MANUFACTURER BATTLES COME TO A HEAD AT TALLADEGA
It started with Denny Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 win in 2016. Toyota drivers teamed up in a manufacturer-first mindset, and it was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver leading his manufacturer in a 1-2-3 finish with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch following behind.
When it comes to superspeedway racing, especially, manufacturer orders seem to rule these days, and NASCAR’s most popular driver Chase Elliott was the beneficiary, winning for the first time at Talladega last weekend.
Those Toyota drivers in 2016 changed the game at drafting racetracks.
“Once we saw how those four cars (Joe Gibbs Racing) were able to stay committed to each other and beat everyone that day in Daytona, that forever changed the draft,” 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano said.
The Fords certainly took notice, and their manufacturer-first plan took full bloom last fall at ‘Dega. Stewart-Haas Racing, the strongest team in the sport last year, advanced all four of its cars to the final eight of the NASCAR playoffs, partly because Aric Almirola won Talladega that day. The four SHR cars qualified 1-4, and finished both the first and second stages of the race 1-4. The only thing that went wrong was when the race turned to fuel strategy at the end, sending Ford drivers Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, and Brad Keselowski to finishes in the late-20s after running up front all day. There were still more than enough forces to carry the day though. Almirola beat teammate Clint Bowyer and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr in a 1-2-3 Ford finish.
“As an organization, we were so committed to each other about running up front, staying up front,” Almirola said in Victory Lane. “I feel like that strategy, honestly, was what obviously won us the race. I think our cars were so fast that as long as we stayed single file, all four of us lined up, nobody could get that outside lane working to go up there and challenge us.”
That leads to maybe the biggest hurdle of this strategy: getting the Chevrolet camp to combine as one. Not only is it the most-represented manufacturer (18 in the field Sunday) in the sport, it’s also been the one facing the largest uphill battle the past two years.
Since Chevy switched to the Camaro body before the 2018 season, the struggle has been real for the bowtie. They won just four times last year, three of those by Chase Elliott. The total was 10 the year before.
The day before ‘Dega, though, Chevy decided to pull together. They’d received manufacturer orders in the past with little success.
“We’ve tried this before,” Elliott’s No. 9 Crew Chief Alan Gustafson said. “It’s really been a pathetic attempt at it.”
“It’s just looking at how the other teams have been successful in the last couple of plate races,” Chevy driver Austin Dillon said. “You look at those guys and they’re grouping up and dictating the race. We don’t want to be in that position where we’re having to fight from behind the whole time. We have good numbers at Chevy, and we need to use them.”
When the checkered flag waved it was Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, up front, putting an exclamation point on the Chevy effort and giving the maker its first win of 2019.