Commentary

Cup boys pushing the envelope

Updated: July 25, 2010, 11:54 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the bump-drafting got out of hand at Daytona International Speedway a few years ago, it was redubbed "slam-drafting." Perhaps it's time for a new phrase to replace "rubbin' is racing."

Any votes for "rammin' is racing?"

We're not talking about what Carl Edwards did to Brad Keselowski to win the Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Speedway last weekend. That went beyond even rammin' as NASCAR made clear when it penalized both drivers.

We're simply talking about what it takes to stay in the top five in the Sprint Cup Series on a weekly basis, and what it will take to be in position to win Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if your name isn't Jimmie Johnson, who has won two straight and three of four.

Brad Keselowski
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAggressive driving returned to the spotlight July 17 when Carl Edwards turned Brad Keselowski, above, on the final lap at Gateway.

We're talking about whether Jeff Burton and Mark Martin can win races and challenge Johnson for the championship by maintaining their gentleman ways.

"You have to be more aggressive today to run up front than you did 10 years ago, there's no question," Burton said. "Ten years ago, 15 years ago or 16 years ago people rode for a period of the race. There's no riding anymore. The only person who is just riding is a guy who has an incredibly fast car and he's just saving himself.

"But, honestly, there's no saving the car, there's none of that. It's just run as hard as you can every lap and pick up every spot you can pick up."

This is a product of many things, from the cars being more equal than ever to the tires giving drivers more grip and ability to be aggressive to there simply being more teams capable of winning on a weekly basis.

That is, as one driver said, unless you're four-time defending Cup champion Johnson, who more than anybody else seemingly has the equipment and talent to run away and hide at times.

"Definitely," said Kyle Busch, who a few years ago was considered the second coming of Dale Earnhardt with his aggressiveness. "I mean, there was far more give-and-take back in the old days when you had that old car. I mean, you could race a little more. You could pass a little bit more. Now everything is so similar. Everybody runs the same laps. You race for every position, every ounce of race track you can find all the time."

That often turns to frustration, which sometimes turns into drivers getting into each other and losing their cool. Martin admittedly lost his two weeks ago at Chicagoland after a run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya. Burton admittedly lost his with Kyle Busch at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson nearly lost his after Kurt Busch got into him to make a pass for the lead at New Hampshire.

Edwards definitely lost his with Keselowski at Gateway, which finally forced NASCAR to step in and say you can't "have at it" that much.

"You push harder these days," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who was accused of being a human wrecking ball earlier this year at Infineon Raceway. "You push harder from Lap 1 to the end of the race. There were times back in '95, '96, if you wanted to go up there and lead, you could but you're probably going to burn the tires off. You're probably going to use up the equipment.

"… Guys might sit there and be more patient and go, 'Oh, I'll let him go and do that.' But these days you can't do that because track position is so important. You're fighting for every position all the time."

If you're not aggressive, if you don't take more chances than your personality normally allows, chances are you won't be a factor for the Chase. Chances definitely are you won't be a factor at Indianapolis, where track position is essential.

"Drivers just don't give each other position like they used to simply because every position you're towards the front is about a tenth of a second faster lap time," said Hamlin, who has become increasingly more aggressive the past few years. "No matter how good or bad your car is, when you're out front you're faster than most of the field.

"You put yourself back in third place and you lose three- to four-tenths. Everyone is battling now just to keep that good track position, and that's why I think we see more wrecks and incidents than you've ever seen."

Throw that in with double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes and chaos often is the result.

"When I started off there was a lot more give-and-take," Johnson said. "At the end of the race there seemed to be kind of a clear favorite. Now you have so many cars that are equal that you have to fight for every inch on every run.

"There still are a couple of guys that will work with you the first half, the first two-thirds of the race. The majority of the field, it doesn't matter if it's Lap 1 or 400, they will race you like it's the last lap every time."

As successful as Johnson has been at Indianapolis three of the past four years, he's had to fight just as hard as anybody. It's not like he's dominated any of those races, leading 24, 71 and 33 laps in the wins.

He likely wouldn't have won last year's race had Montoya not been penalized for speeding in the closing stages with about a five-second lead.

"Last year he did a good job on the restart, got by Mark [Martin] on the outside," Burton recalled. "Once he got by Mark … got in front with the aero deal, he wasn't getting back by.

"You know, if you get in front of that guy, he ain't getting back by you unless you make a mistake. So the restarts have become more aggressive because the cars run so much closer to the same speed once you get running."

Burton believes much of this goes back to the tire, which allows drivers to be more aggressive. Others argue it's the car not only because it's more equal, but because you can slam a competitor harder without causing so much structural damage that it ends your chances of winning.

You'll likely see a lot of that on Sunday.

Rammin' indeed has become racing.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE