Offense or defense? Hunt or be hunted?
The last four races before teh NASCAR Sprint Cup series sets its Chase grid are tricky times. A handful of drivers are at the edge of making NASCAR’s playoff system. Does that push them to attempt daring tactics or make them wary of every potentially points-sapping mistake?
“I think we have to be aggressive. Any time you play defense – play that game – it seems to hurt you,” driver Austin Dillon said Friday before qualifying for Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “If we finish in the top 10 these last four races, I think we’ll be solid. That’s a great goal. I actually feel like we have a chance of winning one of these last four. For us, it’s throw everything at it to get as far as we can.”
A victory all but clinches a spot in the Chase (although Pocono winner Chris Buescher still needs to finish in the top 30 to make the playoffs). So that’s clearly the argument for aggression.
But then there’s the case of Kyle Larson, whose contact with A.J. Allmendinger late in the race at Watkins Glen led to a 29th-place finish. That cost him a couple dozen points.
The backdrop for all this is Bristol, a half-mile oval that has produced some rugged bump-and-run tactics in years past.
Rain washed away some of the rubber on Bristol’s driving surface before practice Friday morning and there was uncertainty among the drivers whether two solid racing grooves would be there Saturday night for the Sprint Cup race. The lower groove was more stable initially.
But if you don’t have two good options to run Saturday, the banging that is somewhat a Bristol tradition is sure to resurface.
“It’s a fine line here,” said Trevor Bayne of the difference between tactical and dirty racing. “Somebody gets mad when they slide him up into the fence here. But when you’re racing, you’re racing. You’ve got to go for it and if that’s the only way to pass, it’s the only way to pass.
“Obviously, there’s a difference between a bump-and-run and crashing somebody. If you’ve got to be on the bottom and someone is holding you up, then you move him up a lane, get position and run by him. That’s acceptable. But if you knock somebody from the bottom lane to the fourth lane – which doesn’t exist – then they’re in the fence. And then you have issues.”
Bayne said it’s not hard to distinguish between the two.
“You can tell intent when you’re racing somebody,” Bayne said. “I’m hopeful there will be a couple of lanes and we’re able to maneuver around. If not, it will be the Bristol of old and drivers will just have to check their feelings at the start/finish line.”
Part of the issue is all the conflicting agendas. Drivers who are already safely in the Chase are thinking long-term (Jimmie Johnson, for instance, is working in a new front tire changer this weekend.) Buescher is searching for every conceivable point to get to 30th in the driver standings (he is three points out of 30th).
“I still hate points racing, but it is a little bit different this year” because of the Pocono victory, said Buescher, a rookie. “We have to be a little bit aware of our situation and make sure we don’t get involved in anything we can avoid. But it’s also time to be aggressive. Time to get every point we can at every track.
“At this point we’ve got ourselves in a little bit of a hole and now we’re digging out of it. This should be a place where we can gain a lot of those points.”
If that entails the old bump-and-run, Buescher will adapt.
“I’m sure you’ll be mad if you get pushed out of your groove,” he said. “If that’s the way to pass, you better expect it. You can be upset about it, but pretty quickly everybody will realize that (tactic) is the only way to get those spots back.
“Then they’ll end up on the other side, dishing it out. Just be ready and don’t let our feelings get hurt.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell