The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After The AAA 400 by Amy Henderson -- Monday September 30, 2013

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The Big Six: Questions Answered After The AAA 400

Amy Henderson · Monday September 30, 2013


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?

Jamie McMurray, who’s scored top 5s at places like Kentucky earlier this year had another solid run at Dover this weekend.

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.

Now THIS is a big enough piece of debris to cause a caution. What we saw at Dover? We’re not so sure…

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?

David Ragan has put forth an admirable effort, with a win and some solid performances at Front Row Motorsports this year.

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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09/30/2013 08:34 AM

A tip of the hat to the 48 for dominating Dover like he does. The man’s got it figured out.

My question: Johnson’s been running Dover pretty much the same way for several years now, why does it take so long for other drivers and teams to follow the same path?

It’s good to finally see and read some Nascar media folks questioning these debris cautions. This stuff needs to be questioned if Nascar wants integrity.

Sue Rarick
09/30/2013 08:54 AM

While I hate debris cautions and that shim was off the racing line…it was within the pit lane entry line and since most of the cars were going to need to use that line for splash and go…. They get a pass on this one.

09/30/2013 09:15 AM

The last caution was obviously contrived. But it is amusing to thing of the embarrassment of Nascar if Bowyer had won.

Carl D.
09/30/2013 09:45 AM

Is it just a coincidence that Jamie McMurray has been so much better since the announcement that Montoya won’t be back at EGR?

09/30/2013 12:01 PM

Sue, Excapt for the fact that it was toward the start to middle of turn 3 and not where the cars would typically start using the apron for pit road entry on the back half of 3 and into 4. IT was a truly B.S. caution.

Who can the fans go to, to hit NSACAR with a 12.4 penalty for actions detrimental to racing? Wonder what those watching on TV really thought since it was obvious the debris was a non factor. This exact action by NASCAR is why fans are tuning out and think NASCAR leadership is the joke that it is. HMS is having a great day but might not win or finish as well. Throw a caution to guarantee HMS still running upfront versus having a couple of cars make it or not.
NASCAR just manipulated the finish of the race. Truex and MWR should now be vindicated and Truex should be put back into the CHASE for the championship. This is per NASCAR“s own rulings of late.

09/30/2013 01:37 PM

I mentioned after SpinGate went down that Nascar will do whatever it takes to keep Bowyer from winning the championship. Exibit A was yesterday. Bowyer was playing the fuel mileage game and the thing that could have hurt him the most was a caution. Low and behold we get one just as ESPN finishes talking about his strategy.

09/30/2013 01:58 PM

If NASCAR didn’t want Bowyer to win the championship, they had the power to take him out after Richmond.

09/30/2013 02:25 PM

Maybe all the conspirocy theorys are correct but for all we know that spring rubber could have already been hit by some one to get it down there before we saw it…Sure was alot of spring rubbers out in this race

09/30/2013 02:56 PM

The 48 team is done hiccuping. It’s “Chase” time and full speed ahead. My money is on Johnson hoisting that big trophy. Especially if he gets through Talladega without getting caught in the “Big One”.Which is the only thing that is going to slow them down. That team is just head and shoulders above everyone else.

09/30/2013 03:01 PM

There are a lot of spring rubber cautions – heck two of the three cautions in just this one race alone.

If spring rubbers are so caution worthy, why are they not tied down, banned or dealt with.

Maybe NASCAR doesn’t think this is a problem but more as an opportunity such as controlling the races.

09/30/2013 05:06 PM

any suprise that “JJ” is back in fine form after all his teammates made “The Chase” Suckers…

09/30/2013 05:22 PM

“…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.
Of course the caution was contrived. NASCAR must artifically alter the outcome of races in order to make them appearing “interesting”. But the fans know better – notice the thousands of empty seats at Dover – those covered with advertising tarps, or the grandstands with a handful of people in them. The 3 Stooges of NASCAR – France, Pemberton and Helton – are to blame for the side show NASCAR has become. Wait until they find a way to allow the greatest female race car driver ever to finish in the top five.

09/30/2013 07:15 PM

With the “100%” rule at Talladega be prepared for the 48 to lead all 188 laps like it is “Brian legal” capable of. But, if it drops back to the rear of the field until the cautions allow the proper adjustments, that’s OK too since it obviously isn’t handling like it should.

10/04/2013 12:21 PM

You forgot Joe Nemechek in your underdog storyline this week – and NO he did not start and park – a broken shock mount put him out of the race.


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