No. 43's victory didn't end Daytona's strangest skid
July 09, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
As dark clouds threatened and what would prove the final laps began to unfold Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, the end loomed for one of the strangest winless skids in NASCAR -- and one that had nothing to do with the No. 43 car of Richard Petty Motorsports.
No, this one involved Kurt Busch, who led more laps in the rain-shortened event than any other driver, and once again was in the thick of it toward the end of a Sprint Cup Series restrictor-plate race -- but once again watched someone else celebrate in Victory Lane. Aric Almirola may have seized the lead with seven laps remaining to deliver the storied No. 43 car its first triumph since 1999, but that drought wasn't nearly as mystifying as another which continued Sunday, when one of NASCAR's best restrictor-plate racers somehow remained winless in points-paying plate events.
The No. 43 car's slump, though painful to watch at times, was somewhat understandable -- the Petty organization fell steeply into disrepair, merged with another team that was mismanaged to the brink of bankruptcy under a former owner, and even now continues to fight an uphill battle against the larger traditional powers in the sport. Meanwhile there's Busch, a former champion who famously pushed former teammate Ryan Newman to victory in the 2008 Daytona 500, who after settling for third Sunday is now a staggering 0-for-55 on plate tracks.
With Jimmie Johnson's goose egg at Michigan finally cracked, it might be the sport's most unexplainable active drought. Sunday dropped Busch to 0-for-28 at Daytona, to go with an 0-for-27 mark at Talladega Superspeedway. This from a guy who's won a Nationwide Series race, a Sprint Unlimited exhibition, and a Daytona 500 qualifier all on the high banks of NASCAR's most famous track, who won an IROC race at Talladega, who paired with Regan Smith to form one of the most potent duos in the tandem-racing era, who was always a factor at Daytona in his Penske days, who has finished third four times at Talladega -- and still hasn't broken through.
"It's been tough over the years," Busch said at Daytona. "Fifteen years into it, I've won IROC races and won a (Sprint Unlimited), won a qualifying race. Even Nationwide, I've won a Nationwide race here, but haven't broke through for a points-paying Cup win yet. I've got to go to the videotape. I've got to go back and study more. When I'm the leader, I have to advance my game. I have to be better at blocking and strategically managing the race as a leader. I've been really good at seconds and thirds, top-fives, just got to break through for that win, and I believe I need to do more work to get better at it."
Plate racing has a reputation for being capricious, even downright random, and indeed the 26 drivers involved Sunday in the biggest "Big One" anyone has seen in a long time would tend to agree with that sentiment. From a few rows deep in the pack, it certainly does seem as if your fate is not your own. Up at the front, though, things are very different. Up at the front, restrictor-plate racing is a 200 mph chess game, and any wrong move can send a driver from the lead to 26th place. Just ask Matt Kenseth, as good as anyone in the dark art of place racing these days, who dominated at Talladega last spring but went high when the winning move on the final lap came busting up the middle, and a driver who had led 142 laps wound up with an eighth-place finish and plenty of second-guessing on his mind.
So it is with Busch, who despite all his accomplishments in NASCAR and other forms of motorsports -- remember that Indianapolis 500? -- understands that closing the deal in a plate event demands a driver be more tactician than racer.
In the lead and with the checkered flag nearing, all that infamous unpredictability is replaced by a heavy emphasis on strategy, and not the type determined by a crew chief sitting atop the box. Every move made behind the wheel becomes critical. Drivers very much control their own fates. The catch is, they only know what works by being up front.
"You can't learn by dragging around in the back waiting for wrecks to happen," said the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series. "You learn by leading and getting shuffled out of the lead, and then trying a different approach to stay in the lead, and to be able to make your car as wide as you can at certain spots, and to make others have to rethink their strategy. The chess game definitely comes into play more so when you're the leader than anything else."
Just like grand masters, the better plate racers hone their craft through study. Almirola used some accumulated knowledge to take the lead Sunday, knowing his car could side-draft past Busch from the high line off a restart. But he also relied on homework -- the RPM driver said he's watched the likes of Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and emulated how they manipulate lanes to prevent others from ganging up on them. "I just did that," he said of his approach in the final laps before the skies opened. "It's kind of like Cole Trickle, where he says, 'I've watched on ESPN.' That's kind of what I've done."
And like his fictional inspiration from the NASCAR-themed film "Days of Thunder," Almirola now also has a premier-series victory at Daytona. Meanwhile Busch still waits, despite a litany of strong runs on plate tracks and a reputation as one of the best pure drivers in the game. Talladega in the fall looms as his final chance this season, and the 56th attempt for his career. Sooner or later, it would seem, his number is bound to come up and this unlikeliest of droughts will end. After all, restrictor-plate races are supposed to be random, right?