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 the second week in a row, Jamie McMurray was the best non-Chase driver in the field, finishing 11th. After running in the top 5 early, McMurray faded to just outside of a top-10 finish, one of just two non-Chasers on the lead lap. But everyone knew he was there, and – after a dismal season and a half – that’s a big step in the right direction for him.
Perhaps knowing what the future holds has allowed McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team to relax, leading to their recent performance surge. (As things stand, he’s poised to claim “best of the rest” in the point standings; without the Chase, he’d be sitting 13th). Whatever the cause, it’s a foundation this team desperately needs to build as they try to ignite a run to the postseason in 2014.
What… was THAT?
However polarizing a figure Jimmie Johnson is, it’s hard to argue against his prowess at the Monster Mile. Johnson’s win on Sunday was his eighth career victory at Dover, and with that, he passed Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the track record.
Say what you will about Johnson; he is a master at Dover’s high banks. The oval, which has had a long reputation as a driver’s racetrack, suits Johnson’s style, and the driver puts on quite a clinic just about every time the series visits. He can seemingly run any groove with ease, at mostly a one-groove track, making one of the most nerve-wracking races in Cup look like a Sunday drive. It’s a joy to watch a driver run as well at any track as Johnson does at Dover, because of the utter smoothness he has when he finds the perfect groove.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
It was this race last year that may have sealed Brad Keselowski’s championship fate – his team won the race on fuel strategy and set up Keselowski’s title run. He hasn’t visited Victory Lane since.
For Keselowski and the No. 2 team, by comparison 2013 has been an exercise in humility and patience. They’re on the outside looking in on the Chase, unable to even make an attempt to defend the title. A year later, Keselowski’s race was a microcosm of his season as he started the day with a fast car, running inside the top 10 and looking like he had a shot at more until a broken rear end sent the Blue Deuce to the garage for more than 40 laps. In the end, that set Keselowski up for a 40th-place finish. He’s better than the results show… but that’s little comfort.
When… will I be loved?
Short of a big crash changing the game, late in the race was there a way race fans would be satisfied with Sunday’s event? There was no big crash — the day went by without a wreck of any size — and it was apparent in the closing laps that it was going to come down to fuel mileage. As Johnson trotted out to a big lead, Clint Bowyer was perhaps the only driver who had a prayer of making it to the finish. But that was more than NASCAR could take (they have to be aware of the PR nightmare a Bowyer title would be), so the yellow flag made an appearance for a spring rubber that was on the apron, far out of the racing groove.
It was an unnecessary caution, and it looked contrived. Was it? Maybe. There was debris, and it’s possible that race control didn’t know what it was, but it was far out of the groove. However, it’s also entirely possible that NASCAR’s decision was based on creating a more exciting finish than a fuel mileage race would have provided by bunching up the field. Whatever the motivation, if manipulation was the case, it was misguided. A fuel mileage race is still better than one whose outcome is influenced by a corporate decision.
Why… worry now?
It’s still a three-way championship battle, but the complexion changed a bit this week as Jimmie Johnson moved into second place, just eight behind leader Matt Kenseth as Kyle Busch fell to third. Right now, those are the contenders. Fourth-place Kevin Harvick, along with Jeff Gordon sit 39 back, simply too big of a margin to consider for now. While that could change at any time, especially with Talladega still in the picture, it appears to be a party of three looking at the championship.
Kenseth’s still the favorite going forward; he’s been more consistent than Johnson over the last couple of months, has more wins, and the chemistry among the No. 20 looks to be rock solid. Johnson’s team has had more hiccups, but he is one of the best wheelmen in the game, so the No. 48 driver won’t go down quietly. Busch is easily within striking distance, but he has to beat a combined six championships every week to take one of his own. Busch hasn’t yet shown he can perform consistently under that kind of pressure.
How… did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): In terms of their peers, this team finished where it should have; they have built themselves into the top small team this year. However, the No. 13’s 24th-place run wasn’t exactly one to write home about. Mears complained of handling issues throughout the day, at one point saying it felt like he was driving on ice, and while they were the best of the small teams, Mears still finished five laps behind winner Jimmie Johnson.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): As the championship battle is taking place at the front of the field, the small teams are also shaking out in terms of pecking order. Ragan finished one spot behind Mears on track this week, in 25th, and he’s next in line to Mears in points as well (26th to Mears’ 23rd spot with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin separating them). Gilliland is running consistently close to Ragan in both races and points, which is good for the team as a whole for gathering information. It’s a shame that Wise has returned to parking early recently, by comparison as he was beginning to have some decent races.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 House-Autry Toyota): Allmendinger was the top qualifier this week, in 17th and finished third among them in 26th. He’s doing well for his team, but they still seem to be lacking somewhere. They’re easily as good as Germain Racing on paper, but haven’t quite performed at the same level this year no matter who is behind the wheel. A couple of years ago, this team looked as though they were ready to step up to the next level and be competitive with teams like Richard Petty Motorsports. However, it never quite panned out.
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt (No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota): This team continues to be a pleasant surprise amongst the underfunded, though the late-season driver changes were a bit of a surprise. Whitt finished 27th and six laps down, fourth in this group, with a team that, on paper, was looking like they’d be on the low end of the totem pole even amongst their peers. But that hasn’t always been the case in 2013, meaning Swan could go the route of the more successful ones in the next couple of years if they keep on this slow-but-steady path.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): This team continues to run close together on track, but this week, they didn’t quite meet expectations, finishing 28th and 31st. They’re midpack amongst the small teams, which is about where they should be.
Phoenix Racing; Ryan Truex (No. 51 Shooters Sporting Center Chevy): Dover is the Truex brothers’ home track, but that didn’t help Ryan out much Sunday as he finished eight laps down in 32nd. Truex is a talented driver, but he lacks the experience to be competitive at the Cup level at this point. Plus, this team is basically just keeping the seat warm for Justin Allgaier next year, so the focus is looking forward (as it arguably should be) rather than on the last handful of races in 2013.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 Chevy & No. 36 Drive Sober Arrive Alive Chevy): Both TBR cars made it to the end on Sunday, but that’s about the best success they’d find. Blaney came home nine laps down in 33rd with Yeley in 34th, another lap behind. This team should have shown some improvement by now; they’ve got a knowledgeable owner and decent talent behind the wheel, but it’s just not happening. Instead, they’re falling into the racer’s catch-22: no money to improve, but no improvement to attract sponsorship.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 US Chrome Ford): Like TBR, this team has an owner who’s been around the block, but lacks the experience behind the wheel of Blaney or Yeley most weeks. That’s hurt them. This week, they were the last of the small teams to race the distance, 19 laps down in 36th place. They need to find some magic… and soon.
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