The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After the TUMS Fast Relief 500 by Amy Henderson -- Monday October 31, 2011

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The Big Six: Questions Answered After the TUMS Fast Relief 500

The Big Six · Amy Henderson · Monday October 31, 2011


Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six raceday questions, covering all five W’s and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

The same pit strategy that cost Jimmie Johnson the race nearly gave it to Jeff Burton. Burton was running at the back of the lead lap for most of the day, getting beaten on, banged up and even spun out once. But by not pitting when the caution flew with 41 laps to go, Burton restarted second. Through a flurry of late cautions, limiting time for the guys on fresh tires, he was able to salvage the day and finish sixth. That gives him back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since last summer, an encouraging sign for new crew chief Luke Lambert his changes are working. It was a much needed pick-me-up for the veteran Burton, who has had a forgettable 2011 season otherwise.

What… was THAT?

Chad Knaus’ pit call late in Sunday’s race had Jimmie Johnson in position to win, but didn’t bring the No. 48 team another grandfather clock.

Talk about a gamble. When the caution flew with 41 to go, *Chad Knaus left leader Jimmie Johnson on the racetrack*… while almost every car on the lead lap pitted. Four tires had proven to be the key to gaining and keeping track position, so the call was a roll of the dice at best… and in the end, it cost Johnson the win by a car length. Did the poor pit work by the No. 48 crew for much of the year cause a lack of trust that they could keep Johnson in the lead if they pitted? Whatever the reasoning is, it’s the second time in two weeks that Knaus’ decisions have cost Johnson, coming on the heels of a decision to keep Johnson at the back of the field at Talladega. That choice, which some have forgotten in light of his comments on the radio ultimately cost the No. 48 team any chance they had at a sixth straight title.

Where…did the polesitter wind up?

Carl Edwards started on the pole after rain forced the cancellation of qualifying on Saturday, but he quickly slid backwards, twice losing a lap and running in the mid-20s before taking advantage of cautions and strategy to bring the No. 99 home ninth. If what makes a championship year is a solid combination of lucky and good, it’s looking more and more like Edwards’ year to win it all.

When…will I be loved?

The first hundred laps at Martinsville were rough, with five cautions for numerous incidents. Plenty of drivers were involved, but Brian Vickers got in for more than his share, driving very aggressively for the first quarter of the race. He was involved in three of the first five cautions, culminating with an ugly intentional spin of Jamie McMurray at lap 87 after the two bumped each other a few times and Vickers put McMurray into the outside retaining wall. A lot of drivers worked out their frustrations at the paperclip-shaped short track this weekend, but Vickers was at the top of the heap after he hit practically everything but the ambulance and the pace car in the first part of the race.

Why…is Martinsville often overlooked as a key Chase race?

If Talladega is a crapshoot and the mile-and-a-half tracks separate the elite teams from the rest, Martinsville is perhaps the biggest test of a driver’s mettle in the Chase. It’s a track where some of the top drivers aren’t comfortable, and the ones who are run extremely good. For many laps, the combination of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, and Jimmie Johnson ran 1-2-3 in the race. Those three have 17 wins at Martinsville between them. The rest of the Chase drivers have a combined five, between three of nine drivers, and two of those belong to Tony Stewart. If Carl Edwards doesn’t take home his first Sprint Cup title this year, he’ll likely be able to point squarely at this race as the reason why.

How…are the Chase contenders faring after Martinsville?

With the other Chase contenders fading into the background, all focus in this year’s title Chase shifts to the No. 99 and No. 14 cars going forward.

Two-time champion Tony Stewart issued a throwdown to points leader Carl Edwards after winning at Martinsville, telling the Roush Fenway Racing driver to watch his back, because Stewart will not make it easy on him in the final three weeks of the year.

“Carl Edwards better be real worried,” said Stewart in Victory Lane Sunday. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”

Unless something happens to either Edwards or Stewart in the next three races, it’s looking like a two-horse race, with clear favorites emerging for perhaps the first time since the Chase began at Chicago. While Edwards is having the kind of luck and consistency that often points to a title, Stewart has three wins in the Chase this year. And in recent years, Chase victories have been the deciding factor. Stewart is just eight points behind Edwards, who has not won a race since March at Las Vegas. Unless something drastic happens (and hey, the way this year has gone, anything is possible), the title fight is likely between these two.

Third-place Kevin Harvick will need to make a serious play to contend from 21 back, but it’s still within the realm of possibility if Edwards and Stewart slip. Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are probably looking at top-5 points finishes, but not a title. Everyone from sixth-place Jimmie Johnson on back are better off trying to go out and win races, but even if they do just that, the championship is probably out of their grasp. For this group, it’s time to start thinking of 2012, and how to outpace the others right out of the box.

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Steve Elkin
10/31/2011 10:09 AM

Somebody needs to take vickers out and kick his A—! I WANT HIM TO BLEED for what he did to Matt.

Bill S.
10/31/2011 11:11 AM

“If what makes a championship year is a solid combination of lucky and good, it’s looking more and more like Edwards’ year to win it all.”

Seriously, Amy? Lucky, yes. Good, not so much. Apparently Carl believes he learned a couple years ago that winning races doesn’t win championships, so he is not even going to bother to try. For all that is good and noble about auto racing (not much), I hope his strategy this season blows up in his face.

It’s good strategy for a football team to sit on a lead and try to run out the clock late in the 4th quarter, but Carl started this well before half-time. He does not deserve to profit from stroking. I hope Smoke makes Carl choke on his strategy!

10/31/2011 01:30 PM

Luck only goes so far. Phoenix is still going to be a wild card, though no one wants to talk about it. GO MATT, you still have a chance!

10/31/2011 06:15 PM

Bill S : I sure disagree with you on your statement that Carl is sitting back

on every race! A week ago ,yes but not this week. He did not have a car from the time of the first yellow this week. He wanted to win this one ALOT. I, for one hope they can get things back together the next threeweeks and win the championship. They have had a great year.
Bill S.
11/01/2011 11:29 AM

Bette, I know you are a fan of Carl’s but look at the record: he has one win this season and Tony has 3 in the Chase races alone! Better for Carl to have won the championship in 2008 when he had the most wins and was going for it in every race than the way he is running this year. Maybe it is intentional, maybe the car is not to his liking. Either way, a string of top 15’s to close out the year is not what I would call a “great season.” Carl has not had an impressive race since the All-Star win.

Shayne Flaherty
11/01/2011 08:21 PM

I wonder how many good finishes and/or wins Jimmie and Carl have racked up because of the Lucky Dog. NASCAR likes the Lucky Dog because it further allows them the ability to manipulate the race and the finishing order as they see fit. Kinda like last Sunday.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.