Monday, April 18, 2011

Talladega's New Look - Race Recap

AJ started off the weekend at Talladega by running 5th fastest in Friday’s second practice and then qualifying 16th on Saturday morning, which was a good starting spot in comparison to the other Ford drivers. Qualifying results don’t really matter at restrictor plate tracks though, but the biggest advantage to AJ’s starting position was that he was lined up behind David Reutimann.

AJ and David get along well off the track and have a lot of respect for each other’s abilities. The two had worked together in practice on Friday, so it was fortunate that the lineup worked out to put them nose to tail for the start of Sunday’s race. Once everyone got rolling after the green flag, AJ switched over to David’s radio channel and the two worked in tandem for two thirds of the race. They communicated well and were both racing smart and cautiously, not trying to make holes where there weren’t any and just riding around in anticipation of the final quarter of the race when they were planning on going to the front.

Unfortunately, AJ’s car was collected in a spin on Lap 140 brought about by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. There was minimal left rear fender damage, but AJ had to limp slowly around to pit road because his tires were flat and he didn’t want to do any more sheet metal damage if the tires came apart. The Best Buy crew quickly changed tires and sent the #43 back out ahead of the leaders and then brought him back in for repairs to the fender. AJ was able to stay on the lead lap but had to start at the rear of the field due to pitting before pit road was open.

Reutimann meanwhile had avoided damage and pitted for tires, but was restarting further up in the field. Reutimann managed to find his MWR teammate Truex, which left AJ without his partner for the first time in the race. The current driver of the #43 car teamed up with one of the former drivers of the #43 when he hooked up with Bobby Labonte. The two drivers were not able to communicate on the same radio channel however, so on the next caution both tried to find someone else to pair up with.

Luckily for AJ, the Childress cars weren’t as close to each other on the final restart as they needed to be to get hooked together and he managed to pair up with the #27 of Paul Menard. The two former teammates had worked together at Daytona, and with the strong ECR Chevy engine combined with the Yates horsepower in AJ’s Ford, the duo quickly made their way towards the front. Eventually they got blocked behind slower cars and lost momentum which left them finishing just outside the top 10, but it was still a strong result after a very long race.

AJ’s 11th place result was his best ever finish at Talladega, and was much better than last fall’s race which saw him flying upside down on the final lap. He made smart, cautious moves all race long so that he could be there at the end. The team made good pit stops and made quick repair work on pit road when needed. Overall it was a very solid effort by the Best Buy team, and despite losing a spot or two in the standings, AJ has maintained close contact with the top 10 in points.

This tandem style of racing takes some getting used to, and after seeing it in both Talladega races last year and again at Daytona in February, I still can’t decide if I like it or not. Personally, I have always hated restrictor plate tracks anyway. The style that we’re used to seeing at Talladega where they run three or four wide in a huge pack is exciting, but it is also very dangerous and there is little a driver can do to take charge of their own fate.

To me, I see the tandem style of drafting as a safer version of plate track racing. We saw several single car spins or wrecks that only collected three or four cars instead of the huge 20-car pileups that have happened historically. There’s more room to maneuver, and if you need to back off you can. Yes, the person in back is basically driving blind, but that was the case when they were in one large pack as well. At least with a two car draft there is an option for communication with the lead driver that helps in moving around on the racetrack.

Some say that the pairs drafting takes the competitive edge out of the race because you have to have a buddy in order to go anywhere, but that has always been the case at restrictor plate tracks. If you were in a line of cars and wanted to make a move, someone behind you had to go with you. In the past, if you tried to pull out on your own without help, you would just go backwards. So restrictor plate tracks have always been like this. I find the tandem racing more interesting to watch, and the excitement generated throughout the race isn’t just waiting for the big wreck to happen – it’s actual passes and fighting for position.

I think the most fascinating thing is that we get to watch a new racing style develop. From the first time that we saw two cars hook up and fly past the rest of the field last spring to yesterday’s race, drivers and teams have gone forward in leaps and bounds. Drivers are developing new sets of skills, engineers are building racecars that are more adaptive to this style, and spotters are learning how to communicate in different ways.

I loved listening to the radios for two different teams and hearing the dynamics of what was going on. The front driver was calling out which lane he was choosing, one spotter was working as if the two cars were one to clear them and let them know where other cars were on the track, and in AJ and David’s case anyway, the other spotter was helping out also by letting them know if cars were closing or if a tandem in front of them were switching so they would know to watch for slower cars ahead. I’d like to have listened to some of the other teams out there, but couldn’t tear my ears away from the #43 radio.

In my opinion, yesterday showed teamwork at it’s finest. It just wasn’t necessarily teamwork within your own team. The down side to it is that drivers almost have to be political all year long just for these four restrictor plate races. Aggressive drivers who go out and race other drivers hard week in and week out are going to have a more difficult time finding a partner than someone who is more laidback on the track and willing to let cars go by them if they’re faster. The cooperation has to go deeper than just one race.

So in short, I’m not a huge fan of the tandem racing. There are a lot of disadvantages to it. But I like the tandem racing better than the traditional restrictor plate races because the drivers have more control. It’s not the ideal type of racing that I would like to watch, but it’s still racing. My driver is in it, for better or worse, and I’m going to watch every second that he’s on the track no matter what track it is. Not watching isn’t an option.

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