The answers to a multiple-choice question:
Driver. Engine. Design. Team. Manufacturer support. Cyclical performance. Luck. Coincidence. Or all the above.
In Jeopardy fashion, the question is, why is Ford so relentlessly unbeatable at Talladega, and indeed in all restrictor plate races?
Going into Sunday’s GEICO 500, Ford has won five straight Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway. It has won six of the last seven and eight of the last 11 at Talladega, and 16 of the last 29 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at ’Dega and Daytona. The bowtie brigade has plate racing all knotted up.
Though the Ford string was broken at Daytona, that merits an asterisk. Winner Austin Dillon led only a half-lap of the 207 contested. Ryan Blaney led the most laps, at 118 — in a Penske Ford.
“I don’t think you can point to one reason for Ford’s recent success at Talladega, but I am anxious to see if more of the same continues,” said Larry McReynolds, the Fox TV analyst, long-time crew chief and Birmingham native.
“It is a combination of at least three factors — a group of Ford drivers who really understand the draft and have had success at restrictor-plate tracks, the horsepower Roush Yates is making, and the fact the Ford body has been best-suited for low drag, which is important at restrictor-plate tracks.”
Here’s how the string has gone, in reverse order:
Fall 2017: Brad Keselowski wins, with four Fords in the top five
Spring 2017: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins, with four Fords in the top seven
Fall 2016: Joey Logano wins, with four Fords in the top eight
Spring 2016: Keselowski wins, but no other Ford in the top eight
Fall 2015: Logano wins, with three Ford in the top nine
Keselowski, a Team Penske driver alongside Logano, has averaged a sixth-place finish in six of the last seven ’Dega starts (give him a mulligan for a blown motor in 2016) has been sensational.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is a master at plate racing, said Brad Keselowski currently is the best plate racer out there,” McReynolds said. “The blind obvious is you can’t discount what having Roush Yates horsepower does for a team at those two tracks. I know from firsthand experience that Doug Yates is tenacious. They will work on trying to find another horsepower or two up until the haulers have to leave for Talladega. That’s the way his dad, Robert, was, and the way he was brought up. Roush Yates puts a lot of effort and pride into their restrictor-plate program.”
“When you know you have drivers that are capable, you know you have a manufacturer like Ford with the body and Roush-Yates power, you’ve got a heck of an opportunity to go down and run well and those places,” said Travis Geisler, the competition director at Team Penske. “We’ve kind of looked at it as a place that we’ve had a high percentage of winning in the last few years and we’re going to continue with our focus. I think the manufacturer has that focus as well. When everybody kind of gets together and pulls in that same direction you can really strengthen your program.”
It's a vanishing breed that is blindly loyal to car manufacturers, though it’s still a common complaint of seasoned fans that cars are all look alike except for the decals. But there are subtle design differences and certain teams have historically — and temporarily — found the magic touch.
Ford won eight of the first 20 plate races, then Earnhardt began to dominate — though he might have won on a backhoe. Chevy drivers Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin had 25 wins among them, nine coming in plate races. Then Dale Earnhardt Inc. had a conscious effort to excel in plate races after his fatal wreck in 2001, winning 10 of 13 — often with Dale Junior and Michael Waltrip nose-to-tail. Hendrick Motorsports began to catch up, with 12 plate wins from 2007-2012 in its Chevys.
“I think it is cyclical in that you look back through time and there are periods of great strength or dominance from a company,” Geisler said. “I think it really comes down how the combination of people were all working together at that time, who was doing the engine stuff, who was doing the body stuff, who the drivers were, who the spotters were.
“If you keep those things stable you can keep your level of performance high,” he continued. “Once you find a combination that works you’ve got to do everything you can to keep that group hammering on things together.”
For now, it’s Ford with a strong grip on the hammer.