Surviving Talladega requires teamwork

When the smoke from the Talladega campfires clear on Sunday morning, hours later it will be replaced by fireworks on the racetrack.

Try as racers may, there’s no avoiding the recipe for disaster that exists on the 2.66-mile superspeedway as drivers run five-wide at nearly 200 miles per hour. Traditionally, it’s not a question of if a multi-car crash will occur but when.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series enjoys just a six-point margin between championship leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick confidently waits in the wings. At Talladega, Johnson historically rides around in the back of the pack hoping to avoid the predictable melee up front. Hamlin will run wherever his No. 11 Toyota is capable of taking him. And Harvick, who qualified in the top five for the first three restrictor plate races, enjoys his time as close to the front as possible.

Although Harvick currently sits third in the point standings, 62-points behind Johnson, he’s not going to adopt a conservative strategy in Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500.

“We go into this race with the same attitude that we have had for the rest of them,” Harvick said. “Just go out and race as hard as we can and try and put ourselves in position to win the race and if you are not going to win, take the most points that you can.

“So if we wreck, we will come in and fix the car as fast as we can and take the most points we can and when we get done we will see where everybody else is at and assess what we need to do for the next week. So it’s just one week at a time, one lap at a time, and otherwise it would be just way too stressful.”

Harvick says he’ll change his game plan only “if something happens to both” Johnson and Hamlin on the racetrack. Considering that all three contenders have strong dancing partners in their stables, successful runs will be contingent on colleagues being team players.

It was not surprising to see Hamlin drafting with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch earlier this weekend. Harvick has a cast of characters he can call on to help, such as Richard Childress Racing teammates as Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton or Tony Stewart, who occasionally races in the Nationwide Series for Kevin Harvick Inc.

At Talladega, two-car breakaways have been preferable. It’s safer than the big packs and easier for duos to distance themselves from the fray. Certainly, past experience will come into play. But the true restrictor plate whizzes will gravitate to the strongest cars for an advantage over the field.

Fortunately for Johnson, his teammate Jeff Gordon is one of the most skillful drafters at Talladega and Daytona. With six wins apiece at both restrictor plate tracks, Gordon leads the Sprint Cup Series. If Johnson can remain in close proximity to Gordon, the alliance could be rewarding. Gordon believes finding the right partner is key

“Oh absolutely it is going to happen,” Gordon said. “It is because these two-car drafts, the way we’ve been able to figure out how to hook up with one another and maximize with what you can do with two cars pushing. It is pretty amazing what happens and how the rpm’s pick up and the speed.

“It is an incredible thing that has evolved in this sport and at this track. It’s going to really be interesting to see which two-car draft can win this race. Then what happens as you come to the line between those two cars, even that part is pretty darn exciting. I know we like to see big groups and packs here and five-wide at the line, but, for us as competitors, we’d prefer it to come down to two guys and it is still exciting. I think that is pretty cool.”

 

THE BIG PICTURE

 

While Chevrolet has already won the manufacturer’s championship in Sprint Cup, Toyota is eyeing the larger trophy — the tour title.

A meeting called by Joe Gibbs echoed that sentiment to his teams on Friday. Denny Hamlin is relying on the support of his fellow JGR mates at Talladega and the final three races,

“That’s important for us to have the cooperation of everyone,” Hamlin said. “This is a big position for Toyota – they’ve been in this sport for 10 years and this is their first championship run that they’ve really made at it.

“I think it’s important for everyone in the Toyota camp to help try to get Toyota their first (Cup) championship because they’ve really taken manufacturer support to another level in NASCAR.”

 

GAUGHAN RIDES AGAIN

 

Brendan Gaughan will make his Sprint Cup Series return behind the wheel of the No. 71 TRG Chevrolet at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 14th.

Gaughan, who currently races for Rusty Wallace in the Nationwide Series, last raced in Cup for Jasper Motorsports in 2004. In 36 Cup starts, his career-best finish of fourth came in the fall race at Talladega. Gaughan finished 28th in the points his rookie year.

 

HARDCORE HORSEPOWER

 

Earnhardt Childress Racing engines have powered the winners of all three restrictor-plate races this season — including Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet twice. Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer, who will comprise the front row for Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500, also boast ECR horsepower.