend to favor a go-with-the-flow mentality, as described by Matt Kenseth Friday.
Restrictor-plate racing is obviously unique, he said. Basically you dont know whats going to happen. Obviously you cant really get away from anybody with the restrictor plate and you cant make a lot of moves by yourself.
A lot is dependent on what everybody else does. Its just a totally different mindset, I think, when it comes to these races. Its a totally different driving style, strategy, the way you go about things.
For drivers like Ragan, that difference is a game changer.
Really, we are not a Chase contender under the previous scoring system, Ragan acknowledged. We are not consistent enough to win several races and click off five or six top-10s in a row. We realize that.
Were certainly not gonna be a threat to win the championship if we can get into the Chase but youre in the show and you never know what can happen. Youve got to start somewhere.
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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