Amy Henderson · Monday October 21, 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?
Did you think April was a fluke? David Ragan and David Gilliland certainly didn’t, and they were out to prove it on Sunday. Running quietly all day, sitting in the lead draft both men, as the race wound down, found themselves running amongst the leaders. This time, they didn’t get to make a stealth move for the top two spots, but they were solidly inside the top 10, finishing sixth and seventh to prove that while Front Row Motorsports might not be a weekly contender, they can run with anyone on a restrictor plate track.
That’s the good side of plate racing: anyone who drives a smart race can contend. FRM struggles to finish in the top 20 most weeks, but at Daytona and Talladega, everyone knows they were there. Smaller teams need that kind of attention; if nothing else, it allows them a chance to pick up sponsorship four times a year. And if those companies like what they get? They’ll tack on a few more. It’s not a cure-all for teams like FRM… but it’s a start.
What… was THAT?
Did everyone give 100% at Talladega? Well, almost. I’ve said before that sometimes using strategy is giving your all if a team truly is trying to win the race by doing so. I stand by that. If the ultimate goal is doing whatever it takes to win, then sometimes teams will do something that fans don’t like or understand. Whether it’s trying to avoid trouble on a superspeedway, running 80% throttle to save fuel, or setting up a car that’s great on long runs but sacrificing the restarts, racing for a win doesn’t necessarily mean running every last lap checkers or wreckers.
But what about hanging back to help a teammate? That’s a different story. Yet it appeared that Denny Hamlin might have been sacrificing position to help (Chase) teammate Kyle Busch get the free pass. That’s not a team trying to win. That’s a team trying to help someone else win. If Hamlin had been the one a lap down and told to push Busch forward, that might be different, if Hamlin also improved his chances of getting the free pass by doing so. But telling the lead lap driver to push the one a lap down even if it meant changing his own strategy, as happened with Hamlin, well, that’s a different story altogether. At the very least, there should have been a warning from NASCAR about sacrificing position to help a lapped car.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
If Matt Kenseth doesn’t win the title this year, it’s likely that he’ll look back at Talladega as The Race He Lost the Point Lead. It wasn’t as though Jimmie Johnson had a phenomenal day and took it away. Both had a mediocre day at best; Johnson’s was simply slightly less mediocre. But if the last couple of years are any indication, one mediocre day could be all it takes to change the complexion of the title race. Kenseth, who had been waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the drivers at the front to make their moves in the final ten laps, got burned when everyone else appeared to play the exact same strategy. That left him 20th when the yellow flag flew, 12th-best out of the 13 Chasers in the field. He had a car capable of racing for the win; but at Talladega, that’s just not enough.
When… will I be loved?
If you have to have someone to blame, then perhaps two rookies unsure about when and how to make a winning move at Talladega will do it for you. Austin Dillon peeked tentatively on the final lap and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. looked like he wavered on who to go with; that was all she wrote. The race ended under caution and, because restrictor plate crashes rarely happen without collateral damage, another good car (the No. 13 of Casey Mears) wound up with a finish it didn’t deserve. Or, you could just blame the incident on the game of luck that is plate racing…
Kudos, though to NASCAR for making the right call and throwing the caution flag, even though doing so meant the sport’s Most Popular Driver wouldn’t have the chance for victory. Had the crash happened coming out of Turn 4, perhaps racing to the end would have been just fine. But it didn’t; and the crash was a nasty one. Throwing the yellow meant that safety crews could respond that much more quickly and that the drivers at the back of the pack didn’t barrel into the wounded race cars. A less-than-perfect finish is a small price to pay for the safety of two drivers.
Why… worry now?
Though disaster didn’t strike the Chase drivers the way it might have, there was a change at the top, and that could spell trouble for anyone not named Jimmie Johnson. Johnson managed to grab the points lead with a 13th-place finish. Matt Kenseth is still just four points back, but Johnson is a bulldog when he has that lead, and with just four races to go, barring disaster, he’ll be hard to get back around. That’s especially true this weekend at Martinsville, where Johnson’s 5.3 average finish is more than ten positions better than Kenseth’s 15.8. Don’t count Kenseth out yet, but it just became Johnson’s title to lose.
Meanwhile, who else realistically has a shot? As of now, anyone back to Jeff Gordon in fifth, 34 points back, but the problem with where Gordon and third-place (tied) Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch sit, more than 20 points behind is that they have to not only win races but both Johnson and Kenseth would have to have bad luck in order for them to gain significant ground. And anytime you have to count on someone else’s performance, to win a title, it’s not a good thing. Ultimately, if one team needs another to fail to win, they aren’t quite good enough.
How…did the little guys do?
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Safecar.gov Ford & No. 35 A&W All-American Food Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Both Ragan and Gilliland had a stellar day, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively, and showing this team’s strength in its plate racing program. Wise finished 30th, but he finished, something that hasn’t been happening much lately as the team has brought him in early.
Phil Parsons Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 98 Ford): For a team that rarely sees the closing laps of a race, the No. 98 bunch had a very good day. McDowell, not forced to pull in early for the first time since Indianapolis (save a one-off race in the No. 51 at Loudon) raced his way to 15th when all was said and done. The team, after some early struggles stayed in the lead draft for the last 103 green-flag laps of the race.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Another team that employed the “stay silent and be there at the end” approach, BK was able to nab its first top-20 finish (19th) since Bristol and fourth of 2013. Reutimann did not get to share in the strong day, though, as a blown engine ended his day after just 119 of the 188 laps.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): On one hand, running a partial schedule rather than starting and parking is an admirable endeavor and that’s no surprise from this organization. Their plate program is fairly stout, and Trevor Bayne is a strong plate driver. But that’s true of a lot of the smaller teams right now, and this time, the No. 21 got lost in the shuffle, winding up 23rd after losing the lead draft late.
Phoenix Racing; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier looked racy for much of the day, running as high as 11th, but got shuffled out in the late going and lost the lead draft, finishing 24th. Still, it was a solid day for the rookie driver and a good learning experience. Cup cars on plate tracks handle differently than their Nationwide counterparts, so it was nice for Allgaier to get a taste of plate racing before Daytona. From the looks of it, he could be competitive on the plate tracks in 2014.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): Blaney has shown himself in the past to be an excellent plate racer, but this time around, he never cracked the top 15 and came home as the last car on the lead lap in 25th. Yeley finished 28th, in the lead pack but also a lap behind. If this track were an intermediate, it would be a fairly solid day for the organization. Instead, it was a struggle; they need to capitalize on the equalizer of plate racing and grab some better finishes. After all, Blaney was top 5 with TBR in this plate race back in 2011.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Talladega must give this team nightmares. They run well. They lead laps. And then… they get wrecked. For the third time in a row at Talladega, Mears got collected in something not of his doing and had his day ended in a wad of torn-up metal. The veteran is an excellent plate racer, and the team is the best of this group right now, but neither of those could salvage the day when yet another last-lap crash stole a good finish out from under them. 27th place has to sting a little, because the No. 13 Ford was a top-10 car. Mears was inside the top 20 with fewer than 10 laps to go once Austin Dillon got turned in front of him; Mears had nowhere to go. He took a hard hit but was treated and released from the infield care center.
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt (No. 30 Black Clover Toyota): Whitt didn’t have a disastrous day, but overall, it had to be disappointing for his team to finish a lap down in 31st after posting a 12th-place finish in the Spring race with David Stremme. This team is doing things right, and improvement is happening, but they missed an opportunity this week.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Scott Products Toyota): An unusual number of drivers wound up a lap down in ‘Dega, and Labonte was one of them, finishing 34th. Two pit road speeding penalties doomed his day, the second incurred when he dove down for a pass through penalty to serve his first. It’s been that kind of season for the 49-year-old, still seeking a full-time ride on the Cup level for 2014.
FAS Lane Racing; Terry Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Ford): The elder Labonte finished one spot behind his kid brother this week (and has it really been so long since calling Bobby Terry’s kid brother was almost a literal interpretation?) This team is weak, even among the others in its group, and there need to be some changes somewhere if Frank Stoddard wants to be viable long-term.
Circle Sport Racing; Landon Cassill & Tony Raines (No. 33 ARC Acquired TMone Chevy & No. 40 Interstate Moving Services Chevrolet): Mechanical woes meant a long day to endure for both Circle Sport teams. Cassill ran well early, racing in the top 15, but fuel pickup issues late in the race brought him limping to the pits as the laps wound down and led to a 37th-place finish. Raines made just two circuits before his engine went south and sent him to the showers in dead last.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Toyota): Nemechek is a very good plate racer… but his engine wasn’t. Nemechek retired after 60 laps when the powerplant gave up the ghost, beating only Raines in the final tally.
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