The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Cheez-It 355 At The Glen by Amy Henderson -- Monday August 12, 2013

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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 didn’t have the best car in the race. He probably didn’t even have the best car among the small teams. What AJ Allmendinger did have was a great set of road racing skills, and he used them to bring the No. 47 home in the top ten for the first time this year. At one point, it looked like Allmendinger’s day was over after a stint in the top 5 as the car fell off the pace and the driver received a pit road penalty, but the team was able to recover. Late in the race, when Matt Kenseth got into Kasey Kahne just ahead of him, Allmendinger was sandwiched between two cars in an area that didn’t look wide enough for three cars, but he made it through relatively unscathed, and from there, he was able to grab a few more spots in the closing laps and make it look easy.

Was the Glen foreshadowing a new pairing at JTG-Daugherty? It’s definitely a possibility. While it’s possible that the team will re-sign Bobby Labonte, it’s not very likely; Labonte was unhappy with being replaced in the car this year. In reality, it’s unlikely that a new driver alone will make a difference in the long run; strategy makes road courses among the handful of tracks where things are more equal, but overall, this team doesn’t have the resources to compete with the sport’s elite on a weekly basis, no matter who’s behind the wheel.

What… was THAT?

Whether or not you think the Gen-6 race car is an improvement over its predecessor, one thing is becoming clear: it’s faster. Marcos Ambrose’s new track record speed, set during qualifying at Watkins Glen, was the 12th record-setting pole speed of 2013. The old track records have fallen at the last four tracks in a row, and some of the times that were knocked off the top of the charts were there for ten years. Even tracks like Pocono and Kansas, which would have been at their fastest a year ago after repaving projects, saw records fall this year. The only type of track that’s been immune to the record-setting speeds is the superspeedway, where the old records are safe for the foreseeable future thanks to that little “temporary” safety device, the restrictor plate.

But pole speeds are one thing. Is the racing really improved? That’s a matter of opinion. There have been some great racing moments this year, but even the COT had its moments. What’s really needed is an overhaul of the schedule, not the race car; it’s the tracks, for the most part, not the cars, that really make for the best racing. The short tracks, the one-miles, and the road courses put on a decent show. So do the superspeedways, I suppose, if you like that brand of racing. The intermediates…not so much. But have those tracks ever really produced the best racing? Not really.

So, bottom line? The cars are fast, the drivers like to drive them for the most part, so the Gen-6 gets a passing grade. NASCAR’s selection of racetracks, though, could use a little remedial work.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

Marcos Ambrose was gunning for his third straight Watkins Glen trophy, but pit strategy broke his heart and a broken track bar with fewer than ten laps to go stomped on it. Ambrose led more than 50 laps, but an untimely caution for Aric Almirola trapped Ambrose in the field, and he was never able to get back to the front. Ambrose had squeezed back into the top 10 with the laps winding down, but a broken track bar slowed the No. 9 at the worst possible time—in the esses with the field coming full steam ahead just behind him. A few cars avoided him, but Ambrose was eventually tagged by Max Papis and was done for the day, 31st after leading more laps than any of the other four drivers who led on Sunday.

In the long run, the loss didn’t cost Ambrose anything more than wounded pride; he wasn’t close enough to the top 20 in points for a win to mean a possible Chase berth. Rather, the No. 9 team was looking to salvage a largely forgettable season in which they have been overshadowed by their teammate, who spent a few weeks in the top 10 in points. In the end, both Richard Petty Motorsports teams have slipped a bit this year, though, with Almirola sitting 18th and Ambrose dropping to 23rd. A win might have inspired them to kick it up a notch as the season heads into fall. Instead, they’ll have to find motivation in disappointment.

When…will I be loved?

Disaster, they name is Matt Kenseth. On a day where at times it looked more like a Saturday Night Special at your local short track than a road course race (do people really think road course racing is boring?), there were a lot of drivers fuming at other drivers, but at the end of the day, it was Kenseth’s move inside ten laps to go that really got some dander up. Coming through the tight uphill turns of Watkins Glen’s esses after a late restart, Kenseth looked as though he was trying to capitalize on a car that was faster than the two in front of him. It might have been, but with two cars side by side in front of you, the esses isn’t the best place to make a move.

Kenseth first got into Marcos Ambrose, whose No. 9 wiggled, but didn’t go around, and then the driver of the No. 20 moved to the inside and got into Kasey Kahne as well. This time, Kahne went around, collecting Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Before the race, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, had commented that his team was in decent position heading into the race if they could avoid disaster. Disaster happened, and in this instance, it was avoidable disaster. Kenseth’s a veteran racer, and should have known better than to make a move like that where he did. Instead of driving with the patience that won him a title, Kenseth ruined three drivers’ days…and one of them was his own, as he went from a probable top-15 finish to 23rd. Um, oops?

Why…worry now?

We’re at the point in the season where for several drivers, the points don’t matter. It’s not long now until Jimmie Johnson’s point lead is gone and the field is more or less level for the title run. It’s still anyone’s guess who will grab the last few spots in the Chase; this week, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne are out of the top 10 (Kahne’s still first in line for a wild card slot) and Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. are in.

With most spots solidifying (and Jimmie Johnson’s already guaranteed, making him the only driver to make every Chase since the format began in 2004), it’s time for thoughts to turn toward who can close the deal once the Chase starts. Based on past performance and this year to date, I’ve got three on the list so far: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick, and even those three have their weaknesses. The other nine, whomever they may all turn out to be? Sure, one of them could be a surprise, but don’t count on it—none has been able to close the deal in the past, and with reason.

So, if Johnson, Kenseth, and Harvick are the title favorites, what weak points do the others need to gun for? With Johnson, it’s his pit crew. They’ve cost him two wins since June (Dover and Indianapolis) and probably several more in the last two seasons. And in the Chase, the pressure is really on. Johnson can handle it, but can the men in the pits? Kenseth’s Achilles’ heel right now is still Toyota’s engine program—the engines haven’t been both fast and reliable enough this year to say that Kenseth’s got anything in the bag. Finally, Harvick is a lame duck, being replaced by the team owner’s grandson. He’s moving on in just a few months, and while everyone can say they’re focused on this year, how can they not have an eye on 2014?

How…did the little guys do?

JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Toyota): Allmendinger was working on a top 5 run, but ran into issues late. Still he rebounded to 10th by the end of the day. Allmendinger is a fine road racer—he dominated the Nationwide Race at Road America earlier this year. If his future is to be in NASCAR, it could be with this team.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears was fast almost all weekend, kicking it off with a top-5 speed in the opening practice. He wasn’t so hot in qualifying, starting 30th, but he rebounded and was running in the top ten with a handful of laps to go before getting shuffled to 12th on a hair final restart. Mears is underrated as a road course driver, and he showed Sunday why he shouldn’t be. He’s also still best in class in points and will likely finish the year there easily, with David Ragan more than 60 points behind him. The question, then, is whether this team can take the next step and contend for a top-20 points finish a year from now. While the team remains stable, that’s going to be a tougher step than any they’ve taken in the last three seasons.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Michael McDowell & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 35 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): Ragan and Gilliland had solid days, finishing 21st and 25th, respectively, and ahead of several very good teams. Gilliland had a rather colorful day, drawing three separate pit road penalties from NASCAR and falling a lap down before taking advantage if the free pass to get back on the lead circuit. It had to be painful for McDowell, though. The driver was tapped for his road racing skills, to help the No. 35 team improve, and for McDowell, who usually runs for start and park Phil Parsons Racing, it was a rare opportunity to actually get to race to the finish. Unfortunately, the trackbar on the No. 35 broke, ending McDowell’s day early anyway and relegating the team to a 33rd-place finish. Some people just can’t buy a break…
FAS Lane Racing; Boris Said (No. 32 U.S. Chrome Ford): Tapping Said to drive the road races was a good move for this team, who badly needs some experience behind the wheel many weeks. Said may be past his prime, but he’s usually good for a solid day if he stays out of trouble. He did that this week, finishing 22nd, a good day for the No. 32. He didn’t completely avoid trouble, though; Said overdrove a little bit and spun with 24 laps to go in the race, but was able to recover for the lead-lap finish.
Phoenix Racing; Owen Kelly (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): 36-year-old rookie Kelly had a credible day in his Sprint Cup debut this weekend, finishing 24th and on the lead lap. In case anyone is keeping score back home, Kelly beat fellow Tazmanian and early favorite Marcos Ambrose on Sunday, keeping the No. 51 in one piece and driving a smart race.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & Victor Gonzalez(No 7 Chevy & No. 36 Mobile 1/IMCA Chevy): Road course ringer Gonzalez was brought on board to help the team grab a strong finish. He was having a decent, but not great, day…until lap 41, when his car was damaged in an incident between Travis Kvapil and Ron Fellows. Gonzalez drew criticism for trying to drive his car away from the scene while dropping oil onto the track; his spotter stopped him but not before he dropped enough fluid to cause a 22-minute red flag for cleanup. Gonzalez was finished for the day in 41st place. Blaney made it twice as far in the race before trouble found him on lap 82, when he received damage in the aftermath of the Kenseth-Kahne incident. He did manage to finish on the lead lap, in 27th, a solid run considering the late-race troubles.
Circle Sport; Ron Fellows & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Canadian Tire Chevy & No. 40 Interstate Moving Services Chevrolet): Road course specialist Ron Fellows was on board the No. 33 this week, but he wasn’t as smooth as his past races at the Glen. Fellows spun with Travis Kvapil racing for position in the esses,He’d finish running, but 16 laps down in35th. Cassill received damage from the same incident, but was able to recover enough to finish on the lead lap in 28th. Cassill continues to impress with this team, as he brings home finishes above expectations, even in the team’s new second car.
Humphrey Smith Racing; Alex Kennedy (No. 19 Media Master Toyota): Kennedy was back in the No. 19 for the third time in 2013, and the 21-year-old posted his best finish to date in 29th, the last lead lap driver. For a team that rarely races to the end, the result wasn’t a bad one. Kennedy had been slated to run the distance at Sonoma as well but was involved in a pit road incident before the race even started and wound up 42nd. This time, he went the distance and had a surprisingly good result.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Genny Light Toyota): Stremme’s weekend might be one he’d just as soon forget. He started 39th, got not one but two NASCAR penalties, one for speeding on pit road and the other for failing to follow a NASCAR directive, and finally finishing 33rd, seven laps off the pace. On the bright side, this new team got a new sponsor for both the Glen and Loudon in September, testament to the performance they have had this year.
Brian Keselowski Motorsports; Brian Keselowski (No. 52 Star Coach Race Tours Toyota): Did they park it early, or didn’t they? Technically, Keselowski did pull it in after 47 laps, citing brake issues, but he did spin on track, so it could have been legit. Teams rarely start and park on the road courses, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): If this team gets it good finishes together, you have to hand it to them, because they got the bad ones together this week as well. Reutimann missed a shift and blew up the engine after making just four laps. Kvapil got spun in esses by Ron Fellows as the two jockeyed for position and wound up 40th, just three spots ahead of his teammate. These two have shown some improvement this summer, but this week you’d never know it.
NEMCO Motorsports; Tomy Drissi (No. 87 The CounselorToyota):Joe Nemechek put Drissi in the car to help gain a few precious points, but the veteran might as well have driven it himself. Drissi was involved in the Fellows/Kvapil incident and saw a premature end to the day in 42nd spot. Adding insult to injury, Drissi was also penalized for jumping the restart on lap 19.

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Ken
08/12/2013 07:27 AM
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Road racing boring? Five lead changes among five drivers, and 90-laps of what appeared to be follow-the-leader? That race stunk! I’ll take Pocono and Michigan over what was a so-called race yesterday!

JP
08/12/2013 07:53 AM
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Pocono over a road course?

Now THAT’S funny…I don’t care who you are! LOL.

The schedule is in SERIOUS need of an overhaul. Especially if we’re gonna be stuck with the Chase…for now.

Dane
08/12/2013 10:06 AM
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Gen6 brought the “clean air” issue to Watkins Glen, but double file restarts, as usual, saved the day.

Carl D.
08/12/2013 10:38 AM
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There wasn’t much passing up front and not a whole lot more behind, but I still thought the race was fairly exciting. The Nationwide race was better (again), but I’ll take the Glen over most of the cookie-cutters every time.

Hank
08/12/2013 12:47 PM
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I was impressed with McDowell early on before that track bar broke. He was running solidly in the top 15. I wish he could get a shot in a good cup car, those Waltrip cars back in 08 were far from top notch

DonM
08/12/2013 03:14 PM
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Use the long course, allow free choice of rear spoilers and you’ll REALLY see some racing.

ronnie78
08/12/2013 10:55 PM
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I liked the article for most part because its nice to read about the other small drivers and teams. what bothers me is this… Why aren’t Furniture Row mentioned and it cant be about alliances because all the teams mentioned above have some sort of alliance with a big team.

Steve Cos
08/12/2013 11:58 PM
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ronnie78. I asked the very same question last week and received no comment. If your going to leave FRR out why not leave Phoenix racing out too? Funny Furniture Row is ONE car, Front Row has Three yet they are listed.

FS_Amy
08/13/2013 01:48 PM
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@Ronnie78: I explained a few weeks ago why FRR is no longer listed, and it all boils down to money and resources. They are considered by all parties to essentially be a fourth RCR team and have access to the same resources the RCR teams have. FRR’s competition director is an RCR employee. None of the other teams listed here have that extent of an alliance with a Cup organization. It has nothing to do with the number of cars within the organization…just money and resources. FRR is now at the level of teams like Richard Petty Motorsports or even Earnhardt Ganassi. Those teams aren’t listed either, because they’re a tier above the true small teams.

 

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