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Talladega tactics: Team Penske aims to avoid Daytona 500 re-run

Joey Logano says he has an appetite for superspeedway racing, a sort of fondness that’s bolstered by several positive factors — his talent for it, an adept spotter in veteran TJ Majors, and stout No. 22 Team Penske Fords. When the NASCAR Cup Series reconvenes this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, he’ll be leaning on all three.

“For those reasons, I feel like we’re always a threat to win. We’re always up there. We always have a shot,” Logano said earlier this week before teeing up the big caveat. “That being said, we’ve been crashing a lot, too. That’s part of it, I guess.”

Logano punctuated that remark with laughter, but he wasn’t exactly yukking it up with teammate Brad Keselowski after their last-lap collision sparked a multicar crash in the most recent superspeedway event, allowing Michael McDowell to dash to victory in the season-opening Daytona 500. The in-house calamity was such that team owner Roger Penske said last month that he planned a face-to-face sitdown with his drivers — Logano, Keselowski and Ryan Blaney — to mend fences and make a pact on the rules of engagement for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the high-speed Alabama track.

“I don’t think there’s anything new that will happen,” Penske said in a March 22 video conference, “but I think we just have to make an agreement on just exactly how you want to play ball if you get into that same situation as we had with two of us running as well as we had with a half-mile to go, and then end up with three cars in the trash bucket, but that’s what you have to expect, unfortunately. It wasn’t a good day for us, obviously.”

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In a Thursday morning Zoom press conference, Blaney indicated that conversation had occurred between the team owner and his three drivers. The call also included Wood Brothers Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto.

“I wouldn’t say it was awkward,” Blaney said. “Even though I was on the couch watching the end of that race because we wrecked out early, you’re still a part of it. It’s something that we talked about … just trying to find the best way if we are in a spot to where we’re 1-2 coming to the end of this thing, how do we go about that? How do we go about to make sure we do our best to finish 1-2, no matter who wins. I feel like we had a really good conversation between all of us.”

Blaney went on to say the ultimate goal is for all the Penske cars to be lined up and in the best position to win the race at the end. But, it’s difficult for a driver to have that mindset in the heat of the moment when you’re trying to reach Victory Lane, regardless if you’re battling with a teammate.

Good days have been part of Penske’s recent experience at Talladega, where the team’s entries have won nine of the last 18 Cup Series races — a stretch that includes four victories from Keselowski, three from Logano and two by Blaney. Ford has also benefited at the 2.66-mile trioval where teamwork and manufacturer solidarity are crucial, winning 12 of the last 17 events there in a similar span.

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That said, the nature of superspeedway racing can alter the best-laid plans of teams and automakers to work together in harmony. On-track decisions made in the thick of the aerodynamic draft can thwart even the most crystalline pre-race strategies in a split second. Those strategies become even more murky in the late going, when team unity can give way to individual goals. Those clouded conditions are what Logano says he’d like to clear up when those pre-Talladega discussions take place.

“As far as who you work with, when you work with them, what you’re supposed to do, I just pray for clarity,” Logano said. “That’s all I want. Just tell me what I can do and what I can’t do, how to work together the best way possible when the gloves drop and when we go for it. Honestly, that has nothing to do with the 100% rule. That is how we win, right? I don’t think I can go out there and win by myself without having allies on the race track. I think probably most everyone can agree with that that’s out there.

“So you have to have some kind of plan of how do you pit together, how do you work the draft together, what’s OK and what’s not OK, and when does that end and does it end. I don’t know. I think this week will be important to get some clarity to those questions.”

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Count DiBenedetto among that group pushing Team Penske’s superspeedway mission, as the second-year driver of the tightly affiliated Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford. DiBenedetto said communication across the Penske banner has remained a strong point, noting the chemistry among teammates through a group text and the intensity of the “group study” for superspeedway strategy.

All that, he said, comes with the acknowledgement that Talladega’s brand of racing sometimes scuttles even the best prep work, bending well-established alliances.

“I haven’t made a mistake like that but none of it all works out perfectly,” DiBenedetto says. “You can scope out all these plans and have all this organization and communication but when the green flag drops you can’t predict what lines are moving or what line you are stuck in. It is really freaking stressful.”

Contributing: Chase Wilhelm