Amy Henderson · Monday July 1, 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?
The team changed engine builders before the season. New sponsors signed on. The driver is racing for his job. Whatever the reason behind it, though, Jamie McMurray is quietly putting together some momentum after winning the pole last week in Sonoma. McMurray fell just short of victory on Sunday, but his charge to second and subsequent attempt to run down Matt Kenseth should have made people sit up and take notice.
The problem is that McMurray’s results haven’t always been an accurate reflection of his races this year. But the difference between this season and a year ago is apparent—last year, McMurray didn’t have the cars to run well most weeks. In 2013, though, the equipment is significantly better; whether that’s a reflection on the Hendrick engines they now race with or having a year in transition to build better cars for McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya (though most likely it’s a combination), both McMurray and Montoya have at least made some noise of late. A year ago, you rarely even knew they were there at the end of the day. This year, that’s changing.
What… was THAT?
Brad Keselowski had a bad day, taken out by another driver’s bad decision and getting caught in a nasty crash. Greg Biffle had a bad day, collected in Keslowski’s wreck and sustaining a vicious hit. Denny Hamlin had a bad day, courtesy of a blown tire that sent him slamming into the outside wall so hard he admitted to having his bell rung after he emerged from the infield care center and was noticeably in pain. Yet all three, none of whom had had his race ended through any fault of his own, took the time to speak to the media (and, by extension, his fans).
So, what reason did Jimmie Johnson have to skip a postrace interview? Sure, he had a bad day… but that was nobody’s fault but his own, as Johnson spun on a late restart after an earlier decision to take just two tires on a pivotal pit stop. Johnson suffered little damage; he was able to continue after a pit stop and raced his way back to ninth position. Sure, he was frustrated, but leaving in a huff, without a few words for his fans, just smacks of poor sportsmanship. Regular readers of this column know that I don’t give drivers a free pass on skipping an interview because they’re pissed off, and this week is no exception. No, he wasn’t required to speak with media as he finished outside the top 3. But whether Johnson is frustrated with his team (he’s lost races in the pits this year), himself, NASCAR, or life in general, sulking in the hauler just doesn’t paint a very pretty picture. Take ten minutes to breathe and gather your emotions, sure. Nobody should ever begrudge a frustrated driver that, but after taking a little time to put things in perspective, it’s time to man up and not be a poor loser.
(Johnson later Tweeted that he did speak to the media who came to him and did not decline an interview; however TNT pit reporters said that he did decline to speak with their cameras. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle…)
Where…did the defending race winner wind up?
Brad Keselowski could have used the boost a Kentucky repeat would have given him. The defending Cup champion has been on a slow points slide of late, and this week he slid right off the points cliff after getting turned by Kurt Busch after just 48 laps, finishing 33rd, 114 laps behind winner Matt Kenseth. As things stand now, with nine races to go before the Chase field is set, Keselowski is on the outside looking in.
And given the group of drivers gunning for the last few points spots and the wild card berths, Keselowski could have a hard time climbing back into contention without a couple of wins. Meanwhile, his Penske Racing teammate quietly slipped into tenth place in points, which would give Joey Logano his first crack at a title run of his own. The difference a year makes has proven to be significant, and this No. 2 team just hasn’t had the swagger that took them so very far a year ago.
When…will I be loved?
For the most part, the drivers were on their best behavior. The mechanical gremlins stayed at bay for most teams, and NASCAR didn’t do anything totally out there. But a race with no villain? Not so fast. While the result was unintentional, Kurt Busch didn’t make the soundest decision when he chose to use the apron to make a move on Brad Keselowski just 48 laps into a 267-lap race. Needing to get back on the racing surface as the field headed for the corner, Busch just couldn’t hold onto the No. 78 as he came from the flat apron onto the track’s banking; the car scooted up the track and into the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski, sending Keselowski spinning.
Keselowski slid down onto the apron but couldn’t hold the car out of traffic; Greg Biffle slammed into the No. 2 and four others were also collected in the melee. Busch didn’t cause the crash intentionally, make no mistake about that, and he did accept responsibility afterward (which in itself shows that the driver has come a long way in the past year). Instead, it was simply a bad choice for the time that gained Busch villain status this week, when his mistake was more costly than anything else that went down.
As the Chase edges ever nearer, there are a lot of places up for grabs. Unlike some years, there’s a distinct feeling that many of the drivers in the top 10 or wild card position simply aren’t locked into contention. A win by anyone in 10th-20th could turn the table significantly, and two or three wins in that group would change a lot very fast.
Meanwhile, looking ahead to Chase time, Matt Kenseth is in the catbird seat. Not only will he be handed the points lead after Richmond unless Jimmie Johnson wins a couple of times between now and then or Carl Edwards or Clint Bower goes on quite a tear, but he’s got a distinct advantage over Johnson that’s become apparent in recent weeks: the No 20 isn’t losing races in the pits, and the No. 48 is. Not only did a two-tire call late at Kentucky ultimately cost Johnson the win, but had his pit crew been able to maintain his position in the pits on the last stop at Dover, there would have been no restart penalty. Two wins in a month lost in the pits says that Johnson’s points lead doesn’t mean much once the points are reset, but Kenseth’s quiet advance could make him next to impossible to beat once he has points position on his side.
How…did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 Valvoline NextGen Ford): Germain Racing is quickly establishing itself as the best among the smaller teams. They haven’t (and likely won’t this year) made the leap onto the next level, but they are solid, and Mears’ day at Kentucky proves that. The team is using smart strategy and excellent communication between Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker to make gains during races; after running in the mid-20’s for most of the day in Kentucky, they were able to make gains late to come home 18th, the best finish among their peers and Mears’ third top 20 in the last five races. A year ago, Mears had five top-20 runs through Kentucky. This year, he’s more than doubled that total through 17 races.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Toyota): Allmendinger looked as though, with a little pit strategy, he might be poised to bring this team their best finish of 2013. But it didn’t pay off in the end; while Allmendinger’s 22nd-place finish was solid, it was the team’s sixth-best of the year. It isn’t the driver here, that’s becoming apparent. The best thing this team could do is finish out the year with either Allmendinger or Bobby Labonte only behind the wheel and take a closer look at other changes they need to make to really fix things.
Phoenix Racing; Austin Dillon (No. 51 Alsco Chevy): This team continues to be solid, despite rumors that it will be sold to Harry Scott, Jr. or fold by Indianapolis. Dillon did a good job avoiding trouble he could easily have been caught up in on Sunday; while his finish might not be what he’d have liked, it could have been worse, and perhaps learning to race in sub-par equipment this year will give Dillon a leg up next year when he steps in to a Richard Childress Racing Cup car for his rookie campaign.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Lean 1 Toyota): This team is slowly starting to make a little noise among their closest competition. They’re beating more established small teams such as Tommy Baldwin Racing and FAS Lane Racing on the racetrack more and more often, and seem to be making the gains that will put them on a similar track with Germain Racing or Phoenix Racing in terms of improving in the coming seasons. That’s not something some of the other teams have shown they can do, so things are looking promising so far for this operation.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Ragan and Gilliland finished 26th and 28, respectively. That’s one good thing for this team; the cars are generally fairly equal and when that’s the case, teams can exchange and use information more efficiently, which should help both teams in the long run. If one is running well and the other is out to lunch most weeks, that’s much more difficult to fix. Wise parked early this week, a rarity this year and hopefully a path his team will not have to take on a weekely basis from here on out as the No. 35 bunch was starting to make some of the gains that the more established FRM teams have been able to make in the last couple of years.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil was one of three small-team drivers unlucky enough to get caught up in the Kurt Busch-Brad Keselowski crash on lap 48, and he would not be able to complete another lap. Reutimann ran about where this team has been lately; his 27th-place finish is just above his season average. This team has shown promise—now they need to find some kind of consistency to make it to the next level.
FAS Lane Racing; Ken Schrader (No. 32 Federated Auto Parts Ford): It could have been a worse day for Schrader, who came home 29th. This team as a whole, though, continues to disappoint. Stoddard knows how to make race cars go fast; he did that for many years as a top-level crew chief, but something isn’t clicking here. Yes, they need one driver, but it’s obvious that that’s not all. They’re on a tight budget, too, but so are the other teams in this group, and some of them are making bigger strides.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & JJ Yeley(No 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 United Mining Equipment Chevy): Blaney was another victim of the Busch-Keselowski incident sent to the showers early; he managed to complete a few laps after the crash but eventually succumbed to the damage. Yeley’s engine expired just over 100 laps shy of the finish. Both drivers have struggled in recent weeks. This season looked promising as the team now has the stability of not having to field cars for Danica Patrick, and they have had some good days, but overall, like FAS Lane, they have stagnated in their progression.
Circle Sport Racing; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy): Cassill was the third small-team driver collected in the lap 48 wreck, and like the No. 7 team, the No. 33 bunch made a handful of laps afterward before giving in to the damage. Overall, though, this team is one that some other little teams should be looking at—they have made small, steady gains this year with perhaps less money and fewer resources than even some other teams in this group. They’re not going to set the world on fire anytime soon, but their progress is good for the sport.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!