Amy Henderson · Monday March 4, 2013
Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with 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?
A lot was made of Carl Edwards’ redemption, but another driver found it Sunday in the desert as well. AJ Allmendinger drove a smart, solid race for the underfunded, single-car Phoenix Racing team, running 11th, his best finish since a ninth place last summer in Kentucky. If anyone is counting, that’s the second top-11 finish for Phoenix Racing in two races this year — Regan Smith was seventh last week at Daytona. Smith and Allmendinger will share seat time in that car, along with Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon.
But redemption has come in other forms as well for the California native. Roger Penske, who fired Allmendinger from his No. 22 Cup ride after a positive drug test last summer, apparently never lost faith in the driver. Penske had Allmendinger testing an IndyCar at Sebring, last month and he will make at least one start for the team at Barber Motorsports Park in April. If that goes well, that could lead to more starts within Penske’s IndyCar operation, including this May’s Indianapolis 500. For a driver whose future in racing was being questioned, just eight months ago, it looks like there are some sunny days ahead for Allmendinger.
What… was THAT?
How did the Gen-6 car fare at Phoenix? Give it mixed results; drivers could pass, but it wasn’t easy. Still, there was, as usual, a lot more action than television viewers saw, and that’s a shame. Watching the stationary cameras during FOX’s “Crank It Up” segments told the tale as there was side-by-side action. But the cameras mostly focused on a few drivers, not the whole field and that made the racing look worse than it was.
The closing laps of the race showed how competitive these cars have the potential to be. While Carl Edwards won handily on the strength of his excellent restart, courtesy the green-white-checkered run, the racing for second was hot and heavy. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson battled for position on both laps, with Denny Hamlin making a banzai move to take third coming off the final corner. That was a great show, for at least a few minutes and hopefully something we’ll be able to see more of as the teams learn how to adjust these cars to their liking. Yes, there were sections of the race where drivers didn’t push their equipment, but you can’t really fault them for that as tire failures were a problem and the bottom line is, they need to get to the end of the race. They simply aren’t going to risk their stuff halfway through by overdriving it for a position or two.
One positive so far (and whether or not it will continue is questionable at best) is that the new car has given a few smaller teams and those drivers a chance to shine as the big ones haven’t yet figured out the advantages money can buy. That means that drivers like J.J. Yeley, David Reutimann, and Casey Mears get to spend a little deserved time in the top-20 spotlight.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
For Denny Hamlin, a late engine change forced the No. 11 to the back of the field for the start of the race. After several engine problems in the Toyota camp at Daytona, there had to be a sense of worry. But the issue was fixed, quickly and Hamlin worked his way toward the front. By the time the race was halfway over, Hamlin was in the top 10, and at the end, waged a furious charge from fourth, using the apron to make a dive into Turn 3 and get by Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. Johnson fought back on the outside, nipping Hamlin at the line, but that third-place finish moves him into fourth in points, 18 markers behind leader Johnson.
Hamlin was a title contender deep into the Chase in 2012, and this year will be a real test of his mettle. The last time he got so close and failed to win the championship, it took a full year to recover. Once in the postseason, Hamlin can be a very real title threat — if he can keep his focus on the next race rather than what happened in the last one. So far in 2013, he’s good, and he’s stronger earlier than usual. Now, he needs to prove he can be there at the end.
When… will I be loved?
It’s hard to pinpoint a villain for Sunday’s race. There was David Stremme, who turned Dave Blaney into the wall in the early going and nearly spun Danica Patrick as well. Perhaps Stremme had forgotten how to pace himself to go the distance after starting and parking every week in 2012?
The other culprit in a few teams’ miserable days was the tires that Goodyear brought to Phoenix. It’s hard to place blame on the manufacturer, because teams are still learning how hard they can push this equipment, and the failures may well have been a result of that rather than any flaw in their composition.
Why… worry now?
While it’s still too early for teams to really worry about points, there are a couple of early trends to keep an eye on. One, Jimmie Johnson is showing championship form, looking the best he has on track since winning his fifth title in 2010. Second, Brad Keselowski is no one-hit wonder. Keselowski showed Sunday why he is the defending champion — he raced hard and smart in the closing laps. The Penske driver races with respect where he feels it’s due and he clearly has a ton of it for Johnson. If they’re running close in points, during the Chase it could be really, really fun to watch.
Third, though, is that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is showing that he’s recovered from his 2012 concussion and is serious about winning races. He was a title contender before the injuries last year and he’s looking like one again. It seems that the Gen-6 car is to his liking so far, and Earnhardt could make a lot of longtime loyal fans happy if he lives up to this early success. It was consistency that earned Earnhardt the points lead last summer and it’s already shaping up to be that way again in 2013.
How…did the little guys do?
Phoenix Racing (No. 51 Guy Roofing Chevy): AJ Allmendinger and his team ran a smart race, then put themselves in position at the end to capitalize when several drivers had to pit before the green-white-checkered run, moving up to finish 11th. The No. 51 is currently sixth in owner points.
Germain Racing (No. 13 GEICO Ford): After posting the slowest time of all 43 entrants in qualifying, Casey Mears tweeted, “So today was… well, let’s just say tomorrow we are going to make some chicken salad.” And Mears and Co. made good on that Sunday, passing more than ten cars in the first three laps and racing their way into the top 10 by the closing ones. Because they had topped off the fuel on a previous caution, Mears was able to stay out before the green-white-checkered and finish 14th, a quality performance for them. Germain Racing has just five top-15 finishes since 2009 — is this the year their hard work and perseverance pays off? The intermediate tracks will be the real test.
JTG-Daugherty Racing (No. 47 Glad Toyota): Bobby Labonte is the master of running race after race that is quietly solid. To many drivers in this group, one thing they look at as a goal is to be “best in class” each week — the highest among these teams. Labonte was just that in 2012, in the standings at least with a 23rd-place points finish. He could do that again this year, through his consistency of finishing in the 20s; he’s currently 14th after Sunday’s 24th-place run.
BK Racing (No. 83 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): David Reutimann had an uneventful day, finishing a lap down in 25th. Travis Kvapil finished another two laps down to his teammate, fading late with an unscheduled stop and running 29th. This team is one that has the potential to improve, but they got behind the 8-ball with old equipment in 2012. If they are going to take the next step, now is the time to do it, while the new car levels the playing field just a bit.
Furniture Row Racing (No. 78 Furniture Row / Beautyrest Chevy): Kurt Busch ran in the top 10 for a large chunk of the day, but faded late. Struggling with the handling, a late-race brush with the wall relegated him to a 27th-place finish, one lap down. Still, this team could bear watching if they have the same access to the same equipment as the RCR ones. It puts them far ahead of this group in terms of resources, and they could get some very good finishes as a result.
Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): J.J. Yeley had a solid, if unspectacular, day, finishing right in the middle of the other small-team drivers with a 28th-place effort. Dave Blaney’s day was a bit more eventful, and not in a good way. Blaney got into the wall on Lap 67, with a little help from David Stremme, and while he would get back on track after his team made repairs, he finished ten laps down in 33rd place.
Swan Racing (No. 30 Swan Racing Toyota): David Stremme’s day wasn’t without incident, though he wasn’t necessarily on the receiving end. Stremme got into Danica Patrick early in the day, getting her loose, but not wrecking her. Dave Blaney wasn’t so lucky, as Stremme sent him into the wall. His No. 30 machine wound up three laps down, in 30th place, but considering that this team wasn’t finishing races a year ago as Inception Motorsports, they took a step in the right direction.
NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87 Maddie’sPlaceRocks.com Toyota): Joe Nemechek went the distance on Sunday, finishing in 31st place, three laps down. This week’s race was the first one Nemechek has finished since Watkins Glen in 2012.
Circle Sport (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy): Landon Cassill made his debut with this team in Phoenix, and it wasn’t pretty. Though he ran as high as 19th during the race, Cassill ran out of fuel on the final caution and limped to a 32nd-place result.
FAS Lane Racing (No. 32 Safe Skies Locks Ford): Ken Schrader minded his own business in Frank Stoddard’s car on Sunday, running toward the back of the pack, but his day didn’t go totally unnoticed; Schrader’s blown tire was the cause of the final caution of the day, and the pancaked corner of the No. 32 means some repair work for the team in the coming days. The veteran wound up finishing 34th.
Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford & No. 34 Ford & No. 35 Blockbuster.com Ford): Sunday wasn’t a great day for the Front Row team. All three drivers finished the race, with Josh Wise taking home the best finish among them in 35th. But David Ragan wrecked on lap 186 along with Danica Patrick, and David Gilliland was the cause of the next caution with his lap 238 crash in Turn 1. Gilliland finished 37th, one spot ahead of Ragan.
Xxxtreme Motorsports (No. 44 No Label Watches Ford): Scott Riggs crashed on lap 19, ending his day, so it’s unclear if this team had intended to go the full distance. So they get the benefit of the doubt this week. We’ll see if they attempt to go the distance in their next start… (For new readers: I don’t list the small teams who start and park as their usual M.O. unless they finish the race. I do list teams that park early only when they don’t have the money to go the distance but who don’t make it their business model.)
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