Opinion: Don't Deride Stewart's Strategy
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on July 7, 2013 | 11:25 A.M. EST
Stewart ran outside the top 20 for most of the first 100 laps. (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Tony Stewart shouldn’t have to explain his actions in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, yet, after finishing second, he was asked about running at the back of the pack for part of the race.
“I know some people don’t like that ... but that’s what I think is the best thing to do in the interest of our race team and to ensure at the end of the day, when it’s time to go, we have a car that is capable of doing so,’’ said the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
For as much as some fans think Stewart and other drivers must entertain them during a race, they’re wrong. It’s not about you as shocking as that might seem. It’s about winning - or having the best chance to do so. For some drivers, that means running at the back of the pack part of the race to avoid the inevitable incident.
Consider it an unsavory part of restrictor-plate racing if you want, but the ploy can work. Until NASCAR finds a way to eliminate horsepower-robbing restrictor plates, drivers will cruise at the back.
Stewart used the same tactic to win this race a year ago. Saturday night, he ran outside the top 20 for most of the first 100 laps. He wasn’t alone. Four of the top five finishers were not in the top 25 for nearly half the race. That strategy worked as well at Talladega in May when four of the top five finishers, including winner David Ragan, ran toward the back part of the race.
While some will argue that Saturday’s winner, Jimmie Johnson didn’t run at the back, let’s be honest, he had a strong enough car that it made sense for him to be at the front. Johnson led a race-high 94 laps, including the final 31- an impressive number considering how fickle restrictor-plate racing can be.
With Johnson leading the way, what was the point of fighting through the field early? Some saw no incentive.
That doesn’t mean those drivers at the back aren’t racing. At some point a driver has to move into the pack, but why do it for 400 or 500 miles when one only has to do it for half as much?
The goal is to lead the last lap not lap 125.
Fans cry that they want to see their driver “go for it’’ and “mix it up’’ throughout the race. Ask those same people want they most want to see from their driver and they’ll tell you they want their driver to win. Some drivers and teams believe their best chance to win is by running well behind the leaders in the first half of a race.
Should this be a concern for NASCAR? Yes, if enough fans complain about it. Even so, what should be done? Don’t even think about removing the restrictor plates. NASCAR has yet to find a way to slow the cars without them in more than 25 years and likely won’t anytime soon.
Some will demand a bonus in money or points to force drivers to run toward the front, but that will be too gimmicky. NASCAR is not going to offer any more points for leading a race than it does now. Any financial bonus likely won’t be large enough to persuade drivers to alter their strategy just to lead a particular lap.
Why do that when running at the back can work?
With 100 laps to go, Kevin Harvick was 40th. He finished third. Harvick had plenty of company. Michael Waltrip, who finished fifth, was 36th with 100 laps to go. Clint Bowyer, who finished fourth, was 29th at the time, and Stewart was 28th. There were more drivers running outside the top 25 then that went to on to finish in the top 10 then drivers running in the top with 100 laps to go.
Maybe you don’t consider that racing and maybe it isn’t the spirit of the sport, but as long as the goal is winning, drivers will be focused on the finish and not lap 50.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.