NASCAR: Expect drivers to draft along party lines

NASCAR: Expect drivers to draft along party lines
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—After the unholy alliance between Chevrolet and Toyota in the Daytona 500—which ended in victory for Toyota driver Denny Hamlin—the bow-tie brigade concocted a different strategy at Talladega: work together, and leave the Camrys out of the equation.

The decision paid off with a Camaro sweep of the podium led by Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Ryan Preece.

With 18 Chevrolets entered in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, why work with anyone else?

“I don’t think they’ll be much between the brands working together,” said seven-time champion and Hendrick Motorsports senior driver Jimmie Johnson. “I think our practice session (Thursday) showed the commitment that we all have to work together and to try to make it work like it did in Talladega.

“And then it’s kind of up to the other manufacturers. We’ll have to see their level of commitment to a plan like that. But, it’s pretty obvious where we stand on it.”

Due to Ford’s overwhelming success at Daytona and Talladega over the last three years, the Blue Oval Brigade is often credited with initiating the game plan of freight-training the competition. But it was actually the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas—and Martin Truex Jr.—who came up with the plan during practice prior to the 2016 Daytona 500. The five Toyotas ran in unison, swapping positions only when one of the pushers needed clean air. Clearly, five cars running together had an advantage in speed.

The plan worked to near perfection, with Denny Hamlin winning, followed by Truex and Kyle Busch. Carl Edwards finished fifth. Of course, Matt Kenseth, who led laps 160 through 199, got hosed on the last lap and finished 14th. But on the final lap—unless there is team orders or tremendous discipline—it’s every driver for himself.

Joey Logano, who will start on the pole for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, knew the Fords needed to take the strategy up a notch if they were going to win on restrictor plate tracks. There were power in numbers and the Fords far outnumbered the Toyotas at that time and now.

“When the Gibbs cars worked together, that was maybe the first time we had seen four cars be that selfless,” Logano recounted. “It was in the Daytona 500 and I think that was the evolution of speedway racing right there because we all realized at that point if we want to knock them out, we want to beat them, we have to join forces.”

At the next superspeedway race at Talladega, Brad Keselowski had a car that was nearly unbeatable out front. Of course, two wrecks that eliminated half of the field helped clear his path to victory at Talladega—even after losing his partner Logano. But Keselowski returned to Daytona that July and won again. Ford won the next five races at Talladega until the Chevrolets stopped their streak in April. Chase Elliott led Hendrick teammate Bowman to a 1-2 finish followed by the Camaro of Preece. Logano was the only Ford in the top five.

“We’ve seen Ford do a good job at that in the past, and then we go to Talladega and I feel like we’ve seen the next level that we saw the Chevys do,” Logano added. “Now it’s forced the garage again to somehow come up with an alliance to beat them. That’s what we have to do, so it’s just evolving.

“Superspeedway racing is in general and it always has and it’s something where you can take any kind of rules package and all these different things and it doesn’t really matter, it’s about what the mentality is on the race track.” 

And that mentality, Logano believes, will dictate where and how the competition races on Sunday. But one thing is certain, if Logano can maintain unity with a fellow Team Penske driver or another Ford, he will.

“What you’re going to see, I don’t think it’s going to be a secret to anyone, you’re going to see manufacturers working together just because of what we saw in Talladega,” Logano said. “It forces everyone’s hands to where you have to do that to have a chance. You hope that you’re the guy in the lead of it, but you might not be and you have to be OK with it.

“I want to push anything with a Blue Oval on it.”

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