TALLADEGA, Ala. – With two-car tandems now the norm at restrictor-plate tracks, spotting a good deal may lead Jeff Gordon to Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.
Restrictor-plate racing at Talladega and Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway used to be three-, four- and sometimes five-wide racing six or more rows deep, and a good spotter in those instances could pay dividends. Recently, though, drivers and teams figured out the quick way around these two tracks is two-car pairings —not in packs of three or more. The pack size may have dropped significantly, but the intensity level for the drivers —and spotters —has ratcheted up.
“It’s definitely more intense up in the spotter stand now,” said Jeff Dickerson, spotter for the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger team. “In the past with the big packs, you were looking ahead of the driver and behind him—but most of the focus was on what was occurring behind him. Is there a line of cars or a lane that seems to be working? I was just trying to give Jeff as much information as possible so that he could make the correct moves to get to the front. Once there, I was trying to give him a lot of information to possibly stay there.
“Now, with the closing rates of the two-car drafts, you’re looking at what two-car packs you’re catching and giving information about where they are and which way you might go. You’re also looking at what cars are gaining on you and what lanes they may take once they catch you. “It’s definitely more intense now.”
But, with 43 cars scheduled to start the 188-lap race, someone is an “odd-man out” before the race even begins, and that makes deal-making a necessary evil.
When does four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Gordon believe the dealing will begin?
“As soon as possible, I guess,” said Gordon, who has six wins, one pole position, 13 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s in 36 Cup starts at the 2.66-mile Alabama track. “Some drivers may have already started working on deals while others may wait until this weekend. You can wait to see who you work well with during practice on Friday, or you might wait until after qualifying on Saturday to see who starts the race near you. Some pairings could even be left over from Daytona.
“But there are no guarantees, and some deals are made ‘on the fly’ at 190 miles per hour.”
While some deals are made on the fly, some are made in the sky.
“Deal-making can occur in the spotter’s stand, and it’s important because there is no time to waste,” Dickerson said. “If pit stops occur under caution, you are quickly trying to figure out who you’ll be around on the restart. You have to determine if drivers have a teammate or someone they’ve been working with all race long near them, and the likelihood they’ll work with you. If someone you’ve been working with is only a few cars away but in a different line, then the spotters are trying to figure out how the drivers can possibly link up and work together again.”
Communication on the stand —and from the spotters’ stand —will be crucial Sunday according to Gordon.
“It’s really going to be about the spotters, getting the spotters in sync and trying to communicate well with what’s coming up,” said Gordon, whose 12 restrictor-plate victories ranks first all-time. “It’s going to be intense in the final laps. “It’s about being there at the end, and hopefully making good decisions.”