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Bruce: JGR's 'Dega strategy understood, but not agreed with

Kyle Busch Carl Edwards Denny Hamlin Matt Kenseth

Editor's note: The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- NASCAR held a Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, but somebody forgot to tell three of the four teams for Joe Gibbs Racing.

For Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, this wasn't a race. It was an inconvenience.

The Hellmann's 500 featured a 40-car starting field. Only 37 rolled off with hopes of a win or at least a good showing. The JGR trio had absolutely no intentions of trying to win. Or run up front.

I understand why it was done, but I don't agree with it.

I understand they were thinking big picture, as in championship.

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None of the three had a win, automatically earning themselves a spot in the Round of 8. Any mishap at Talladega could sink their title hopes. And past restrictor-plate races this year had produced mixed results.

All three finished in the top 15 in the Daytona 500; Busch added runner-up finishes at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in July. But Kenseth and Edwards were knocked out of contention in the other two and maybe that was enough.

But for the three JGR teams to ride around in the back of the field all day? I’d feel embarrassed to collect a paycheck for that one. Donate it to charity. Let some good come of it.

It was clear from the start that going to the back was the gameplan. Kenseth had qualified third, Edwards 13th and Busch 14th on the previous day. Why did they even bother? Before the green flag had dropped they began falling back through the field, taking up residence in the rear.

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It's not the first time teams have used such tactics. There have been many occasions in the past when teams have dropped back early in the race in an attempt to avoid getting caught in the type of multi-car crashes that are so common at the 2.66-mile track.

But on most occasions, those moves are only temporary. As the end of the race has neared, those teams would begin inching their way forward, working together in hopes of getting to the front unscathed and allowing them to battle for the win.

Sometimes it paid off; sometimes it didn't.

How was this any different? It was different because there was no intention of going forward, just going.

Racing at Daytona and Talladega has evolved more than at any other track the series visits each year. For years, drivers could "slingshot" their way past another competitor thanks to the draft; the lead spot wasn't the preferred position in the final laps of a race. As it became more difficult to pass without the aid of another, pack drafting was the norm, with one line of cars getting a run on another and the lineup shuffling several times each lap.

Remember tandem drafting? One car literally pushing another around the track, the front car having almost no control and the rear car no clue what was ahead?

Thankfully, those days are no more.

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There have been times in the past, both before the Chase and even after it was implemented, when drivers had enough of a points cushion that finishing in a particular position guaranteed advancement or a title. That was back in the "it was a good points day" era and I thought we had moved past that.

You can argue that what the JGR teams did was a product of the Chase. There is simply too great a risk for too little reward, particularly at a place as dangerous as Talladega.

Denny Hamlin, the one JGR driver that did actually race, sided with his teammates, saying that the three had "built their (points) cushion.

"They've done their jobs well the first two (races)," he said. "They had the liberty to do that. So they played it smart. It's all about (the) championship, it's not about coming out here and winning Talladega for those guys."

Perhaps it would have been different if the three had been in a situation where they had little chance of winning because their cars weren't competitive. Under such circumstances, it would have been their only choice.

But those weren't the circumstances.

To their credit, none of the three seemed particularly pleased with having to ride around in the back all day. Kenseth said it "goes against everything you want to do as a race car driver."

Busch called it "frustrating." Edwards said it was "stressful."

The upside, if you're a JGR fan, is that all four teams now move on to the next round.

Where, hopefully, riding around in the back won't be an option.

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