The biggest and fastest tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule have always required drivers to work together by using the draft in order keep pace with the competition and pass other cars. This has been true since the 1950’s when the first of what we have come to call the ‘plate tracks’ was first built. But lately it seems as if the teams, and perhaps more importantly the manufacturers, have decided that working together to achieve the goal of placing one of their own in the winner’s circle supersedes all else at Talladega Super Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
And with the current playoff format in use it is easy to see why.
During the early days of racing on these tracks drivers would follow each other around and seize the opportunity to pull up on and ‘slingshot’ by the car that was leading the train around the speedway. That gave way to racing in big packs when the restrictor plate was introduced into the sport and followed by so-called tandem racing that came to the forefront for a short time.
But now, a new form of working together has emerged, or reappeared for thise who may be old enough to remember the old manufacturer days of the sport in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
One year ago at Talladega the cars prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing organized themselves into a pack of four and thoroughly dominated the 1000Bulbs.com 500 by leading more than 80% of the laps and eventually putting Aric Almirola in victory lane. The four-car team essentially locked bumpers for that entire race and remained in that formation virtually all day leaving the competition to wonder how they had been so completely overwhelmed.
And since then, this type of racing seems to have evolved even further. The three manufacturers curently involved in the sport have almost certainly encouraged their teams to work together for the purpose of pushing one of their brand under the checkered flag ahead of the others. Ford vs Chevrolet vs Toyota has now become the way of things which was clearly illustrated by the fact that many of the Chevrolet drivers and team leaders secluded themselves into a private space during the rain delay on Sunday at Talladega to almost certainly share information and discuss strategy.
Earlier this year in the Daytona 500 a Ford driver(Michael McDowell) was criticized for making a move that might have helped him improve his position rather than drafting with another Ford(Joey Logano) to push that car to the lead on the final lap.
Of course, teamwork in one form or another has long been a part of NASCAR, particularly on the drafting tracks.
For years fans and participants of other forms of racing have derided Formula 1 for its team orders that have on occasion called for one driver to allow another to score a win or a better finish to help the team win a championship or to move up in the standings. Something about that type of strategy and predetermination just seems to go against the nature of competition according to these critics.
One may now have to wonder if that very sort of thing is now happening in NASCAR. If teams opt to only work with cars of the same brand, could they not also decide to make sure to push the driver who needs the most help in the NASCAR Playoffs standings across the finish line for the win to assure that as many cars as possible with the same name plate on the grille advance to the next round?
For example, after poor finishes last weekend in Dover, Ford driver Ryan Blaney and Chevy pilot Chase Elliott sit below the cut line and could be in jeopardy of not moving into the ‘Round of 8’ without help. A win by either of those drivers would immediately negate their points deficits by automatically moving them into the next round.
Do you really think that the manufacturers haven’t thought of this if they have already thought of encouraging their teams to work together on these tracks?
And don’t forget that in 2020 the second race at Daytona will be in the position of deciding who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t. Manufacturers and teams will almost certainly be planning strategies to push the most vulnerable of those who might miss the cut toward the front.
As the financial situation in the sport is structured right now, the manufacturers have tremendous power due to the fact that teams are so reliant on them. Just look at how the situation played out at Leavine Family Racing this year as popular driver Matt DiBenedetto was supplanted in that ride by up-and-coming Toyota racer Christopher Bell as evidence of the influence of the brands.
Not that it’s necessarily a bad way to go about things as you can’t blame Ford, Chevy, or Toyota for wanting their drivers to win races. And of course, it would be pretty difficult to manage the chaos that often occurs over the finale few laps at Daytona and Talladega, but it is easier to assure that one of your drivers will win the race of they have been managed to push each other to the front of the field all throughout the day.
Does it really sound that much different than what has been going on for years in Formula 1?
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook