Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Motor Mouth: Ragan Rises as Hendrick Falls; Pack vs. Pairs Racing

The Fourth of July fireworks are over, but I’m still thinking about the fireworks on the track at Daytona this weekend. The two-car tandem style of racing on restrictor plate tracks continues to fire up fans and drivers alike. And while one team executed their strategy perfectly to win the Coke Zero 400, the plan fell apart for another who had set the standard at Talladega.

Ragan’s redemption; Hendrick’s house falls down

David Ragan celebrates his first career Sprint Cup win.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for NASCAR

At the tracks where the two-car tango has become the dance of choice, teams need to have a strategy in place to realistically have a shot at the win. It’s no longer about each man for himself; it’s about being the team to beat.

And that team looked like Hendrick Motorsports. At Talladega, the winning due of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the epitome of the two-car tandem. The two acted as one on the track, staying together all day long, even pitting together. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. showed everyone what a team needed to do to win in the new style of tandem racing.

The organization went into Daytona with the same strategy that worked so well at Talladega: Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson would pair up, as well as Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. The weekend started off on the right foot when Martin won the pole and his teammates qualified in the top 10. Earnhardt Jr. would start 6th and Johnson in 8th, which put them in position to hook up with one another.

While the No. 48 and No. 88 entered Daytona on the heels of a superspeedway victory, David Ragan returned to the site of his greatest loss. On the final restart of the Daytona 500, it was Ragan who had been leading, with fellow Ford Racing driver Trevor Bayne pushing him. Ragan had the victory in the palm of his hand until he made a costly mistake. Ragan changed lanes before the start-finish line and was black-flagged by NASCAR. Just like that, his chance to win NASCAR’s premier event was gone. He had to settle for a 14th-place finish while Bayne went on to win the Daytona 500 in storybook fashion.

It was a mistake that could have doomed Ragan’s season, the last thing the driver of the No. 6 needed. Ragan’s 2009 and 2010 seasons were disastrous, and rumors floated that his seat and his sponsor could be up for grabs after this year. But instead, the loss fueled Ragan’s fire. The Roush Fenway driver went on to win the Sprint Open and racked up five top 10s, including a second-place effort in the Coca Cola 600.

Upon his return to Daytona, Ragan looked to put the past behind him and came in with a plan. About two weeks ago, teammate Matt Kenseth’s crew chief Jimmy Fennig approached Drew Blickensderfer, Ragan’s crew chief, about working together at Daytona. Blickensderfer agreed. But it meant that even though Ragan had qualified fifth, he would have to fall back at the start of the race to pick up Kenseth, who was starting 16th.

When the green flag dropped for the Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson paired up while Ragan went to join Kenseth. For the majority of the race, each pair stuck together like glue, even pitting together. Both duos looked like they had a chance to win. It would come down to strategic errors by one team and a flawless performance by the other.

While Ragan and Kenseth stayed out front, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson eventually dropped to the back. But the 88/48 strategy came back to bite them as the laps started winding down. When the duo made their move to head upfront, they found themselves unable to get around traffic. The error here is that what worked at Talladega wasn’t necessarily going to work at Daytona. Although both are superspeedways, Talladega is much wider than Daytona. With less real estate available at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson stayed in the back too long and became mired in the top 20.

Then one mistake followed another. When a crash involving HMS teammate Gordon on lap 157 brought out the race’s fourth caution, Johnson inexplicably pitted. Earnhardt Jr. stayed out. A lapse in communications between crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte left each driver without his partner.

Meanwhile, Kenseth had been leading with Ragan pushing in the laps before the caution. On the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, the duo, lead by Ragan, restarted in the top 4 and survived “The Big One.” For the second attempt, Ragan was recorded as the leader and Kenseth was third. It was the perfect setup: the No. 17 would line up right behind the No. 6.

Although the situation Earnhardt Jr. found himself in after losing his wingman Johnson wasn’t so perfect, the No. 88 still had a shot at victory. With two laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. restarted 15th and hooked up with Jeff Burton before the two were separated when Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne side-drafted them. On the final lap, Earnhardt Jr. was determined to go it alone and had enough momentum to catch Kenseth. However, he started falling back and was in position for a top 10 before he was tangled up in another “Big One.” A spinning McMurray got into the No. 88, which Dale Jr. said he had saved until McMurray hit his car again, relegating him to a 19th-place finish. Johnson was also caught up in the wreck and finished 20th.

While chaos broke out behind them, Kenseth pushed Ragan to the finish line - and redemption. Five months after losing the Dayton 500, Ragan got a second chance that few receive and made the most of it. With a push from Kenseth, Ragan conquered Daytona to claim his first Sprint Cup win. The win could also be far-reaching: as the points stand now, Ragan is in position to claim a wildcard spot in the Chase.

The Roush duo succeeded where Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson did not at Daytona: they were flawless.

“We made a pact with our teammate Matt Kenseth that we're going to work together through thick or thin,” Ragan said. “I knew we had the car to do it and not try to make any mistakes, and try to put ourselves in good position. And we wound up actually being in the lead on the last restart, and that was a winning moment for us to be able to start on the front row.”

Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
Pairs vs. the pack 

This weekend at Daytona offered the latest installment of the “Dancing With the Cars” saga. In Sprint Cup, the Coke Zero 400 was the third restrictor plate race of season where the two-car tangos replaced the traditional pack style of racing. The phenomenon debuted in February at the newly paved Daytona track and was refined at Talladega.

With the advent of the two-car tandems, the look of the racing has changed significantly and requires an altogether different strategy. Instead of the cars racing in one big pack, with as many as three lines of cars drafting together, the field is now two-car drafts, spaced out along the racetrack. And now more than ever before at a restrictor plate track, a partner is essential to winning the race, which goes against the traditional idea of every man racing for himself.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the best at restrictor plate racing, has been the most outspoken about the new tandem style, calling it “different and weird.”

“I'd rather have control of my own destiny and be able to go out there and race and just do my own work and worry about my own self," Earnhardt said.

And that’s the problem I have with this new style of racing. In the packs, a driver didn’t have to rely on a partner to move up. A driver could slice and dice his way through the field by himself, as long as he could find the openings to do so.

Remember last year’s Daytona 500, when Earnhardt Jr. moved up from 10th to 2nd place in the final two laps? Or Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 2000 win at Talladega, when he skillfully weaved from 16th to 1st in four laps? Each did it by himself, without any drafting help.

But now in the two-car drafts, a driver can’t make those last-minute moves because there’s so much reliance on the second person. Without a partner, the driver simply won’t be able to sustain the momentum. This was evident Saturday night, when Earnhardt Jr. was separated from partner Jimmie Johnson and then from temporary partner Jeff Burton in the final laps. Earnhardt tried to go it alone on the last lap and nearly did – he got as high as third by himself before falling back, where he was wrecked by Jamie McMurray.

While I like seeing which pairs will duke it out to claim the checkered flag, there’s something missing now from the restrictor plate races. It’s me checking to see if the driver who’s pushing is going to try and slingshot themselves for the win. Or if another driver with a car capable of winning is going to slice and dice their way upfront. Or if yet another driver is going to appear out of nowhere, leading a new line of cars to challenge for victory. In the three weekends of superspeedway racing we’ve had this year, none of the above scenarios has happened.

As wild and unpredictable as a pack of cars drafting together was, I agree with Earnhardt Jr. that a driver had more control of his own destiny than he or she does now in tandem racing, where his or her fate is inevitably tied to that of their partner.







Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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