5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Hendrick Motorsports

At one point Hendrick Motorsports was the top team on restrictor plate tracks. At Talladega specifically, they had 6 wins in an 8-race span. They’ve since won just 4 of the last 30 Talladega races with Chase Elliott’s spring race in 2019 and his win last Fall being their only trips to victory lane here since this Fall race in 2015.

For Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports is tied with the Wood Brothers for most wins there in the NASCAR Cup Series. Each have 15. Both have also won those 15 races with 7 different drivers. However, HMS’ once dominance prowess has since cooled at the World Center of Racing too. They won 11 races between 1995 and 2015. In fact, 7 of those 11 occurred from July 2004 and July 2015. They’ve won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 race 6 times.

Since 2016 there, they have just 1 win. What’s bizarre is, it’s not like they’ve not shown up down here without speed. They’ve arguably had the fastest cars off the truck. It’s just that they’ve not had race day speed to correlate with race day handling.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott shared the front row at Daytona back in August of last year while it was Alex Bowman and Larson this past February. It’s was actually the 5th straight HMS pole at Daytona and 13th in the last 17 tries on the high banked 2.5-mile Florida superspeedway. The only 4 poles that they didn’t win was Greg Biffle (July 2016), Joey Logano (July 2019), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (February 2020) and Kevin Harvick (Aug. 2020). However, 2 of the 4 weren’t won on speed. Logano’s pole in 2019 was on points. Same for Harvick in 2020 as we didn’t qualify that year. However, they failed to win both races with having just 1 win in the last 14 Daytona races now. Elliott led the most laps (31) last August but none of them even scored a top 10 that day. They looked better in February, but still didn’t produce the winner and had just one of them finish in the top 17.

Can they turn this tide around this weekend in Talladega?

They’ve won the most races ever at Talladega (14).

So far, they’ve by far been the best team this season. They’ve won almost literally half (4) of the races (9)thus far.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 02: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, William Byron, driver of the #24 RaptorTough.com Chevrolet, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Tootsies Orchid Lounge Chevrolet race during the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 02, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin vs. Team Penske

At one point, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano were the top drivers on these types of tracks. They’ve got 10 superspeedway victories between them.

Since though, they’ve not had the best of success.

Logano was 32nd in Talladega last spring with finishes of 21st, 9th, 32nd, 26th and 12th on superspeedways last season. The year before, he was 12th and 23rd at Daytona and 39th and 3rd at Talladega. In 2020, he was 26th and 27th at Daytona and 17th and 26th at Talladega. His final 2 superspeedway starts in 2019 were 25th and 11th.

This year, he’s since rebounded. He was runner-up in Daytona and won in Atlanta. However, four of his last five Talladega finishes have also seen him finish 26th or worse too with just one Top-10 finish in his last six here.

That’s why he has my eye. Which Logano do you get on Sunday? So do his Team Penske teammates of Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric.

Cindric exceled on superspeedway’s a year ago. He won the year’s biggest race (Daytona 500) was third in his return trip to Daytona (Coke Zero Sugar 400) as well as finishing in the top 10 in 1 of the other 2 Talladega races.

Blaney won the summer Daytona race in 2021 and also had two prior wins at Talladega too. 6 of his last 9 Daytona results overall (counting the summer ‘400) have been inside of the top 6 (he was 8th in February. the 2021 Daytona 500 loss in the end (4th place) still resonates with him as the sting still burns. He’s had two Top-4 finishes in his last four Great American Races at that.

Since the start of the 2020 season, only Hamlin has as many speedway wins as Blaney, but Blaney tops all with average finishing position (10.1) too. He’s had the second most Top 5’s (5) and tied for most Top 10’s (8) in that span. He also has the third most laps led (187) in that span.

Hamlin is always a threat on superspeedway’s but his finishes on them last year were 37th, 29th, 18th, 25th and 25th too.

No one has as many wins on superspeedway’s since 2018 as Hamlin’s three though. In his last 12 Daytona 500 starts, he has eight top five finishes. He was third in the 2020 summer Daytona race too.

At Talladega, he has seven straight top seven’s in the Fall race.

He also has 10 top five finishes in that span (since 2018) with the next best being Logano’s seven. He, Blaney and Logano are the only drivers to lead at least 200 laps in the last 21 races as well. He’s got five career superspeedway wins which is two shy of Brad Keselowski for most in the series today.

Did they lose their advantage or was this just a case of bad luck?

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, Kurt Busch, driver of the #45 Monster Energy Toyota, and Erik Jones, driver of the #43 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 24, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Pit Stops

In order to win a superspeedway race at either Daytona or Talladega, you honestly first need to have some sort of drafting help to get you there. These days, the drafting help now comes from via your own manufacturer. Just look further on how this affects races than the ending of the 2021 Daytona 500. It was a perfect storm per say.

Denny Hamlin had the car to beat in that race. He led a race-high 98 of 200 laps and well on his way to becoming the first three-peat champion in the races 63 year history.

Then the final pit sequence happened.

The Toyota’s hit pit lane last among the three manufacturers. It cost them.

The Fords were lined up and the Toyota’s couldn’t get formed quick enough to stay ahead.

Hamlin, had too big of a lead over teammate Kyle Busch and neither were close enough to use each other as drafting help. The Ford train was coming and blew right by them with 25 laps-to-go.

“We were too far out front (on the final pit stop),” Hamlin said then. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack.”

The pack would go single file and run at the top of the banking all the way around until a few to go. There wasn’t enough energy built up for the Chevrolet’s or Toyota’s to make any ground. They knew it would take a lot for them to break up the five Ford’s up front.

If you go to the bottom line, you need enough cars to build some energy. There just wasn’t enough.

“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth,” Hamlin continued. “I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”

How does this play into it? We know teammates will work together again as will manufacturers.

It happened in the last two years of the Duels. The Chevys blinked first in the opening Duel. The Fords came a lap later. The Fords flipped ahead of them after.

If you have any sort of sloppiness during your pit stop, you honestly ruin it for the whole group. The larger the group of cars to draft with the more energy and speed you gain. By breaking a group up while another remained in form entering and exiting pit lane, well it doesn’t take a top engineer to know which group will cycle ahead.

So, with Talladega featuring several pits stops throughout the day, the ones who have the best efforts on and off pit road will be the ones who succeed the most in track position.

Part of this all is due to manufacturers and teammates working together almost exclusively on superspeedway’s now. These two are going to have moments where they’re working together.

Toyota started it in 2016, Ford perfected it there after and Chevrolet brought it to a head in the 2019 Daytona 500. What “it” is, is manufacturer alliances on superspeedway’s.

For the 2016 Daytona 500, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have strength in numbers compared to their car count vs. the Ford’s/Chevy’s, so they teamed up only with each other. It panned out for a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500 that year.

After that race, Ford took notice and had their powerplant line up together and draft with one another during the four combined annual stops at Daytona and Talladega. Ford, already had good motors for these tracks, but throw in teamwork and you get domination in the form of 13 of the last 20 races won when using the restrictor plates.

They were in everyone’s head. So, for the 2019 Daytona 500, the Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have the numbers to contend for the win. Hendrick Motorsports, a Chevrolet team, knew that the other Chevy cars weren’t good enough to hang with them to challenge the Ford’s. So, we saw an unlikely tandem for the ‘500 – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota’s and their alliance car at Leavine Family Racing and the Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevy’s.

Combined, that’s nine very good race cars that with even the smallest bit of help from any other Chevy team, could work together and break up the Ford party up front.

See, Ford’s knew that if they lined up in tow, go up to the high line and pull each other around the 2.5-mile track, it didn’t matter how many Chevy’s or Toyota’s lineup, no one could stop them.

So, HMS and the Toyota’s teamed up and ran up there with them, then would use the draft to take air off the Ford’s and break them apart.

It worked.

Toyota finished 1-2-3 in the ‘500, Ford’s grew frustrated with one another and the Chevy teams were pissed that HMS sought out a late hour deal with a rival manufacturer.

In turn, Chevy had a closed door meeting afterwards and made sure that this didn’t happen again. Chevy teams could only work and draft with other Chevy teams. No more helping the competition.

Ford teams would still try and do the same. The Toyota’s? Well they were hung out to dry.

Chevy was the biggest beneficiary of this. HMS would finish 1-2 in the first race with the tapered spacer in April 2019 in Talladega including Chevy going 1-2-3 overall and taking five of the top six finishing positions.

In the July race at Daytona, Chevy went 1-2-3-4 this time.

But, in the second stop to Talladega in the Fall that year, the Ford’s found a way to get back to prominence. They’d lead 125 of the 188 laps run and take a 1-2 finish and four of the top five. Chevy, took spots 6-8-10.

In 2020 and Daytona last year was the same way. That’s why with what’s at stake, I think you immediately lineup with teammates and run single file up top for a while.

That also means you’re likely going to be battling a teammate for the win in the end too. How do you race a teammate in the end with the ultimate goal of wanting to win and doing everything in your power to do so, but your teammate could block you. It’s not like you can lift. That causes mayhem with the old package, but what about the changes now that were made.

So, if we’re in the same position again, like Keselowski and Logano were in 2021 or Blaney and Cindric last year, what do you do?

The final lap of the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 was a perfect storm. You had two teammates running 1-2. Both said just how badly that they wanted to get a Daytona 500 triumph — a second for Logano and a first for Keselowski.

How did two of the greats of the sport, teammates at that, wreck each other on the last lap while battling for the win? Before we get break down the last lap, you first have to next go back to what each said during their respective media days ahead of Speedweeks at that to set that scene.

“You typically go to Daytona and even Talladega expecting to crash,” said Keselowski. “The odds are more favorable for carnage than a win.”

That’s why the aggression really ramps up in the final laps. You have to. There’s too much at stake. That played a huge role into this.

“The only race that’s bigger than this is the championship race and that’s only for four cars,” said Logano during his availability last year. “This is the biggest race for 40 cars. Everyone is out there racing extremely hard towards the end of the race.

“The pushing and shoving becomes very aggressive which that has been consistent over the years but with the rules package change, especially with the spoiler on the back of it, we’ve seen over the past couple of years that the shoving has become really aggressive and the blocks have been harder to pull off successfully,” Logano continued. “The runs are bigger. That’s all a recipe for disaster for the end of these things. The key is to be up towards the front when it matters the most.

“At the end of the race, it’s kind of like the championship. No one remembers who finished second. No one knows who finishes second in the Daytona 500 last year. That’s just what this race is about.”

You have a hungry Keselowski. Remember, he said that if you’re there at the end, you have to go for it. With respects that you’re more likely to get caught up in a crash, if you have a shot to win in the closing laps, you have to be overly aggressive. Combine that with him needing this win, you get the perfect storm.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all which is really cool and special and means a lot to me personally,” Keselowski said on the same zoom call last month as Logano. “That’s definitely on that list to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked.”

You have them saying and knowing this. They’re 1-2. One lap to go. 2 turns left. They each know that if they want to win, they have to be aggressive.

So, lets get into how the crash transpired. You have to go back to 2 laps-to-go as to the starting point.

Keselowski, backed up off Kevin Harvick’s bumper with two to go to get some drafting help from behind via McDowell. It’s a technique drivers use to make passes on superspeedway’s. It worked. Keselowski, was now in second. With the final lap coming and a Daytona 500 win in his grasps, he had to do the same move on his teammate in Logano.

Keselowski, let Logano, just like he did Harvick, get far out there off Turn 2 and was hoping to use a push by McDowell again to get him his first Daytona 500 triumph.

“I had a big run down the backstretch,” Keselowski said. “Went to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and ended up really bad.”

McDowell, said that he was going to help Keselowski there until the crash occurred.

“My plan was to stick to (Keselowski),” McDowell said. “I knew he would go for a race-winning move and my plan was to let him make that move and then coming off of (Turn) 4 try to get to his outside or inside. I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to (Keselowski’s) bumper and when he made the move, the hole opened up.

“It’s just unbelievable.”

Logano, said he saw the strategy Keselowski was going and he was doing it back. He didn’t want Keselowski to keep backing up, so he was doing it too.

“Once I saw Brad lay back and shuffle the 4 [Kevin Harvick] out, I said, ‘OK, this game’s about to change, this isn’t going the way I expected it to,’ and I knew things were going to be a little different and that’s what kind of developed into the last few laps,” Logano said. “Cars were laying back so much trying to form runs; I’m backing up trying to keep everyone tight behind and not get so far out because … you just know there is just so much energy being built up, everyone is going to be bumper to bumper. You saw that all come to fruition when we went down the back straightaway and everyone opened it up — you saw some cars go to the bottom, and that top lane had five cars pushing each other. There’s going to be a few runs coming at you that way.

“(Keselowski) kept trying to back up, trying to get a run. I was trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big and just, I guess he got to the back of (McDowell) and it ended up being a really big run coming at me and it seemed like we all just collided in one spot.”

Combine all three and you get what you saw — a last lap crash of a large magnitude.

The Monday morning quarterback says that Logano shouldn’t have blocked Keselowski’s move and just let the two run side-by-side to ensure a Penske driver wins the race. Logano felt like McDowell’s pushing of Keselowski was a big reason as to why they all crashed but there’s nothing either of them could have done differently at the time. It’s a 200 mph split second decision to win the Daytona 500. What are you supposed to do?

“I’m up in the mirror, I’m watching this all develop behind me, and when the 34 and the 2 hook up, they start coming at me with a run,” Logano explained. “I throw a mild block, but when Brad moves to the left to pass me, that gets the 34 off-center on his bumper, and these cars are very unstable when they’re getting pushed.”

All three said that they were in the perfect position for them heading to the checkered flag and that this was just speedway racing.

By having that occur, last year they were in the same boat and took drastic measures to not have a repeat performance.

Ryan Blaney was a team player at the end of the 2022 Daytona 500. He could have pushed the issue for his first Great American Race triumph.

He had drafting help from best friend Bubba Wallace behind. He could have made a bold maneuver to hang his teammate Austin Cindric out to dry.

“The last lap, I got good pushes on the bottom from the 23 (Bubba Wallace) and then I was able to get Austin in front and off of four where we were good enough to make a move.”

Or, he could have fought him on the restart. He saw how last year ended on his couch. He hated to be wrecked on Lap 13. After a lengthy rain delay, he was home in time to see the end.

Cindric, had a front row seat. He was involved in that fiery crash.

So, Blaney got rolling slower than normal and let Cindric low in front of him. That ensured a Penske win and not seeing both loaded on the tow truck damaged instead.

Cindric hung onto the low line and Blaney followed in his tire tracks. No one could build enough energy on the high line.

“I got blocked and I ended up getting fenced,” Blaney explained. “I’m happy for Roger Penske, winning the 500 on his birthday. I’m happy for Jeremy Bullins and everyone that works on that 2 car. It’s just one of those things. It didn’t work out. We still ended up fourth, but I don’t know another perfect position we could have put ourselves in to win the race. It just didn’t work out.

“I made the decision of I wasn’t gonna make a move until I was 100 percent sure that one of our two cars was gonna win, and one of our two cars were going to win and one of them ended up winning. I was committed to him until I was 100 percent sure that one of us was gonna win and one of us did,” said Blaney.

Penske wins. The field loses. It worked according to plan. It also saved a scary wreck in the end by an act of desperation.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you to Ryan,” said Cindrics crew chief Jeremy Bullins. “That’s a hell of a teammate. I’ve been here with him and felt like we were going to win with him, and I can’t thank him enough for being that good of a teammate because we probably don’t win that race without him.

“I thought, green-white-checkered, we’re just going to race for it and see what happens here. It was Ryan’s idea. Like I said, hell of a teammate. I mean, the guy is awesome. Then to know you’ve got somebody back there that you can trust pushing you … he kept us out front, no doubt.”

That’s why teammate and manufacturer support is interesting in the sense that you work with someone or a group of people all race but throw it all away over the final 5-6 miles.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 24, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The Choose Rule

The Choose Rule isn’t new, but it is however at Talladega. This year is the first time that the choose rule on restarts will be used on superspeedways. That can play a massive role in how this race is decided at the end. It almost did in Daytona.

More than likely, we’re going to see a late race restart. How the drivers lineup is going to be a massive factor.

“I would say the difference with the speedway choose is teammates,” said Joey Logano. “Like do you line up with your teammate? Do you take the shortest lane? Which lane do you think typically goes better?

“It’s closer to 50/50 than it is at other tracks. It’s not as black and white as it is at other tracks where you can go back and look at restarts and look at history and say, well, this lane is definitely better. It’s the dominant lane, so you are willing to give up a row or whatever it may be to get in that spot.

“Now it’s kind of like, what’s the alliances around you and what are you willing to do to get with each other. Are you willing to give up a row to be with your teammate, and is that worth doing that. Those are the questions you have to ask now.

“So it will be interesting to see how that plays out over this race and the 500, how that kind of goes. But it’s definitely a new thing to think about. A lot of conversation around it, so we’ll see how it plays out.”

The main factor is, manufacturers and teammates can play a role because what if you don’t have any teammates left or an manufacturer alliances around you. You could in theory see manufacturers decide to lineup in a single line and and make it difficult to get by.

Also, lanes are key too because as we saw on the superspeedway races last year, the high line conga parade was moved to the low lane. Does it remain that way this weekend too?

“The cars are built symmetrical. Last year’s (2021’s) car was built asymmetrical, and so this car is built symmetrical, and specifically how that affects it is when the cars were asymmetrical the side draft off the right side was really, really sensitive and the side draft off the left side was not sensitive at all — well, it was minimally sensitive,” Brad Keselowski said last February.

“So you never really wanted to expose your right side. If somebody got underneath you, you could come back down and grab their right rear quarter panel and just stop them.

“So that naturally created this kind of gravitation towards the top lanes at all the plate tracks. With this car being symmetrical and that not being the case, I think the racing will be significantly better because that high lane freight train won’t be there.

“I felt like early in the race I was behind Ryan Blaney for a while early in the race, and I was ready to go, and he stayed calm, which was smart on his part, I guess. He stayed calm but I felt like we could have pushed and made the second lane work. I think all of us wanted to get through that pit stop and stretch our legs out and take it from there.”

It was the opposite way in 2021 and prior. In those years, you could get your car wound up by riding the top of the banking and use the SAFER barrier to your advantage of propelling off the pockets of air between the right side of the car and wall.

See, with that past model of car, the way to stall out someone’s momentum was to side draft them on their right rear. If you run up against the wall, there’s no side drafting opportunity. Then, with using those air pockets and having so much energy on the top lane, how can you ever fully form the bottom lane to work?

The Next Gen is the opposite. Side drafting isn’t as easy as it once was. You now get faster runs from behind and in turn, have to time them out which means you can use whatever lane has room.

That’s a lot to be deciding and looking for partners coming down to a late restart.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 24: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 24, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)


Ford dominated last year’s Speedweeks. They won the 2022 Daytona 500 with Austin Cindric. However, after Cindric’s win, Chevrolet won the return trip to Daytona last August as well as both Talladega races as well as each in Atlanta.

This past year, Ford dominated early again.

Joey Logano won the opening Duel. Aric Almirola won Race 2. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. That was nine Ford wins in the Duel in the last 11 tries including five straight.

Not only were they winning, they ere dominating too.

In Duel 1, Ford’s went 1-3-4-5-6-8-9. In Duel 2, they went 1-2-4-7.

Last year (2022), they went 1-2-3-4 in Duel 1 and 1-2-3 in Duel 2.

They led 26 of 60 laps in Duel 1 last year and 50 of 60 in Duel 2. This past Speedweeks, they led 59 of 60 laps in the first Duel and 21 of 60 in Duel 2.

Combined, that’s 65% (156-for-240) of laps led over the last two years as well as 14 of the potential 20 top five positions.

Chevy in turn won the Daytona 500 and had 1-2-3 in qualifying. For Atlanta though, Ford’s swept the entire top eight of the starting lineup and led 221 of the 260 laps in the race by taking home the top two spots and 3 of the top 7. That equaled the amount of laps led the first four weeks of the season too (221).

In fact, 46.1% of all their laps led this season have come on these types of tracks.

Chevrolet only had 3 cars in the top 11.

The Toyota’s are just 2-for-the-last-17 in Talladega and 1 for the last 8 at Daytona.

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