Jeff Gordon believes the new style of racing in tandems at restrictor plate tracks is set to remain, amid views that it made for a dull race at times last Sunday at Talladega. The four-time Cup series champion was one of six drivers who crossed the finish line last Sunday within a tenth of a second of race winner, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The race saw a record-tying 88 lead changes among 26 drivers, Johnson beating Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer by two thousandths of a second, the closest margin of victory for a Cup race since 2003.
Despite the amazing stats coming out of the 188-lap event, the field got spread out at times, specially following green-flag pit stops which drivers completed in pairings in order to maintain their tandem formation when they rejoined the track. Also, many chose to remain at the back of the field in order to avoid trouble before moving to the front in the deciding stages.
The new style of racing in two car-drafts at Daytona and Talladega was developed during the season opener, thanks to the new smoother surface of the 2.5-mile venue which allowed drivers to push each other for a whole lap. Despite restrictions imposed by NASCAR in the car's cooling, drivers found a way around it and were able to push for many consecutive laps.
Gordon, NASCAR's winningest active driver at restrictor plate tracks, believes the racing hasn't really changed as much at it is perceived, while he expects the new style of racing to stay unless NASCAR calls for a drastic change in the current Cup car.
"Let's be honest: In my opinion, Talladega has always been about a 15- to 25-lap race, and the rest is just trying to get to the end, and that's basically what we have now." said Gordon. "If you want to survive and you want to make it to the finish, you know, you have to either choose to try to push to stay up front, or ride in the back. But being in the middle, to me, is not worth it.
"This two-car draft is here to stay, unless they drastically change the cars. The restrictor plate is not going to change that. It would take a whole new revamping of the car to change that. But you know, I kind of laugh at that – because that's kind of what was designed into this [Car of Tomorrow] car, was to create that. Not necessarily two-car draft, but to be able to get to the bumper and not spin one another out; have a car that's much boxier to blow a bigger hole in the air. That's what we have to deal with now and that's what's created the kind of racing that we have.
"I personally don't have a problem with it, actually. I thought that was pretty fun there at the end, whether I was pushing or being pushed. Those last 10-15 laps are fun from a driver standpoint."
Sunday's winner Johnson is supportive of the new tandem racing, and believes it is still evolving as drivers and teams continue to discover its nuances. He underlines there's a technique required to make it work properly and believes that drivers are more in control than when racing in big packs in the past.
"From my perspective, we were complaining with the old package and riding side by side and not enough passes for the lead, and there was always the big wreck," said Johnson. "Now we have a ton of passes for the lead and, statistically, you look at the race and it looks pretty awesome.
"From a driver standpoint, we have a lot more control now with what we can do. Yes, it is still plate racing, but you can make stuff happen and there is a technique required to stay together and to work traffic together and to communicate. It puts it back in the driver's hands a lot more than the old combination of racing.
"So, I think it's entertaining. And again, I don't remember people excited about the way it was before. So I think we're evolving as teams and drivers, and continuing to put on a better show, and from where I was all day long, I thought there was a lot of racing that took place. I thought it was a great race."
On the other hand, Matt Kenseth – who was involved in an incident at Talladega when Kyle Busch crashed into him after getting turned around by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano – is not a big fan of the new style of restrictor plate competition, which he considers particularly challenging for the drivers. Contrary to Johnson's view, he feels the driver was more in control of his destiny in the past as they didn't need a partner to be able to remain in contention throughout the race.
"This two-car thing is really hard as a driver," said Kenseth. "If you're the tail car, you can't see anything. All you can see is the spoiler in front of you and going that fast and not being able to see is not the most comforting feeling...it's a difficult environment to race in to say the least.
"Ever since I've been coming to Talladega or watching Talladega, every time you interview somebody who has crashed they're like, 'Oh, this racing is terrible. Somebody is going to get hurt.' I mean, it's been the same thing, but it's different.
"Before, at least you can kind of control your own destiny and you can draft a little bit. Here, if you don't have a car locked on you and shoving you, or vice versa, you're going to get lapped in 15-20 laps and it's really hard."
Besides the two-car draft prevailing since the season opener in the Sprint Cup series, the style has also become the norm in the Nationwide Series at both Daytona and Talladega.