The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Pure Michigan 400 by Amy Henderson -- Monday August 19, 2013

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The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Pure Michigan 400

Amy Henderson · Monday August 19, 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?

Finishing a race on old tires might not be what it once was, but finishing on a nearly dry tank of fuel is a make-or-break kind of gamble that can mean the difference between winning or losing, and while Kevin Harvick didn’t win, he did assert his ability to be there in the closing laps, ready to pounce on the smallest mistake.

And when it boils down to it, the willingness to gamble, the ability to be in the position to win races, and the solid teamwork that Harvick and the No. 29 team displayed could be the ingredients for a championship. With two wins, Harvick will be seeded in the top 5 in the Chase and his team is firing on all cylinders at a critical juncture in the season when other top teams have stumbled. It’s still a tall order for a team and driver who know they will be parting ways in 13 weeks, but if they don’t get distracted by next year, they could put an exclamation point at the end of their story.

What… was THAT?

One of the weekend’s feel-good stories had to be seeing Mark Martin pace the field in the closing laps, showing that the driver, if not the car, was still more than capable of closing the deal. And it appears that Martin has closed the deal to fill in for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 as Stewart is expected to miss several weeks after breaking his leg in a sprint car crash two weeks ago. That’s a great move for Martin, provided he can negotiate his way out of his contract with Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsor Aaron’s. He’s reportedly already received Toyota’s blessing to make the move.

And really, the move would be a good one all around. Martin’s experience and talent could put the No. 14 in Victory Lane this fall, while the move would also allow Brian Vickers a head start with the team towards 2014. With a win in the No. 55 already on the table for Vickers, that car could win again with Vickers behind the wheel and give the team considerable momentum heading toward a Chase run for next year. Both teams would be in capable hands and for them, 2014 is already the big picture.

Where… did the defending race winner wind up?

A year ago, Greg Biffle was riding a wave of momentum. His win at MIS propelled him into the points lead and he was looking like a title favorite all the way. And then it all came crashing down; the points lead was taken away with the Chase points reset, Biffle and the no. 16 team were never able to find the magic in the final ten races, and 2013 hasn’t been as kind to Biffle as 2012 was. He led 28 laps, but in the end, Biffle will go in the history ledger in ninth place for the day.

Biffle’s currently in tenth place in points, just four points to the good side of a Chase berth with three races to go. He’s got a win to help his cause, but a title run is not a sure thing for the man who was a frontrunner for a championship just a year ago. Roush Fenway Racing as an organization has struggled this year, and it’s been clear for years that Biffle, despite his senior status with the team, is not the main focus most of the time. Will Biffle be another Jeff Burton—a driver for whom the title was sure to come in another year or two that never came, or can he pull together a Chase run from the ashes?

When… will I be loved?

It’s probably safe to say that Goodyear won’t be very popular this week after a rash of tire failures at MIS which ruined the day several drivers, including perennial Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and fan favorite Bobby Labonte. But it’s not just tire failures that make the tire manufacturer the target of this week’s villain award.

No, because the rubber that meets the road plays a role in the cars’ performance, and, ultimately, the quality of racing. While fans often complain about fuel mileage racing, it seems that mileage is the last real strategy game in racing. Sure, there’s the two-or four-tire gamble, but it’s hard to compare today’s tire strategy to that of yesteryear, when tires wore quickly and the handling on the car went away accordingly, forcing teams to make critical pit decisions, often before the end of a fuel run. Those races were fun to watch because the decision of whether to sacrifice speed for track position was so critical, and the wrong choice could be disastrous. With today’s tires, which would make the Flintstones jealous, it’s not uncommon for left-sides to last for two or more fuel cycles, and while at some tracks, four tires have a huge advantage, that’s not the case everywhere. So much strategy has been taken out of racing these days—why not find a tire that can put some of it back in the game?

Why… worry now?

Were you one of those race fans who wrote off the season as a lost cause, a certain sixth title for Jimmie Johnson. If you were, you weren’t the only one…but after four subpar races in a row for Johnson, including a 40th-place at MIS, handing him that sixth silver trophy already might have been a little premature. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about making the Chase; he clinched his spot last week at Watkins Glen, so his team can afford to test a bit, see if they can coax a bit more speed out of the No. 48 before Chicago. But a streak of bad luck at the wrong time can be a momentum killer, and if someone like Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, or Kevin Harvick can get on a hot streak while Johnson & Co. are chasing their tails, that could carry over and cost Johnson the title and a chance to chase history a year from now.

In fact, despite the complaints of Hendrick Motorsports having something the other operations don’t, none of the four HMS teams is running at full throttle right now. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a threat to win at MIS, until a tire failure derailed his day, but the end result of that puts a Chase berth in jeopardy as he’s now just 20 points ahead of tenth place with three races left to go. Kahne is currently in a wild card position, and with two wins is fairly safe but not yet a lock, and barring a miracle, Jeff Gordon isn’t even in wild card contention. It’s entirely possible that HMS could have just one car in the Chase this year. It’s kind of hard to call them a heavy favorite any more.

On the other hand, Kevin Harvick is getting hot at just the right time, and if Richard Childress racing keeps the focus on his title run, Harvick could be a very real threat.

As for the battle to make the Chase? That’s just getting more heated by the week. Joey Logano’s win puts his hat in the ring, and Kurt Busch has quietly snuck into the top 10 in points, making the wild card race that much tighter. Right now, Kahne and Martin Truex, Jr. hold those spots, but that can change—tenth-place Greg Biffle is just four points to the good and could fall to a wild-card position if he has a bad race or two. Logano, Truex, or Ryan Newman could win a second race, to stake a better claim…the possibilities are many. If you like the Chase, this is about as exciting a scenario as you could hope for this close to Richmond.

How… did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Michigan (and look-alike Fontana) is one of the toughest tracks on the smaller teams, because money buys both speed and handling, and without both, a top finish isn’t going to happen. Bayne’s 21st-place result was the best among the small teams this week. The Wood Brothers operation has a different strategy than many other small teams—rather than spreading their resources across the full season, they run a few races and pour everything they have into them. While that may hurt them from an information standpoint, they do go into the races focused and prepared. Some weeks, like this one, it’s the best approach, but not always.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): Ragan was not only the highest finisher for FRM this week, but the only finisher. His 24th-place result was among only three top-25 runs from this entire group, so it was a successful day from that standpoint. For Gilliland and Wise, the day wasn’t nearly so smooth; Gilliland list his engine with fewer than 40 laps to go in the race, dropping to 37th place in the process, and Wise was forced to retire after just 56 laps-a start-and-park effort that’s been, thankfully, rare for this team this year. Even with the early exit, Wise finished ahead of Jimmie Johnson, though, so at least there’s that…
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears’ 25th-place finish was a bit of a disappointment for the No. 13 team; they have been the best in this group lately and probably should have been at MIS, but they fell a bit short this week, though Mears did lead a couple of laps. Mears will likely finish 2013 at the top of the standings among this group; at 24th in driver points, he’s unlikely to climb higher, but his nearest small-team competition, David Ragan, is 72 points behind Mears with Denny Hamlin separating the two.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Lean 1 Toyota): Stremme narrowly avoided contact from a spinning Kyle Busch on Sunday, but luck was on his side, and this team posted another solid top-30, lead-lap effort this weekend. They’ve quietly put up an average finish inside the top 30 as well (29.8 if you’re counting)—something some of the more established small teams haven’t been able to do this year.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Kvapil finished in the top 30, and from a statistical standpoint, that’s not bad for a driver who’s average finish is just above 32nd, but this team, which does have some resources, should be better than they are—they were on a better track last year. Whether that’s because Kvapil and Landon Cassill were able to share information more effectively than Kvaipl and Reutimann or something else, they’ve fallen behind their immediate competition his year. Reutimann was involved in an early crash, and limped home in 38th, 47 laps off the pace.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 U.S. Chrome Ford): While Kvapil’s 28th- place run was disappointing for an experienced driver whose team should be growing, for Hill, a 29th-place finish is actually not a bad day. Hill is, after all, just 20 years old and was making his 16th career start. He’s performed fairly well for this team, though they could probably garner more information from a more experienced driver.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley*(No 7 Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): The day didn’t start or end well for Yeley, who spun on lap 14 and finished dead last on a day where some small teams were able to gain spots through the misfortune of others. It was only marginally better for Blaney, who avoided that kind of trouble but came home three laps down in 30th. The lack of funding in recent weeks is troubling for this team—they do look as though they could improve with a little luck and a lot of money, but they need to overachieve to get the funding in this day and age. That’s a Catch-22 reality in NASCAR these days, and this team could be the poster child.
Circle Sport Racing; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy): The organization brought just one car this week, though they hope to run the No. 40 in several more races this year. Cassill’s 32nd-place run was just okay…he’s talented enough that he should be beating a few more people on weeks like this one.
Phoenix Racing; Brendan Gaughan (No. 51 South point Hotel & Casino Chevy): It’s hard enough for a team to adjust to several different drivers, but with AJ Allmendinger and Regan Smith concentrating on the Nationwide race at Mid-Ohio and Austin Dillon filling in for Tony Stewart in the No. 14, the team tapped CWTS veteran Gaughan this weekend. Gaughan was an excellent choice, really, but expecting a driver and team to gel in a couple of days is asking a lot, and they never did find the speed that both team and driver are capable of. Gaughan wound up four laps down in 33rd. On the bright side, that’s six spots better than he started, and Gaughan, forever the optimist, Tweeted the following after the race: “Second, since I am always a glass half full guy… at least I am 1-0 against my old buddy @JimmieJohnson in 2013, (sorry Jimmie)” Good point…
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Toyota): Nemechek stayed the course, finishing the race and grabbing a 34th-place finish, but it wasn’t pretty. He was the last driver to finish the race without some sort of mechanical or crash-induced issue.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Kingsford Toyota): A right front tire issue led to a spin coming off turn 4 on lap 149, relegating Labonte to 35th-place result. He had been running much better than his finish indicates, in the low to mid 20’s, but the worst luck of the day for this team came on pit road, where the rear tire carrier was hit by the No. 20 car as Matt Kenseth left his pit. The crewman was just banged up, but disappointed that the accident slowed down the stop…now that’s determination!

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JP
08/19/2013 08:12 AM
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Just think, in a few short weeks, all those drivers still in contention to otherwise make a championship will be DONE FOR THE YEAR when the chase starts.

The chase has run it’s course. It’s no longer needed…if it ever was. It’s failed to do what it was supposed to do.

GinaV24
08/19/2013 09:02 AM
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and if my favorite isn’t in the chase, I will have no reason to bother with the chase. I agree with JP – the chase needs to go, it hasn’t produced enough excitement to justify leaving multiple good drivers out of it – who could move up in the points if they ran the full 36 races for points. Locking drivers into or in some cases out of a possible top 10 points finish means that the last 10 races mean nothing to me.

Potentially Gordon, Stewart and Junior will not be in the chase this year. Think that will help attendance and the ratings?

DoninAjax
08/19/2013 09:10 AM
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The situation with Tony Stewart has me wondering who would go into the 48 car if Johnson couldn’t run some races.

Carl D.
08/19/2013 09:14 AM
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I don’t for a minute think Jimmie Johnson’s misfortune the last few weeks means anything once the chase starts. The #48 team is still the team to beat and at this point I don’t see anyone else with the consistency to step up and take the trophy from them. If the Toyota engines get a boost in power and reliablility then Kenseth and Shrub stand a chance, and if bad luck finally leaves him alone, Kasey Kahne has a shot. If Harvick puts together a flawless run in the chase then he could win it. And if Jimmie Johnson gets abducted by aliens until Thanksgiving, I can see him losing the championship.

Dan
08/19/2013 10:44 AM
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Four sub par races in a row and there you have it. The 48 team’s string of bad luck when they can afford it, even if it continues up until the “Chase”. It’s all wishful thinking for all of us who don’t want to see them do well, but they are going to do well because they’re on a mission. 8 Championships. The only thing that’s going to stop them from that goal is a breakup of the Knaus and Johnson Show. They are head and shoulders above everyone else and cruising. Number 6 coming up and number 7 and 8 not far away. Yep I’m throwing in the towel.They are just that good. Getting real old to watch so I don’t do much of it anymore. Just keep up with what’s going on via the internet sites.

GinaV24
08/19/2013 11:07 AM
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Dan, unfortunately I believe you to be correct and for the rest of us, I agree, not much reason to watch – it’s not even entertaining.

Bill B
08/19/2013 12:23 PM
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GinaV24…“Potentially Gordon, Stewart and Junior will not be in the chase this year.”

That’s my hope (and for Jr fans it’s not because I have anything against Jr., I just want NASCAR’s chase ratings to suffer). Add in Hamlin and you’d have 4 sizable fanbases alienated for NASCAR’s precious chase.

That’s alright Johnson’s and PSP’s fans will make up for it.

Lane
08/19/2013 12:27 PM
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Isn’t it “funny” how after all these years it seems that ONLY the 48 can be SO GOOD so consistently year after year? It’s one thing to be very good for a time but it’s another to do what the 48 has done and continues to do.

And yet we’re all told that these teams are just FULL of super smart people. Where’s the evidence of teams catching up?

Or could it be that because of what Nascar has done in the past (ask Kenseth for example) that teams are overly careful to do ANYTHING that MIGHT draw Nascar’s eyes to their team? Better to be second than to get caught in Nascar’s fishing exhibitions and have the book thrown at you.

kb
08/19/2013 01:57 PM
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End “The Chase”, an insult to true race fans everywhere. Let them race till Homestead. That is the measure of the true Champ..Count THE WHOLE SEASON! A no brainer.

Ken
08/19/2013 02:17 PM
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Johnson having a sudden run of bad luck? If you believe that, you must also believe that politicians don’t lie, and that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real. Jimmie is already locked into the dreaded chase. When the points are reset, as of right now, he and Kenseth will be tied for first place. The “run of bad luck” is total B.S.! Chad and Jimmie (Chammie) are experimenting. I was sitting in the stands on Saturday when Jimmie backed it into the wall. The 48 crew were unloading that back-up car before Jimmie even came to rest in the turn four grass! And his blown engine on Sunday? What was Chad trying that didn’t work? Or did it?

Come on people! Give your heads a shake. Chammie will be using these next three races experimenting with all kinds of different things, from set ups to engine builds. Anyone who thinks differently will be sadly disappointed when “5-time” becomes “6-pack”. I only hope the competition isn’t being too fooled by this B.S.!

GinaV24
08/19/2013 02:26 PM
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Bill B, you forget who it is you’re dealing with in NASCAR, it’s the clueless but unable to change Brainless France. I don’t think he cares if one person watches the chase, it’s his brilliant idea and by golly, he’s going to pretend it is perfect, no matter the facts.

I realize that there are Johnson fans out there (my brother and niece both are) but I’m not sure that there are enough Johnson and DP fans out there to take up the slack.

old farmer
08/19/2013 04:13 PM
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I guess Kurt Busch’s single-car team isn’t one of the “little guys” anymore?

FS_Amy
08/19/2013 04:20 PM
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Hey, Old Farmer, I’ve explained several times why they’re not included (money and equipment far above the level of the teams here, on par with RPM, Earnhardt Ganassi, etc.) several times, including the comments last week.

DonMei
08/19/2013 06:19 PM
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A whole season of Nationwide running only road courses and short tracks with cup drivers banned. I would never miss a lap!

 

Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.