Team-first approach challenging but necessary to succeed at Talladega
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Joey Logano certainly can’t forget being spun by Brad Keselowski on the final lap of the Daytona 500, which resulted in neither of them winning and an unhappy team owner in Roger Penske.
They probably don’t see eye-to-eye on that final lap but can agree on one thing: They will do their best to not have a repeat occurrence Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, a sister track to Daytona where the racing is similarly done in packs.
The Penske drivers met with Penske over Zoom on Tuesday to go over how to race with one another.
"I don’t think there’s any perfect answers, but there’s good spirit, and I’m looking forward to this weekend," Keselowski said. "I think Talladega is a lot different than the Daytona 500.
"There is more room to race and a lot of other different things that go on, and the way the cars drive is significantly different. So I don’t really think I have a lot of concerns. … There is a spirt of, ‘Hey, we should all be trying to win the race.’"
Prior to that meeting, Logano said Sunday that he was hoping for some clarity.
Actually, he was doing more than hoping.
"As far as who you work with, when you work with them, what you're supposed to do, I just pray for clarity," Logano said while looking ahead to Talladega after finishing third at Richmond. "That's all I want.
"Just tell me what I can do and what I can't do, how to work together the best way possible when the gloves drop and when we go for it."
Racing at Talladega Superspeedway can be challenging enough for drivers, as they can’t get to the front by themselves. The nature of the high-banked, 2.66-mile track requires help because cars go faster when lined up, creating an aerodynamic draft that pulls them all forward in a way that a single car can't do by itself.
As a result, drivers must try to figure out which lanes and other drivers could push them to the front. Then there are the decisions about when to bail on those helping give a push in order to block and hold position or move to another lane to get a push from a different group of drivers.
It’s frustrating for drivers and fans, who don’t want to see their favorite driver have to rely on someone else. But it’s the nature of the beast of Daytona and Talladega, and teams and manufacturers have issued directives to their teams to help their team or manufacturer before thinking about someone else.
"I don't think I can go out there and win by myself without having allies on the race track," Logano said. "I think probably most everyone can agree with that.
"So you have to have some kind of plan of how do you pit together, how do you work the draft together, what's OK and what's not OK, and when does that end, and does it end? I don't know. I think this week will be important to get some clarity to those questions."
As of Tuesday, the Penske teams had yet to meet with car owner Roger Penske.
"I think we’ve got a plan," Penske said. "I’m going to sit down with them just face-to-face, all of them, before Talladega so we’re all running on the same page.
"I don’t think there’s anything new that will happen, but I think we just have to make an agreement on just exactly how you want to play ball if you get into that same situation as we had, with two of us running as well as we had with a half-mile to go, and then end up with three cars in the trash bucket."
That is much easier said than done.
"You can scope out all these plans and have all this organization and communication, but when the green flag drops, you can’t predict what lines are moving or what line you are stuck in," said Matt DiBenedetto, who drives for Penske affiliate Wood Brothers Racing.
"It is really freaking stressful. I work on myself mentally, as well as physically and everything else. I think for these superspeedways, I work really hard at preparing myself to have a mental attitude of focusing on what is in my control only."
Chase Elliott says the conversation at Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet teams can be really tough when it comes to how to manage that dynamic at Daytona and Talladega. A few years ago, Toyota drivers and Hendrick drivers worked together, creating a bizarre, one-race unofficial alliance that angered Chevrolet brass.
It resulted in Chevrolet sitting down with its drivers to tell them what is expected.
"We really try hard not to hurt one another," Elliott said of the philosophy at Hendrick. "But it’s also hard to expect someone to hurt themselves and to go out of their way to try to help you."
One of the ways manufacturers work together is to have all the cars of the manufacturer pit together under green, so they can work as a group to make sure they don’t lose ground on a faster pack.
"I feel like, reasonably, we’ve done a good job of that and gotten better at it as time has gone on and focusing on those things and just not playing so many games of expecting too much from one another," Elliott said.
Toyota drivers found themselves in a bad spot late in the 2021 Daytona 500 because there were so few of them (seven in the field) that they couldn’t get the help they needed to make a move to the front.
Kyle Busch explained that if he is out front and there is a Chevrolet behind him, then a Toyota and two Fords, the two Fords likely will make a move into another lane to get to the front. The Toyota driver in third will see that and try to get in that lane to get to the front, potentially leaving the front two drivers to lose several spots without a significant number of cars in their lane (or getting caught up to them to help).
"It does take friends to be successful," Busch said. "Not having very many of those, it’s hard to get the job done yourself."
While Chevrolet will have the most cars in the field, with 18, the Penske Fords seem to be the strongest, and with boosts from Stewart-Haas and Roush Fenway, the Fords – there will be 15 of them — are looked at as the favorites.
"It’s definitely pretty tough to manage," said Chevrolet driver and former Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon. "The best thing about a speedway is taking a fast car and trying to keep it up front.
"When you get up there and keep up there, then everybody wants to work with you because they know you’ve got speed. The manufacturer stuff is really tough. ... We’ve got to do a better job this time. The Fords had us covered late in that race, and we’ve got to figure that out."
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What to watch for
With the Daytona and Talladega races often unpredictable, watch for another surprise like the one Michael McDowell pulled off in the Daytona 500.
Drivers who have led laps in recent races at Talladega include Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones and Matt DiBenedetto. All three drivers are looking to prove themselves: Wallace with the new 23XI Racing, Jones in replacing Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports and DiBenedetto knowing he won’t be back with Wood Brothers Racing next year.
Also, look for NASCAR to have to make tough calls. Last year, they penalized drivers four times for forcing other drivers below the double-yellow line. One of those decisions came after Elliott was initially penalized for passing below the yellow line.
DiBenedetto was the victim of one of those "forcing another driver below the line" penalties, which turned his second-place finish (and nearly win) into a 21st-place finish.
Thinking out loud
NASCAR didn’t approve Jennifer Jo Cobb to make her Cup debut at Talladega. That's a little bit surprising, considering that she has four career Xfinity starts at Daytona and Talladega and 16 starts in the trucks at those two tracks.
NASCAR said it made the decision based on her lack of performance and running quality laps. Although Cobb was approved to run at all tracks in all series years ago, NASCAR has a rule that if a driver does not compete in a specific series for a year, the driver must reapply. NASCAR also has been a little more stringent in its approval process, especially for the high-speed Daytona and Talladega tracks.
Cobb certainly has struggled to put up solid numbers, as she runs an extremely lean operation for her truck. She has one career top-10 and an average finish of 25.4 in the trucks.
The NASCAR decision is understandable, but it seems inconsistent, considering that drivers with questionable credentials do get approved for Cup races (albeit maybe not to have their first Cup race at Daytona or Talladega). While there could be room for some judgment calls, NASCAR would do well to publish a list of criteria so people don’t have to guess or assume if they’ll be eligible.
NASCAR should have that set criteria and an appeals process for a waiver. If a driver has competed in the Indianapolis 500, let’s say, that could be considered a non-NASCAR experience worthy of bypassing at least some steps up the ladder. Although it could be argued that the waiver is inconsistent, at least it wouldn’t lead to the confusion of a team announcing a driver will be in the car when that driver isn't actually approved.
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Among the best stories is Alex Bowman using a paint scheme that his crew chief, Greg Ives, used to have when he was a young driver himself.
Joe Gibbs will use old images of its sponsor on the Kyle Busch car.
They said it
"I didn’t even have words that could come out of my mouth after that race and for a couple of days following. I was pretty much a zombie." -- Matt DiBenedetto, who nearly won at Talladega in October
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!