Amy Henderson · Monday June 3, 2013
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 race day questions, covering all five W’s and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
For some drivers, finishing eleventh might not be particularly noteworthy. But when its your third-best result all year, in the midst of a career-worst slump it’s far more significant. Jeff Burton has run tenth at Phoenix and fifth at Richmond, but that’s about all he’s had to smile about in 2013, until Sunday in Dover. That’s when the 45-year-old veteran, who had been a lap down most of the race, earned the Lucky Dog late and then surged to the very edge of the top 10.
Burton needs more days like this one, along with last week’s 12th at Charlotte; it’s the first time all season he’s posted back-to-back top-15 results. His future with Richard Childress Racing isn’t necessarily on solid ground, with Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon in line for a promotion to Sprint Cup next season. Sure, the obvious answer is to put Dillon in the No. 29 of Kevin Harvick, once Harvick departs for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end. After all, it’s likely that Dillon will choose to run the number 3, and the No. 29 was originally the No. 3 until Dale Earnhardt’s untimely death. But RCR is also keeping close tabs on satellite Furniture Row Racing, where driver Kurt Busch has brought them up to speed; it’s a wheelman in whom Childress has expressed major interest. And while there’s little doubt that Burton, as elder statesman would be the best choice to mentor Dillon, his sponsor isn’t going to fork over millions for him to fill that role. He needs more on-track moments himself, like the one at Dover to solidify his place on the roster.
What… was THAT?
Um, oops? When NASCAR finds a car too low after a race, the standard penalty since 2011’s changes to the championship system has been the loss of six points paired with fines and probation. Of course, that all depends on how low it is and how big of an advantage the team gained, but that’s been the norm. The most recent height violation came after Texas for the No. 56 team, manned by Martin Truex, Jr. which lost the half-dozen points and saw crew chief Chad Johnston fined $25,000 and slapped with several weeks’ probation.
But what happens when your head wrench is already in hot water? We’re about to find out, because this week, it was the No. 2 of reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski that was too low after the race in Dover — and it was crew chief Paul Wolfe’s first race back after serving a two-race suspension for an unapproved rear suspension at Texas. That portion of the penalty may be over, but he’s on probation until the end of the year under what’s supposed to be a “no tolerance” policy. Last year, driver Kurt Busch earned a week’s suspension for a rules violation while on probation, so Wolfe might well be facing another NASCAR-enforced vacation next weekend.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
Jimmie Johnson was headed to Victory Lane for the eighth time at Dover until he got played like a violin on the final restart. Johnson appeared to have another win in the bag, charging forward from 24th place to take control after nearly losing a lap early in the race. But during the final caution, Juan Pablo Montoya’s team got the No. 42 off pit road first, pushing Johnson back to second. Montoya then controlled the restart brilliantly, rolling so slowly coming to the restart box that Johnson, on the inside, was ahead of him before they even reached the first line. Johnson did jump the start – there’s no question about it – and he also knew it. But when Johnson slowed to let Montoya get his position back, the Colombian also didn’t bite. It was a slick (if not entirely aboveboard) move on Montoya’s part; the No. 48 was the faster car, and Johnson would likely have passed the No. 42 before the checkered flag. By letting Johnson draw the penalty, Montoya knocked out his top competition, virtually letting NASCAR hand him the race. The only thing he didn’t count on was Tony Stewart.
So what’s the bottom line here? Johnson’s pit crew cost him the trophy. He came in first, and all they had to do was hold his position. The team was stellar all day long — until the money stop. Had Johnson controlled the start, Montoya would have had to race him for it, and he’d been unable to pass the No. 48 car down the stretch.
In the end, Johnson finished 17th, his worst run at the Monster Mile in nine years. He’d better watch his rear-view mirror from now on, especially on pit road, although the end result could have been much worse — the five-time champ still sits atop the points by 30.
When… will I be loved?
This week’s villain award deserves two categories. If you’re looking for mechanical mayhem, then check out the Toyota engine gremlin that bit Matt Kenseth hard this week. For the second time in 2013, Kenseth was leading the race only to have his engine go south and end his day early. Kenseth looked to have the car to beat on Sunday, swapping the top spot with teammate Kyle Busch until his untimely departure from the race left him 40th. And Kenseth wasn’t the only victim; Martin Truex, Jr., at his hometown track was also running in the top 5 before blowing up. (A third Toyota driver, Travis Kvapil, also lost an engine, but his team does not get theirs from the same manufacturer as Kenseth and Truex.) Toyota hasn’t made a secret of their attempts to make a more powerful motor with lighter parts; however, they seem to have sacrificed durability somewhere along the line.
If you prefer a living, breathing villain, try Ryan Newman on for size. He was racing David Gilliland and got frustrated with not getting any room, so he gave the driver a shot in an attempt to move the No. 38 up the track. And then, he popped him another one. On the third bump, Newman put Gilliland in the wall, which was clearly his intent by that point… but what he didn’t count on was Gilliland coming back down the track and taking him out. A little karma for the road, perhaps?
Why… worry now?
All of a sudden, Tony Stewart is in “wild card” position with 13 races to go before the Chase. Stewart gained four points positions, to 16th but his Dover win is, for now enough to put him in one of the two “wild card” spots. However, Stewart has yet to show consistency, and considering that several drivers near him are also capable of Victory Lane, he’s by no means a lock. The No. 14 team has been so far out to lunch this year, in fact that simply contending at Dover (let alone taking first) came as a bit of a surprise. That in itself is telling… three-time champions shouldn’t shock you by running up front. Stewart-Haas Racing, despite the winning euphoria, still has a ways to go to be any kind of a true title contender.
For now, though they’re in the Chase which means it’s Denny Hamlin who’s in real trouble after Dover. Hamlin’s Sunday crash left him with just 11 points for his efforts, and he lost two places in the standings, dropping to 26th. He’s now 74 points out of 20th, still winless and almost certainly in need of two victories or more to have a fighting shot at a “wild card.” It’s going to take a miracle, if that to earn a spot.
Further up, Paul Menard is just 10 points from sliding outside the top 10. That’s not really a surprise, as he’s hung on longer than expected, but hanging on was huge. If he drops out of the ten locked-in spots, Menard’s chances decrease dramatically. There are others in the 11th-to-20th range in points with proven track records of winning races; Menard’s single career victory, by comparison isn’t enough to swing the odds in his favor.
Finally, Brad Keselowski is just 14 points to the good in the top 10… and he could lose at least some of those this week when penalties are announced. The defending champ needs to pick things up a bit or there’s a chance he could be on the outside looking in at this year’s championship battle.
How… did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears’ 16th-place finish was his best since he scored a 16th at Martinsville. But more importantly for this team, it was paired without drama and the bad luck that has plagued them for two solid months. This result is where this team has proven capable of running on a weekly basis this year, especially at tracks a mile or less in length; it’s left them atop the point standings for all small teams. Now, they need to shed the bad luck for good and find these results consistently.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Scott Products Toyota): Labonte, as he often has in the last couple of years, waged a stealth attack on the underdog field, finishing second among his direct competition and 21st overall. Because Labonte is rarely controversial and typically stays out of trouble on the racetrack, he gets very little mention on television. But you can be sure that the teams he is racing within this group know he’s there; and for these wheelmen who struggle each week, in subpar equipment, that’s a source of pride.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Front Row put up a pair of top-25 runs on Sunday, with Ragan in 22nd and Wise in 25th. Wise’s finish was the most impressive, his second-best this year. The sophomore’s shown improvement since the team made the commitment to let him run the distance each week, looking capable of bringing the car home inside the top 30 on a weekly basis. That’s decent given his lack of experience. Gilliland’s day, by comparison was not as smooth as his teammates. He was apparently too slow for Ryan Newman, who expressed his frustration by punting the driver in the wall with a hundred laps to go. “We just got wrecked. It is a shame,” said Gilliland after the incident, which left him 37th. “I am real proud of Front Row Motorsports and Frank Kerr, my crew chief. We had a fast race car and a great run going and, unfortunately, someone lost their patience a little bit and we got wrecked.”
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (Nos. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): As noted above, Kvapil’s day went up in smoke early; he blew his engine on lap 161, which sent him packing in 39th place. Reutimann had a marginally better day, coming home 26th. However, this team needs to be finishing between about 21st and 25th each week, a small but important step in its evolution considering their funding level. They also need to be finishing closer to the lead lap. Reutimann was six laps down this week, a rough result that’s a reminder BK needs to be closer to the pace.
Phoenix Racing; Austin Dillon (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): While it makes sense from a driver development standpoint for Austin Dillon to run some races with this team, his inexperience at the Cup level has hurt their overall performance somewhat. Dillon finished 27th Sunday, and his 27th-place average result is noticeably lacking compared to Regan Smith’s 16.3 and AJ Allmendinger’s impressive 13.5. For a team that only has a handful of races left, unless they find a sponsor, top finishes are critical — and Dillon isn’t getting them.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Widow Wax Toyota): In contrast to Phoenix Racing, which is at a level where a 27th-place finish is disappointing, this team should be fairly happy with running 28th. Many questioned at the beginning of the year whether this Brandon Davis-owned team would last, if they would start and park as Inception Motorsports did last year. Well, they’re still here, they’re going the distance, and Stremme has gotten some decent finishes, especially amongst their immediate peers. So far, this group is showing all the hallmarks of the small teams who are doing it right.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 DOHS Click It Or Ticket Chevy): In contrast to Swan Racing, this team has stagnated instead of improving, and they have the level of experience where they should be posting better finishes on a consistent basis. While it’s true that they’re going the distance more this year, they just haven’t shown they can up their performance, although Blaney and Yeley have had brief flashes of potential. This week, they finished together in 29th and 30th, well off the pace of the lead pack. They’ve been bypassed by many of their peers whom they should be running with, such as Germain Racing, and even less established teams, such as BK Racing, are breezing by them.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Royal Teak Toyota): Nemechek finished 12 laps down in 31st, and the question looms larger each week around the driver, who turns 50 in September, about whether he should hang it up and concentrate on his Nationwide ride, where he is able to run better. But the flip side of the coin is that his Cup effort pays for the Nationwide team, so it’s easy to sympathize with the former NNS champ in his efforts. He also is going the distance more this year, which has to help the pocketbook.
Circle Sport; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Bicycle NASCAR Playing Cards Chevy): This team continues to impress; Cassill qualified 21st, better than all but one of his small-team competition and also better than Cup champions Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. The car has also had a few runs inside the top 25, although Dover was not one of them. Cassill finished a dozen laps down in 32nd, dealing with a tire rub and intermittent mechanical issues. The team’s equipment is and will be its weakness until they find some major backing. If that happens, expect them to go the way of Germain or Phoenix Racing and rise to the next level amongst the smaller programs.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXY Water Ford): This team is a bit confusing. Rookie Timmy Hill has been a pleasant surprise some weeks, but not this one, as he finished 35th, worst among all cars still running at the end. You have to wonder if Hill’s lack of experience, at just 20 years of age is hurting the team in the long run. The problem is part-time fill-ins Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader, well past their NASCAR primes are likely not the answer, either. Perhaps this team should take a look at a mid-level, experienced Nationwide Series guy, like Reed Sorenson, who does have a good bit of Cup experience and could provide the feedback needed to help this team move forward.
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