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Manufacturer loyalty takes place of prominence in Talladega strategy

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Superspeedway racing has taken many forms in its lifetime, an evolution well worth the reflection as Talladega Superspeedway celebrates its 50th anniversary season.

The unrestricted era was all about blistering speed and the whimsical wind in the aerodynamic draft. The advent of horsepower-choking restrictor plates created large packs and the propensity for multicar crashes, an era marked by the brief tactic of tandem drafting. The plates came off this season with other devices designed to slow the speeds, but the last handful of superspeedway races introduced a new strategy, one where the marque on the hood sometimes takes priority over the name over the driver’s door.

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The concept of manufacturer solidarity promises to figure into the outcome of Sunday’s 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at the 2.66-mile speed plant. The emphasis for automakers overlaps with another high-priority objective: Making the most of the playoff picture in the midst of the Monster Energy Series’ Round of 12. (UPDATE: The race will resume in Stage 2 on Monday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.)

“It’s really morphed itself into that, especially the fall Talladega race has become more of a manufacturer get-together type of racing,” says Toyota’s Denny Hamlin, a winner here in the spring of 2014. “Essentially, when you look at it, there’s guys that are above the cut and then below the cut that are with the same team, so I don’t know that some are going to be OK with the others, pushing the others to get more points. I think that there’s going to be a lot of selfishness when it comes down to the end of this thing.”

The last two Talladega races especially have been dominated by those agendas. Aric Almirola won last fall’s 500-miler, a postseason tilt where he and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates dictated restarts, the pace and the front of the pack. That outcome stretched Ford’s stellar win streak to seven straight Talladega events. “It’s just the way that this type of racing has gone,” Almirola admitted. “There’s strength in numbers in the draft.”

Chevrolet teams sought to sap some of that strength when the series returned in April, deploying a game plan that stressed cooperation among the brand’s loyalists, with pre-race directives coming from the top brass in the automaker’s competition wing. The approach worked, with Chase Elliott leading a parade of five Chevys among the top six finishers.

“The manufacturers are going to see it as they want the manufacturer to do well and they see that being better than anything else,” Elliott said Friday before on-track activity began. “I think you’re going to see more of those games being played this weekend. I thought we did equally as good of a job at Daytona as we did here in the spring, we just had some things go our way here in the spring and they didn’t in Daytona. So, it goes to show that even though we worked well together and that we all did a nice job, it’s not always going to work. No guarantees, for sure.”

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But whither drivers who have manufacturer allegiances that will change in the offseason? That’s the case with Chris Buescher, who currently drives the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG-Daugherty Racing but has already confirmed he’ll wheel Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 17 Ford in 2020.

Though he’s a Chevy short-timer, Buescher still has goals to accomplish for his current employer. Even then, he echoed the sentiments of several drivers that the temptation of selfishness creeps in as the checkered flag nears.

“I was brought over here to do a job for our group, our team, our manufacturer. Nothing’s changing right now,” Buescher said. “We’ve got our meetings to go along with this weekend to figure out what the game plan is from the grand scheme of things and be ready to hit the ground running.

“The manufacturer side has started playing into the speedway racing over the last couple of years, I guess now, in a really heavy way. It shows results a lot of times and there’s a lot to be said for that. It’s also frustrating to be put in a situation where you could better yourself or your specific race team but aren’t really allowed the freedom to go do that and improve yours at the expense of a larger group of cars. There’s good and bad to it, for sure, but it’s hard to argue with the results of it.”