Strategy is playing major role
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You've got to love sports strategy, whether it's choosing between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to take the final shot in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, or whether to pass and go for the win or run and settle for the tie in the final minutes of an NFL game.
You've really got to love the strategy we've seen the past two weeks in NASCAR, the willingness to go for the so-called Hail Mary.
Regan Smith won his first career Sprint Cup race at Darlington because he gambled on no tires with fewer than five laps remaining. Matt Kenseth won on Sunday at Dover because he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig gambled that two tires would get them to Victory Lane with 35 laps remaining.
It doesn't always work out that way, but it sure is fun watching it unfold.
And it appears there is more of this type of strategy in NASCAR than ever before, in part because Goodyear has made the tires tougher and longer-wearing to handle the load of the new car and in part because that evil phrase known as aero push has crept back into the equation.
If it really ever left, that is.
Drivers with the fastest cars might not like this new development any more than a coach with the most talented team. You can still hear disappointment in the voices of Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer over not having the opportunity to duke it out in the final laps at Dover.
But as a fan you have to love seeing a split-second call in the heat of competition mean the difference between winning and losing.
"I mean, everybody wants to win," Kasey Kahne said. "If you're running 10th, you take on four [tires], you know you're not going to win the race if everybody does that. You got to look at ways to give yourself the best opportunity.
"The guys leading need to think about the guy in 10th. He wants to win, too, and he's going to take two tires. It's a mind game."
That several of NASCAR's best minds were outsmarted made the Dover conclusion particularly intriguing. Crew chief Chad Knaus, considered one of the best minds ever in NASCAR, was so focused on Edwards and Bowyer that he didn't hesitate to give Johnson four tires.
The crew chiefs for Edwards and Bowyer were equally fixated on racing each other and Johnson for the win.
They didn't figure there was any way second-place Mark Martin on no new tires, and Kenseth and five others on two, could beat what had been the fastest cars most of the day.
"When you're running in the moment and racing for the win and all day long you've raced with one car and now a second, I guess you get sucked into that," Johnson said. "It's tough. Never put your guard down, I guess."
Five years ago, there would have been no such strategy at Dover or Darlington. Anything less than four tires and you were doomed.
But now, because Goodyear has put so much effort into developing new compounds for the new car that really isn't so new anymore, you have not one but three options.
"The new tires changed the strategy," said ESPN analyst Tim Brewer, who won two championships as a crew chief for owner Junior Johnson. "No tires, two tires, four tires it makes for better racing. I love it."
You can't help but love it. That Kenseth and Fennig made the call for two while the car was on the jack made Dover even more dramatic. It was like watching Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens outsmart Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on the final timeout.
"Chad Knaus even made the comment once late to Jimmie that the tires that just came off his car looked great, that there was not a lot of wear on them," Brewer said. "Hell, and he stopped and got four.
"I guess Chad wasn't on his game on Sunday."
Not that you can blame Knaus or Bob Osborne (Edwards) or Shane Wilson (Bowyer). Past history told them that four tires at Dover with 35 laps remaining wins every time. Wilson in particular had no reason to doubt that, having tried two tires earlier and almost gone a lap down.
But that was before the track had rubbered in completely. By the final stop the track not only was rubbered in, the sun was out in full force.
That all figured into the strategy, things that happen during long, green-flag runs when we tend to think the race is boring. But in reality it's no different than the early stages of any sports activity when teams feel each other out, figuring out what works and what doesn't and waiting until the end to make the big call.
It's an argument for not shrinking the length of races.
"I remember when I first came into the sport, it seemed like the tires fell off more then and it would create that guys wouldn't be able to put on two tires and still win a race," Kahne said. "I like it myself when you burn your tires off and you need [four]. It makes it more exciting."
Maybe it's more exciting if you're in the fastest car. But imagine if there had been no tire strategy at Dover. You would have eliminated eight or more cars from having a shot at the end.
As it stood, even though Kenseth was able to pull away ever so slightly on two tires, there was doubt until the final laps.
It's going to remain that way, too. Two tires or no tires easily could win Saturday night's All-Star race or the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29.
There could be even more such strategy the closer we get to the end of the so-called regular season, when teams have to gamble for a win to make the Chase as a wild card.
Again, it doesn't always work out as dramatically as it has the past two weekends. Few thought Denny Hamlin could come through the field on four fresh tires with fewer than 15 laps left at Martinsville last year. Johnson didn't think he had a prayer last year at Bristol when he restarted with four fresh tires 16 laps from the finish.
Then at Dover, the fastest cars with fresh tires seemed to stall out in dirty air after making up just a couple of spots.
"That's what makes it so tough to figure out," Johnson said.
To complicate matters further, the cars are more equal than ever.
"You get stuck in dirty air, you can't pass because you're all running the same speed," Johnson said.
It all makes for more strategy, which is fun to watch. That bad finishes -- 15th or worse -- are penalized more under the new points system adds to the drama because of the risk versus reward.
"All things considered, it's led to some great finishes," Brewer said. "You're going to see it the rest of the year."
You've got to love that.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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