Amy Henderson · Monday July 29, 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?
He never led a lap on Sunday, but if he’s not a title favorite, someone isn’t paying close enough attention to Matt Kenseth as Kenseth, quietly as always, came away from Indianapolis with his 11th top-10 finish of the year. Only point leader Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have more top 10’s this year, and only Johnson matches Kenseth’s four race wins.
The only thing keeping Kenseth from being as big a title threat as Johnson right now is the seeming inability of Toyota to come up with an engine that can match anyone on horsepower and still last to the end of a race. If the manufacturer can remedy that in the six races that remain before the Chase, the competition had better pay closer attention to Kenseth—he’s his team’s best title chance this year, and he’s shown he can be every bit as good as anyone when he has the stuff. Kenseth’s long been pointed to as the reason the Chase exists…and he’d love to win one under the system he’s widely blamed for.
What… was THAT?
With as much hype and prestige as surround Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Sprint Cup Series, you’d have to think that Sunday’s affair was not only the summer’s biggest race but this week’s biggest story. Except, it wasn’t, because Indy got upstaged by a racetrack that isn’t even paved. The race that had people really talking this week was the Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday night, the first dirt race for one of NASCAR’s national touring series in some 40 years and, by all counts, a huge hit with fans. The race sold out the track, had the TV audience captivated, and there’s already talk of returning in 2014. That kind of story is great for NASCAR and great for the fans.
And maybe NASCAR needs to pay attention to another little trend—the best attended races in the Nationwide and Truck Series are not necessarily companion events with the Cup Series. Sprint Cup doesn’t race at Eldora, Iowa, or Rockingham, but those tracks had some of the biggest crowds the two series have seen this year (Eldora’s crowd was small by the numbers, but every last seat was sold, something most tracks can’t boast for any race.). Perhaps fans don’t want to see those series race at the same tracks as the Cup teams or to see the same Cup drivers win week after week anymore. Maybe the Cup drivers were a draw once, but today the real draw seems to be the venues and not the names over the doors. Some food for thought as NASCAR struggles to attract fans to those series…
Where…did the defending race winner wind up?
The margin of victory was smaller than the amount of time a slow pit stop cost defending race winner Jimmie Johnson, but that stop, over 17 seconds for four tires and fuel, coupled with Ryan Newman’s lightning-quick two-tire stop, cost Johnson a chance at a repeat and a fifth Indianapolis win. Johnson made up the difference between two and four tires on the racetrack…but he couldn’t overcome the mistakes by his own crew as well, and wound up a disappointed second. Had the stop been even an average four-tire stop, Johnson would have been kissing the bricks for the fifth time in his career and making himself a huge title favorite in the process.
But isn’t Johnson an overwhelming title favorite anyway? Hard to say that when he’s losing races on pit road…and he’s been losing them in the pits for three years. This year, Indy is at least the second race Johnson hasn’t been able to close the deal on despite being the class of the field thanks to his crew. Johnson is a class act, never throwing them under the bus in the media or on the radio, but it’s hard to overlook this weakness as the Chase and its points reset loom on the horizon. Sure, you’ll lose a race or two in the pits over the course of a season…but at least two in just eight races says don’t hand this team the big trophy just yet.
When…will I be loved?
With just a handful of cautions, all for minor incidents, it would be easy to say there was no villain on Sunday. It would also be easy to hand that title to Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew after they cost Johnson the win. But I’m going with a different villain this week: whoever thought bringing NASCAR to the famed track was a good idea.
The races at Indy are rarely fun to watch, and this year’s edition was no exception (heck, even the name of the race was an embarrassment). Nothing happened that wasn’t predictable, there was little action shown (though there was almost certainly some in the pack as there always is), and the margin of victory was less than intriguing. You can argue history all you want, but the fact is that until the NASCAR race was foisted on the world, it was never NASCAR’s history any more than an IndyCar race at Daytona or Darlington would be forever ingrained in that series’ history. It’s great that some drivers, like Tony Stewart, were able to get an Indy win, but anyone who thinks that equals an Indianapolis 500 win is fooling themselves. Should Johnson get a fifth win and break the track record, so what? It doesn’t put him on the same level as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, or Rick Mears. It just doesn’t. It isn’t the same thing.
And the real shame of it is that so many people bought into the hype, from media to sponsors, that the race that once held the position of NASCAR’s second most prestigious race behind the Daytona 500 was allowed to be wiped off the map after Indy took over. The Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 were NASCAR’s Indy…the sport never needed to go to Indy to have a long and storied history, because it already had it. Until they bought into the hype and let half of it go away forever.
Why… worry now?
Ryan Newman’s win at Indy illustrates how close the race for the Chase is this year—while a year ago, the wild card picture was already becoming clear, this year, it’s much cloudier. Despite his win, Newman is still on the outside looking in with six races to go as he sits 16th in points. Tony Stewart and Martin Truex, Jr., 11th and 12th in points, also have a win apiece, and their points position trumps Newman’s 16th handily. Both Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch sit ahead of Newman in points, and either—or both—could grab a win in the next month and a half.
And if the wild card picture is a bit hazy, that’s really no different than the view at the top. While Jimmie Johnson has a commanding lead, pit road mistakes continue to dog his team, and when the points are reset after Richmond, his lead will be gone; as of now, he’d be tied with Matt Kenseth, who’s looked very much in championship form when his equipment is up to the task. Clint Bowyer has proven to be excellent down the stretch, and he’s not having any kind of runner-up slump, but if he doesn’t win, he’ll drop at least eight spots before the games really begin. Carl Edwards is solid as well, and his one win puts him in better standing then Bowyer, but he hasn’t shown quite the level of performance of Johnson or Kenseth.
The only thing that’s clear about the 2013 title hunt is that it’s a hazy view at best.
How…did the little guys do?
Phoenix Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Indy is perhaps the toughest track for a team without the resources of the big-money operations, and it showed this week as Allmendinger, who nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in May, was the only driver in this group to finish on the lead lap. In a week where no smaller team so much as sniffed a top-20 run, Allmendinger and Co. came home 22nd.
Circle Sport; Austin Dillon (No. 33 Mycogen Seeds Chevy & No. 40 Interstate Moving Services Chevy): For the first time, Circle Sport ran a pair of cars, and the move paid of surprisingly well as Dillon piloted the No. 33 to a 26th-place finish, and while Cassill wound up 33rd, he was still better than several teams in this group. Team owner Joe Falk says he hopes to run two cars in a handful more races this year, and if he can do that without draining the team’s limited resources too much, it could help them improve as they are able to gather more valuable information each time they bring that second car to the track.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears, who at 24th in driver points remains the top overall driver in this group, had a slightly below average day at Indy; his 27th-place finish was behind his track average by almost two places and the finish is one of the teams worst of the season in which they have not been involved in a crash or had some kind of mechanical issue. It wasn’t a terrible day compared to two weeks ago at Loudon, where Mears was caught up in someone else’s on-track argument, but it does serve as a reminder that even the best of the small teams has a long way to go.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Like the No. 13, Bayne and Co. didn’t have a terrible day, they just didn’t have a great one. Indy proved a tough track for Bayne, who finished 16th in a top Nationwide Series car on Saturday and wound up right where he started on Sunday, in 28th spot. For Bayne, who’s driving the Nationwide Series car that won the last two series titles with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. behind the wheel, the learning curve has proven to be a bit steeper than it appeared it might be when the driver won the 2011 Daytona 500. A part-time Cup schedule, while the right move for this team overall, has hurt them by making it that much harder to find the consistency they need.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): This team has made some small gains in recent weeks, but often with either Kvapil or Reutimann limping home after trouble on the track. This week, they were middle of the road among their peers, coming in 29th and 31st, respectively, and their cars looked to be relatively equal, which points to the team being on the same page as they move forward. They’ve beat some better-funded teams in recent weeks, and are looking competitive within this group for the first time. Indy wasn’t a terrible day, just not one they might have hoped for.
Phil Parsons Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 98 K-Love/ Curb Records Ford): If you’re an optimist, you can look at a 32nd in Indianapolis as this team’s third-best finish of 2013. If you’re more the glass-half-empty type, you’d probably note that it’s also only the third race when McDowell hasn’t had to pull in early. The team stayed the course this week in a rare move, and it did pay off as they carted home over $140,000, the most moey they’ve seen in one week since the Daytona 500
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX/Play It Safe Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): For a team that has shown a flash of brilliance with a win at Talladega and a few flashes of improvement, this week was a disappointment as Ragan and Gilliland finished just 34th and 35th and Wise, the team’s best qualifier this week, lost six spots from start to finish to wind up 38th, with a pit road speeding penalty adding insult to injury.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Scott Products Toyota): The team was never able to find the speed or the handle that Labonte needed, and that’s pretty much the story for this group this week, with just a 36th-place finish for their efforts. Labonte has an Indy win on his resume, but he was never a contender on Sunday.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley(No 7 Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): With both cars unsponsored for one of the biggest races of the year, Sunday was a struggle for both Blaney and Yeley, who were able to muster finishes of just 37th and 39th. This team is caught in a sponsorship catch-22: without funding, they won’t inprove, and if they don’t improve, they can’t attract funding. They’ve shown that they are capable of running better…when someone is willing to pay for it.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Widow Wax/Lean 1 Toyota): Another team with a rough at IMS, The No. 30 bunch recorded their worst result of 2013 in 40th place. The only other teime this team has finished 40th was after suffering an engine failure. They’ve shown improvement recently, so Indy is probably just a bump in the road, but with some tough long intermediate tracks coming up, it could be a long August if they don’t improve the package.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Toyota): A speeding penalty was insult upon injury for Nemechek, who has never recorded a top-10 result at Indianapolis in 18 starts, including a stint with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. This time around, Nemechek finished the race in his unsponsored Toyota, but it wasn’t pretty; he finished 41st.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXY Water Ford): Hill might like to forget his IMS debut after he stalled twice on track, causing two of the three cautions for the day and drew a penalty for pitting too early on top of it. Hill was a surprising choice for this team this week in the first place as both Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte have plenty of experience at the tricky track, but you have to start somewhere, and Hill started last and finished one spot higher. Hopefully someday, the young driver will be able to look back at this day and laugh, but for now, it was a bit of a blow for this team.
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