Was Playing It Safe the Right Strategy for 2013 Chase Drivers at Talladega?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2013

Here's the beginning of the wreck between Austin Dillon and Casey Mears on the final lap. Note how what normally is a multicar pack of three- or four-wide racing was nonexistent in the final laps Sunday.
Here's the beginning of the wreck between Austin Dillon and Casey Mears on the final lap. Note how what normally is a multicar pack of three- or four-wide racing was nonexistent in the final laps Sunday.Rob Carr/Getty Images

As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

And if Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway were to have a musical theme, it would be The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

That aptly describes how the final laps of Sunday's race were definitely un-Talladega-like.

Where were the last 10 to 20 laps of three- and even four-wide racing?

Where were the bonsai moves by drivers willing to risk life and limb to get to the front?

Where were the two-car tandems?

Where was the pushing and shoving to the front?

Where was the draft?

Instead, we watched an outcome that was a follow-the-leader routine in a primarily single-file finish.

I'm not saying that was bad, but …

What happened to the "Big One" everyone was predicting? What we wound up with in 188 laps of racing were two fender benders, for the most part, involving only four cars.

This was Talladega, home of the renowned "Big One"?

Instead, it looked like a place where everyone was cordial and nice to each other, seemingly a Sunday drive to the beach and back with no conflict, no flared tempers and no typical 'Dega road rage.

But there was a very simple reason for the way Sunday played out: Maybe drivers are just tired of becoming out-of-control pinballs. Maybe risking a wreck just is no longer the potential reward that comes with being able to avoid a dozen or more spinning and smashing cars around you.

Flash back to last fall's Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Talladega. It was a relatively gentlemanly affair until race leader Tony Stewart decided to block a two-car freight train of Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears heading to the finish line.

Stewart threw the block, and 25 cars later, with likely a couple of million dollars worth of damage and totaled race cars, a lot of good drivers' days and race cars were ruined.

Even fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out for the following two events as a result of a concussion suffered in that massive free-for-all wreck.

Then there was Saturday's Trucks Series race at 'Dega. While there have been worst wrecks there in the past, the image of Kyle Busch sitting against the speedway wall after hitting hard and having the wind knocked out of him must have hit home with some of his regular Sprint Cup competitors.

Face it, when was the last time you saw Busch—whether you like him or not as a driver is irrelevant—looking like he was in marked pain and barely able to move. Say what you want about Busch, but he's one of the tougher drivers when it comes to taking a licking and keeps on ticking.

But not in Saturday's trucks race.

Another example of why drivers Sunday simply wanted to get what they could—rather than going for what extras they may or may not get if they took risks—can be seen in the final results.

When was the last time you saw a race at NASCAR's largest superspeedway end with 25 of the starting 43 drivers finishing on the lead lap? Or 10 more drivers finishing just one lap down and two others finishing no fewer than four laps down?

Do the math and 37 of the 43 starters finished respectably at a place that's very hard to do such a thing.

Were the drivers afraid of what might happen? Perhaps.

Were those in the Chase, especially the top five of Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Busch worried that they might suffer overly large losses in the standings if they tried anything out of the ordinary?

You could certainly make a case for that: Harvick finished 12th, Johnson 13th, Gordon 14th and Kenseth 20th. Busch was the only Chase driver still with a chance at the championship that finished in the top 10 (not counting runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is all but eliminated from the title run, even though he finished runner-up Sunday).

Were drivers just a bit too leery Sunday to make a run at the end? In some ways yes, and in some ways no.

They and their crew chiefs likely measured out how much they could potentially gain if they became overly aggressive and took risks, versus where they'd wind up if they simply stood their ground and followed the leader, in this case race winner Jamie McMurray.

Playing it safe Sunday was playing it smart. The standings, for all intents and purposes, remained almost the same. Sure, Johnson hurdled past Kenseth to take over first place, but the spread between both drivers is the same as it was coming into Sunday's race: four points. Only Kenseth is four points back instead of four points ahead of Johnson.

Harvick remained in third place and went from 29 points behind Kenseth to 26 points now behind Johnson.

Busch jumped from fifth to tied with Harvick for third in the standings and cut his deficit on the series leader from 37 coming into Talladega to 26 leaving it.

And Gordon, who fell from fourth to fifth, actually picked up two points, from 36 back heading into Talladega to 34 afterward behind the series leader (now Johnson).

Do you see what I'm saying about risk vs. reward and why there just wasn't enough of the latter in Sunday's race to attempt the former?

Trust me, NASCAR drivers aren't dumb.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.