TALLADEGA, Ala. — When Sweden beat the U.S. women's soccer team during the Olympics by using a conservative strategy, goalie Hope Solo was lambasted for calling the winners "a bunch of cowards."
NASCAR fans seemed to have adopted Solo's attitude in response to Joe Gibbs Racing's strategy Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. The team has four drivers and three were guaranteed a spot in the third round of the playoffs if they simply stayed out of trouble at Talladega.
So they lollygagged at the back of the pack.
Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth raced with a purpose, but it wasn't to win the race. Their goal was to finish the race and move on to see another day in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
A vocal faction of fans seems outraged at the JGR strategy, even though it worked to perfection. Not only did Busch, Edwards and Kenseth advance in the Chase, but so did Denny Hamlin, who was forced to race as a one-man team because of the organizational plan.
Hamlin just about needed a miracle to avoid elimination, and with his teammates offering no assistance in his bid to win the race, he had to find rival drivers to work with on Sunday. Hamlin wound up third, beating Kurt Busch for the position and the one point it was worth, by 0.006 seconds. That result tied him in the standings with Austin Dillon, and Hamlin got the last berth in the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
There are eight cars left in the Chase field. Four of them come from JGR . For that, the team should be commended.
Instead, fans are griping that they prefer to see drivers race and not ride around the back of the pack.
To that, Kyle Busch had a simple answer on Monday.
"Don't hate the player... Hate the game," Busch posted on Twitter.
Kenseth finished 28th on Sunday, Edwards 29th and Busch was 30th. All were satisfied with the result, although they didn't really love executing the plan. Busch found the strategy to be dull and not very motivating, but it accomplished what he needed.
Two years ago, Busch went to Talladega in decent shape to advance in the Chase. He was involved in a wreck and eliminated from the playoffs.
"There's no reward to go race and get wrecked," Busch said. "You've got to try to survive and do what you can."
Kenseth seemed to acknowledge the potential for disappointed fans, but rationalized it by pointing out what was at stake. Kenseth was eliminated from the Chase at Talladega last year.
"It goes against everything you ever want to do as a race car driver," Kenseth said. "You can't afford to go up there and get wrecked and not have a chance to race for a championship. I don't think any of us had any fun and none of us enjoyed it, but it was just what we had to do."
Those upset with the way JGR raced likely fall into two camps. There are the people who just don't like the team, whether it's because Gibbs uses Toyotas or because the organization has 11 wins this year. And there are the fans of the individual drivers who dawdled at the back of the pack at Talladega, and they wanted to see their favorites compete for the win.
The first group is common in sports. People don't like the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or the Patriots, or the Cowboys. They'll find fault in anything those teams do. In the case of Gibbs, the domination over the last two years has rubbed people wrong, and there are some who just don't like that they drive for a Japanese automaker.
But you can't fault the team for figuring out how to work as, ahem, a team, and accomplish big-picture tasks. Remember, JGR worked flawlessly together along with Martin Truex Jr. at the Daytona 500, where Hamlin won and Toyota drivers took four of the top five spots.
Some have argued that JGR at Talladega violated the NASCAR rule that all drivers give 100 percent during a race. False. JGR gave 100 percent in determination, patience and strategy in racing for the bigger picture.
That's why fans of the individual drivers should also take a step back and appreciate what the organization accomplished. Sure, they wanted to see their drivers mixing it up at the front and trying to win the race. But with that came a risk of accident, or overheated engine (see: Truex or Brad Keselowski ), and that would have ruined the rest of the season.
JGR was brilliant at Talladega, where they took the system at its face, worked within the rules and claimed 50 percent of the playoff positions. That's a good day.