CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart coasted for at least 250 miles at Daytona International Speedway, where he hardly worked up a sweat until the final hour of the race.
It’s a game he hates to play, dropping to the back of the pack at restrictor-plate races to casually circle the track lap after lap. The strategy of waiting until the end of the race to make a frantic, final push goes against his fundamentals of racing.
But he couldn’t deny the results Saturday night when he found himself in position to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the win. Although he ultimately settled for second, the finish pushed him a whopping six places to 10th in points in the Sprint Cup standings.
“This is a 195 mph chess match, and the lap that pays is lap 160,” Stewart said. “A lot is said about guys that lag back like that, but we’re in the most competitive series in the country, and when you’re running in the most competitive series in the country you have to do what you think is in the best interest of you, your car, your team and your situation to get to the end.
“Part of winning races is knowing to be where at what times. I know some people don’t like that and some people don’t agree with it, 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’s capable of doing so.”
Stewart has used that strategy for years at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks that NASCAR requires the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates. The plates control speeds and keep the cars bunched, raising the likelihood of a multicar crash when a driver makes a mistake.
Now more and more drivers are simply riding around for the three quarters, choosing to wait until the end to turn it up a notch.
It was frustrating to fourth-place finisher Clint Bowyer, who had voiced his boredom with Daytona several times over the weekend.
“I made a rule with myself at these restrictor-plate tracks to be easy. You know, ride around,” Bowyer said. “It’s boring. You want to be up there racing for every lap led. If you get wiped out it doesn’t matter who caused it or whose fault it was. If you get wiped out before halfway in one of these restrictor-plate races it’s your own fault. You knew better than to put yourself in that situation.”
The final results Saturday showed that riding in the back is the best strategy for making it to the finish line.
Johnson, who had the dominant car, led a race-high 94 laps and felt confident his speed was enough to keep him out front and ahead of trouble. But Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Bowyer and Michael Waltrip all made it inside the top-five but laying back for at least half the race. David Ragan did the same thing to win at Talladega in May.
But Stewart is correct in sensing that many fans don’t like watching drivers take it easy. They gripe and grumble that there’s no point in watching a plate race until the very end because that’s when it gets exciting.
So what does NASCAR do about this predicament? Series officials can’t force drivers to race hard, and there doesn’t seem to be any real consequence to laying back. Several years ago when Denny Hamlin was in the thick of the championship race, he lost a tandem partner while racing at the back and fell out of the draft. In danger of going a lap down and ruining his title chances, fellow Toyota driver Waltrip got out of the gas and slid back to rescue Hamlin.
And NASCAR can’t take the plates off unless it figures a way to slow the cars, which nobody has been able to do at the two biggest and fastest tracks in the series.
But as Bowyer grumbled about how much idle time he spent at Daytona, where drivers run just a few laps of practice to tune their cars, then turn one lap on qualifying day, then sit and wait for the race to take it easy until the end, it became apparent the whole system is broken.
NASCAR will never cut races from 500 or 400 miles to a 25-lap shootout, but that’s basically what they’ve become. Everybody sat around and waited three days to watch the final 25 laps of Saturday night’s race.
At minimum, NASCAR should cut the plate events, excluding the Daytona 500, down to two-day shows for the Sprint Cup Series. No team is using all its practice time, making it pointless for everyone to be at the track all those hours.
As for the race itself? Who knows? There’s no incentive to race early, and there’s not much NASCAR can do to change that. For now, we know what we’re going to watch four times a year. We’ll sit and watch for some wrecks, then wait for it to get crazy at the end.
As he left the track with a second-place points on the same night teammates Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman both wrecked, Stewart accepted plate racing for what he’s stuck with right now.
“With these things being as crazy as they are, if you can end up with a top-two, you’re pretty happy when you leave here,” he said. “One out of three isn’t bad in the organization. The other two got wadded up pretty good.”