The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After the GEICO 400 by Amy Henderson -- Monday September 17, 2012

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The Big Six: Questions Answered After the GEICO 400

Amy Henderson · Monday September 17, 2012

 

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

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

The Chase is on… and for twelve drivers that means the chance at standing at the pinnacle of NASCAR in November. For everyone else, unfortunately, it means toiling in relative anonymity for the next two months—especially when seven of the top 10 finishers in the race are in the Chase, as was the case in Chicago. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was not among them; but both of his teammates were. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano finished fourth and seventh, respectively, though neither received much recognition during a television broadcast that was clearly more concerned with the Chase contenders.

Both Busch and Logano had strong runs on Sunday. For both of these drivers, pride is still on the line, even if the championship is not. Busch is currently 13th in points, the best of the drivers who didn’t receive Chase berths. For him, finishing the season in that position would be at least a small redemption. Logano, meanwhile, is trying to prove that he can still get it done despite his lame duck status. To that end, Logano beat his 2013 replacement this week by 11 spots. Logano and Busch proved one thing Sunday: even if they don’t get the time on the airwaves that the Chase drivers do, the rest of the pack is still in it to win each and every week.

Joey Logano had a strong race this weekend, finishing seventh. But since he is not in contention for the Chase, he didn’t get much attention on the television broadcast.

What… was THAT?

How’s this for a fantasy scenario: in a barnburner of an exciting race at Fontana, the season championship is decided on the last lap of the final race, all without a Chase, and the title goes to a driver for a second-tier team? Yeah, that could never happen. Oh, wait… it did happen in Saturday night’s IZOD IndyCar Series. In fact, the two best races of the weekend both happened on Saturday night. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, 18-year-old Ryan Blaney became the youngest driver ever to win in that series.

The real question here: is NASCAR paying attention? While the Cup Series draws complaints about boring racing and contrived excitement, there is better racing to be had, some of it within NASCAR. Why isn’t the sanctioning body paying more attention to the show that the trucks and Nationwide cars are putting on at tracks like Iowa, Montral, and Rockingham? And why isn’t the sanctioning body wondering why the heck they haven’t figured out how to get them on the Cup schedule as soon as possible? How come they aren’t looking at the Indy Car points system for an example of how to reward winning and discourage mediocrity to build an exciting championship battle—all without a Chase? Instead it seems like the sanctioning body is continuing to do just the opposite by constantly having rule changes that keep teams from innovating or finding any advantage or even having to develop a strategy during races… all of which takes more of the race out of the drivers’ hands. There IS plenty of great racing going on, some of it within their own ranks. Yet NASCAR continues to keep their collective head in the sand. What a shame, because races like the ones we saw Saturday from the CWTS and IndyCar could be happening in the Cup Series too.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Chicago has not been kind to Jimmie Johnson, who has led in ten of his eleven races at the track and leads all drivers in laps led with 547 and in poles with two. He also ranks in the top two in top 5’s (6), top 10’s (9), average start (5.8) among drivers with six or more starts, average finish (9.3), and lead lap finishes (9). Unfortunately, despite his stellar stats, Johnson has never won in the Windy City. He’s been bitten by fuel mileage, crashes, and, most recently, a questionable call by NASCAR. That call left Johnson with a second place finish—his fifth top 3 at the track—and wondering what might have been… again.

Jimmie Johnson has never won in Chicago. That didn’t change this weekend as Johnson finished in second place.

The silver lining for Johnson is that the winner of the first Chase race has won the title just twice, and Johnson isn’t one of them despite his five championships. He’s just three points out of the lead and with 20 wins in 81 Chase races so far, is the best of the field at making the best of these ten tracks. It’s looking like, barring a meltdown, Johnson will have something to say about who wins this year’s title when it comes down to the final races.

When… will I be loved?

OK, I realize that there is a theme here. But really, NASCAR just keeps asking for it. This week, the sanctioning body actually wins villainhood for not just one, but two questionable calls. First, it certainly looked like Brad Keselowski did jump the blend line after his last pit stop, and we’ll have more on that in Pace Laps. Drivers are told where they are allowed to blend onto the racetrack after a green flag stop, and it’s at the exit of turn 2, after the corner. Looking at the replay, it certainly appeared as though Keselowski was still in the turn when he came onto the track.

NASCAR’s second mistake is most certainly a bigger one, with implications that go much further than the outcome of a single race. Apparently, the sanctioning body is considering adding a couple of short tracks to the Camping World Truck Series schedule… tracks that don’t have SAFER barriers installed. And that would be a giant step backwards in the safety improvements that NASCAR has made since a rash of driver deaths in the early 2000s, which included the loss of Dale Earnhardt. Think it’s okay to make an exception for short tracks? Think again. Out of 51 fatalities during practice, qualifying, or racing at NASCAR-sanctioned events, at least 14 have occurred at tracks of a mile or less. (Technically, New Hampshire is 1.058. Two other deaths occurred at West Memphis Speedway, for which I was unable to find specs.) That’s more than a quarter of all fatalities during that time. It’s just not worth that chance. It would be a great move for NASCAR to add more short tracks, so perhaps the better solution is for the sanctioning body to help do something about it, whether it’s a loan, a grant, or waiving the sanctioning fee for the first year in exchange for the SAFER barrier being installed before the trucks take to the track. That would be a win all around.

Why… worry now?

For the next ten weeks, we’ll keep track of the Chasers and whether anybody needs to hit the panic button yet. This week, eleven of the top twelve drivers are within 26 points of the lead, and all are very much still in it. If it’s true that a team can have a mulligan and still win the title, then Jeff Gordon, 47 markers back in 12th after a blown tire blew his chances while he was running in fourth place on Sunday, is still in the hunt. But one more bad week and Gordon will be waiting another year for his fifth title.

Does Brad Keselowski establish himself as a favorite with his win this week? Maybe. After all, Keselowski has finished outside the top ten just once since Sonoma in June, with his 30th place at Bristol. His record this year at the eight tracks he will visit again in the Chase includes a win (Talladega) and three other top 5 runs. The one thing that could hurt Keselowski, though, is the tendency his team has shown for having three or four mediocre races in a row once they have one. And in the Chase, that won’t get it done.

How… did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing (Good Sam Club / Camping World Ford): Trevor Bayne’s 20th-place run was his fifth top-20 finish in eleven races. A little perspective: that’s more top 20 runs than Front Row Motorsports has despite having two drivers in all 27 races this year. Translation: Bayne is doing okay given the circumstances of an underfunded, part-time team.
Front Row Motorsports (Distraction.gov Ford Ford & 1-800-LOANMART Ford): Neither David Ragan nor David Gilliland was able to add to FRM’s total of four top-20 finishes this season. They finished 22nd and 28th, respectively. Ragan’s was the last car on the lead lap, marking his fourth lead lap finish this year.
Tommy Baldwin Racing(GoDaddy.com Chevy & Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy): Danica Patrick continued her learning curve with an uneventful 25th place finish—her best Sprint Cup result to date. (Baldwin is the owner of record on the No. 10, though Patrick runs under the Stewart-Haas banner.) Dave Blaney was looking to go the distance this week as well, but lost his engine after 199 laps and finished 33rd. Blaney has 13 DNF’s in 26 races this year and while a few of them may have been planned exits, the whole season has been a struggle for the No. 36 team.
JTG-Daugherty Racing (Miller Welders/Freightliner Toyota): Bobby Labonte finished 26th, three laps down. The former Cup champion driver has failed to lead a lap in the last seven races… and he has led just one circuit all year. In 2000, the year he won his title, Labonte led more than 400 laps; in 1999 he led 1,200.
BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Landon Cassill’s 29th place finish was his worst since Loudon in July. Travis Kvapil finished 31st, but did get some TV time when he was shown dragging his jack around the racetrack. Unfortunately, removing equipment from the pit box is a penalty.
FAS Lane Racing (U.S. Chrome Ford) T.J. Bell was in the car this week and drove it to a 30th-place finish, six laps down. That’s the closest Bell has been to the lead lap in four races this year.
Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Kurt Busch had a career first on Sunday. Unfortunately for Busch, it was his first broken axle. Phoenix Racing is struggling just to be around in 2013, and unfortunately, the team just hasn’t performed to its potential this year… often through no fault of their own.
Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith’s weekend started with a promising 7th-place starting spot, but Smith quickly faded to midpack. His engine expired on lap 197, relegating Smith to a 34th-place result, 27 spots worse than he started.
Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): The bad news? Casey Mears slammed the wall on lap 146, ending his day early in 36th place in his sponsor’s race, the second unplanned DNF for Mears in the last four weeks. The good news? Sponsor GEICO extended its relationship with the No. 13 team through 2014, though it’s unclear if they will sponsor a full schedule or a partial season as they have for the past three seasons. The gecko rode with Mears in a commercial this season… will the little piggy who goes “whee, whee, whee” all the way get a turn next year?

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Chuck
09/17/2012 08:39 AM
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Amy, could you possibly be any more in the tank for Jimmie? Holy cow, you are so wrapped up in “five time” it calls your credibility into question.

SHOEMAN
09/17/2012 12:01 PM
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although I am not much of a fan of “THE DUDE”, I would rather see him win than Ol 5 Time.

FS_Amy
09/17/2012 12:40 PM
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Or, I’d have said the same thing if the roles had been reversed…

NASCAR has a history of fudging with things if they think it will make the race exciting. Whether that’s leaving the green flag out in late laps for oil in the track or a crash, or going the opposite way and throwing the caution for something questionable. Fake debris cautions are one thing, but I have a problem with them fudging when it comes to safety, which the blend line is there for. It’s clear at each track that cars can’t blend until they are at the exit of turn 2 on an oval. It looked on replay as though the 2 was still turning at the time he came onto the track. (Of course, had television gone to the overhead shot, it would have been absolutely clear whether or not there was a violation, but we only got the one shot, which certainly looked like NASCAR called it wrong.) Had they penalized Keselowski, though, there would have been no drama. It’s that attitude by NASCAR that consistency doesn’t count in certain situations that I question and will continue to question.

Joe
09/17/2012 12:41 PM
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Geez, some of the readers comments here puzzle me. Are they teaching “contraryism” as a subject in school these days? “The sky is blue” NO NO “The sky is green” What a waste. Talk about calling credibility into question.

john
09/17/2012 12:50 PM
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The Indycar finale was everything a championship battle should be. Awesome finish to an awesome season. Unfortunately no one was watching.

And yeah, the Truck race was, as always, the most exciting race of the season. Ryan Blaney whooped ‘em.

Upstate24fan
09/17/2012 12:54 PM
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I don’t know why NASCAR won’t look at IndyCar and F-1 as possible models for a new points system. They both work better than the current one (Chase or no-Chase). For all the talk about making “winning more important” they refuse to give the race winner more of a point premium.

cdakost
09/17/2012 01:05 PM
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I wouldn’t call Andretti Autosport a “second-tier team.” They may not be quite as powerful as Penske or Ganassi but they aren’t far behind.
I don’t know why I waste my time reading your articles. All it ever is, is you ripping on the Chase. It’s here and it’s here to stay. I for one like it better than the old system. I think Tony Stewart put it best. When asked what he thought about who would be leading based on the old system versus the Chase, he responded by saying, “We’re not on the old system. No cares about the old system. The drivers don’t talk about it. Only the media does. No one else cares.”

Lydia
09/17/2012 01:40 PM
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Well I certainly wasn’t rooting for Five Time to win…but Big Mouth Brad is on my S list too! The guy has the biggest mouth in the Series..and doesn’t know a hill of beans about what he’s saying. I’m waiting for another “Aaahhhhhhhh” moment….maybe Carl will step up again (he doesn’t have much to lose) and teach Brad there is honor in the garage and bad mouthing other drivers and teams…accusing them of cheating…doesnt fly. True or not…it’s bad form! Brad is not an authority on drugs…I hope AJ gets at least one more chance to run a race and give Brad a little Howdy Do tap. Speaking of..Hornish should be none too happy with Brad either. Sweet revenge would be Joey causing a wreck at Talledega catching Brad in the mess! Whoops! There goes the Championship! Bottom line..no one likes a know it all snitch..least of all this fan!

Earner
09/17/2012 02:58 PM
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I’m with Chuck …as usual amys emotions & fav’s dictate the words no not much journalistic credibility there…& the roll model for anything should not be the izod series as thats a large part of why Nascar grew in the 90’s as that series collapsed or as some one mentioned “no bodys watching”…Didn’t care for the chase but it’s what we got so move on (thx to Tony S) & fontana is made for indy cars …Had a chance for fontana & vegas & turned them down (just to dull) Would love to be at Martinsville but will have to settle for Phoenix…No dull D’s for this guy

nitpicker
09/17/2012 05:19 PM
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Gordon had a stuck throttle, not a blown tire…

old farmer
09/17/2012 06:32 PM
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Amy: Your love affair w/ JJ so so boring. He has a wife & kid. You’re out of it, so quit druelling over him, please. It’s sickening. We all know that if JJ had done what BK did, it would have been just fine. Your prejudice is an embarrassment to the website.

Andy D
09/17/2012 11:49 PM
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Out of 51 fatalities during practice, qualifying, or racing at NASCAR-sanctioned events, at least 14 have occurred at tracks of a mile or less.

During what time period? I hope you’re not counting the 50s and 60s in this argument.

IMO, a half mile track in a racecar with 3/4 the horsepower of a cup car is plenty safe. There are plenty running sprint cars and modified in similar situations.

Running all the series at the same tracks is boring, a game that exists only so promoters can sell you a weekend ticket. The truck racing was more exciting and different in the beginning when they only ran short tracks.

We need more races on tracks of a half mile or less. We need to spread the various series out across the country to benefit track owners and fans that won’t attend a race if they have to travel four hours each way or stay overnight. We need different drivers than those who are slumming from the larger series.

Let’s see the full proposal before you shoot it down.

Andy D
09/18/2012 12:03 AM
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It should also be noted that the Indycar finale was won by a driver-owned team that was just put together before the start of the season. In the past few years there have been several races won by small teams, including the Indy 500. Aside from the Wood Brothers and the Daytona 500, how often does that happen in cup?

Jason
09/18/2012 09:21 AM
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Amy, Your JJ crush used to be way more transparent, but I have to agree with you on the blend call. I too felt BK moved up way too early (alot farther than the 200 ft the talking heads on TV said). I am not a JJ or BK fan, but the in-car view from JJ showed the story, how BK slide up in front of him in the outside lane then moved down a lane. This is a big safety risk as the driver closing fast has no idea where the blending driver is trying to go. And although I was glad to see BK win over JJ, I wish JJ would have dumped BK during the dumb early blend move because maybe it would cause nascar to paint a line or zone where drivers have to blend so the calls wouldn’t be so questionable.

Steve
09/18/2012 03:27 PM
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Count me as one that would like to see which tracks are chosen before I go on a rant about how they need safer barriers. Even without knowing I think the trucks would be fine at less than a mile short tracks without safer barriers.

I didn’t see the incident, but it appears JJ has not gotten the breaks from Nascar that he used to. After the Middlebrook decision earlier in the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nascar made it tougher for JJ to win the championship this year.

I wish the trucks and Indy Cars were on at different times this weekend. It was hard keeping up with both as they were both good races.

 

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.