The Frontstretch: The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Goody's 500 by Amy Henderson -- Monday October 28, 2013

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The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Goody's 500

Amy Henderson · Monday October 28, 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.

A series of strong runs, still capped by his win at Charlotte this month have Brad Keselowski thinking title contender again in 2014.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

As usual, the Chase drivers dominated the top 10 (and with good reason…that’s how come they’re in the Chase). But with nothing to lose, the (not really) defending champion showed that he’s learned how to race the series’ shortest track, running fourth. That’s his fourth top-10 finish in a row at Martinsville, posting his career best on NASCAR’s Virginia half-mile in the process. Brad Keselowski was strong when it counted, making himself the best non-Chase driver in the field on Sunday.

His title bid over, Keselowski seems to be rejuvenated. Whether the pressure to defend is simply off, his team got behind a year ago concentrating on the Chase, or a manufacturer change threw Penske Racing a curveball, the No. 2 is running strong again as the races wind down. If they’re already looking ahead to 2014, keep an eye on this team; they’ll be a threat once again.

What… was THAT?

People like to criticize NASCAR for many of the decisions they make (and sometimes it’s warranted). But let’s give credit where it’s due as well: NASCAR announced this week that they will mandate baseline neurological tests for all drivers, used to determine the extent of any concussion a driver might receive in a race. The test allows doctors to have a “normal” set of information to compare data against after a crash, so if a driver does suffer a concussion, the extent of it can be determined.

Most within the sport, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who sat out two races last year after suffering a pair of concussions, are supportive of the idea. Brad Keselowski has been vocally opposed, saying that doctors don’t understand NASCAR, which makes him worry about not being cleared to race for an injury a driver might not consider as necessary to sit out. That may be a legitimate concern; hopefully, officials will clarify the process used to determine whether a driver will be cleared and what, in fact is a type of head injury that would necessitate someone taking a seat on the bench. Overall, though, this move is a positive for the sport, in an area where they’ve lagged behind other racing series for some time in terms of driver safety.

Jimmie Johnson remains upbeat after his fifth-place finish Sunday. But he’ll need to regroup over the final three races after Matt Kenseth stole the momentum in this title race.

Where… did the defending race winner wind up?

A year ago, Jimmie Johnson was eying his sixth title, battling Brad Keselowski and hoping for a great points day at a track where Keselowski struggled in the past. Instead, Keselowski finished sixth and would eventually close the door on the championship as well.

This time around, Jimmie Johnson is still eyeing his sixth title at a track where rival Matt Kenseth has never had much success. But while Johnson faded to fifth when it counted, Kenseth hung on to finish second. Déjà vu, anyone?

When… will I be loved?

Ask any driver after the race and he’ll give you a name for the villain of the week. Several were hot under the collar after the checkered flag finally waved. But the truth is, there really wasn’t one. Nothing happened that can’t be attributed to short-track racing at its finest. And really, Sunday was one fantastic race. Fans in attendance can savor a win by one of the best to ever sit behind the wheel in a Cup car, Jeff Gordon. As Four-Time enters the twilight of his career, that’s something to appreciate, like seeing in person one of a great hitter’s last home runs.

Another thing fans should be happy about was a tire from Goodyear that actually wore out, leaving drivers frustrated after 30-50 laps and leaving a few teams short of fresh rubber near the end. If only they could deliver a tire like that every weekend, the racing could improve dramatically. As an added bonus, the debris was real when it did bring out the yellow (it was visible from the press box), probably because NASCAR didn’t need to manufacture anything to make this one seem worthwhile.

In the end, though, what went down Sunday is why fans still love the sport. Sometimes, even during a difficult season for NASCAR they get a reminder of everything it can be.

Why… worry now?

Anyone who expected Jimmie Johnson to leave Martinsville with a more sizable points lead than he had coming in went home disappointed because pit strategy and track position were not in Johnson’s favor Sunday. Though it looked for awhile that he was headed for the win, in the end he finished a lackluster fifth… while Matt Kenseth tied his career-best finish at the paperclip. Kenseth, who previously had just three top-5 results at Martinsville, led the most laps and finished second, erasing Johnson’s point lead completely. They leave with a tie, but Kenseth gets the top spot on the tiebreaker: wins. It’s a bit ironic, since the Chase came about after Kenseth won a title on the strength of consistency but just a single win back in 2003.

Who else is still in it? Gordon and Kevin Harvick are hanging on by a thread, but it would take something happening to both Kenseth and Johnson for either one to be a real contender. That’s not something in their control, and with three races left, they’d need to beat both drivers by an average of nearly ten positions per race. They aren’t in control of their own destiny, and that’s not the way titles are generally won.

How… did the little guys do?

Casey Mears and Germain Racing continue to build a foundation for future success. They ran 21st at Martinsville despite being a part of the race’s first caution.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): The No. 13 came out on top of this group after a crazy day for the team. Mears lost a lap early, fixing hood damage after a chain reaction caused by the day’s first spin meant that Mears couldn’t see where he was going. Afterward, he was competitive, easily passing cars after fixing the hood but found no luck getting his lap back for over 200 circuits. That was despite lap times as fast as the top 5 cars, forcing patience for the first half of the race. Finally, Mears did eventually get back onto the lead lap, remaining there until close to the end and giving the team an outside chance at a top 5 or 10. Unfortunately, during the final 77 laps of green-flag racing, where he could have made up spots Germain’s car was at its worst. Mears dropped out of the top 20 in the final laps and wound up a lap down in 21st.
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): Gilliland put up a good fight for most of the day, keeping the No. 38 on the lead lap for almost all of it before dropping to 23rd at the checkered, one lap back. Wise had a more difficult day, although he did go the distance this week. The No. 35 came home 10 laps down in 34th, but give the team credit… it finished. Ragan had a promising start to the weekend, when he qualified 8th; however, what his motor had in horsepower, it lacked in durability. Ragan’s powerplant went up in a puff of smoke, on Lap 109 and he finished dead last.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Give this team credit; they overcame adversity. Both the No. 83 and the No. 93 spun not once, but twice during the race, yet Kvapil was able to salvage a 24th-place finish out of it, third-best among this group of drivers. That happened despite his car looking like an advertisement for duct tape by the time it was over. Reutimann’s machine didn’t make it quite so far. A gear issue forced the No. 83 to the garage after 451 laps, where the car caught on fire. It was extinguished by safety workers and Reutimann was unhurt, but he was forced to take a 37th-place finish for his efforts.
Phil Parsons Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 98 Ford): In a rare full-race appearance, McDowell again showed that if he’s allowed to go the distance, he can finish strong. It’s a shame this team doesn’t commit to a few more full races, because it might get McDowell some notice. 26th isn’t a top result, but it’s McDowell’s fourth-best of the year, and he deserves notice for running a solid race.
FAS Lane Racing; Ken Schrader (No. 32 US Chrome Ford): Schrader looked a little like a pinball at times, especially during a Lap 183 melee, but he did make it until the end, finishing four laps down in 28th… and for this team, a top 30 is a decent day. They aren’t satisfied with that, but they do know that small gains are what they need right now. As for Schrader, his Cup career is winding to a close; Homestead will be the last race for this three-decade veteran of the circuit.
Circle Sport; Landon Cassill (No. 40 Moonshine Attitude Attire Chevy): While the team’s second effort parked early, with brake problems Cassill ran a strong race. He hung onto the lead lap for longer than most of the small teams can lay claim to, and – if not for mechanical issues in the closing laps – might have had one of his team’s better runs of the season. As it is, he grabbed a top 30 with his 29th-place result, and this team continues to make those small gains that others in this group sometimes don’t seem to be able to create on a regular basis.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Blaney had a rough day almost from the start, when he got caught up in Jeff Burton’s spin, and the damage eventually led to an engine failure. Yeley had a bit of a better showing until the end of the day, when he spun in Turn 3. Yeley still managed to finish 30th thanks to the worse days of others. Blaney wound up 39th after that early trouble. Neither driver was the cause of his woes, but that doesn’t reduce the sting much.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Clorox Toyota): The No. 47 looked to be struggling for speed much of the race, often falling off the pace. Labonte was able to hang onto it early, but in the end, the track got the best of the car, and Labonte came in 32nd.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Toyota): Nemechek’s 33rd-place run was his best since Chicago. For an owner/driver just trying to hang on, it might be time to consider a younger replacement if he wants to stay in the sport as an owner. Technology is passing him by, but a fresh face with newer setups could help the team make changes that could let them stay in it a bit longer.
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt (No. 30 Widow Wax Toyota): Whitt was another driver who had a better day than the results show. He battled to stay amongst the frontrunners in this group for a good while before fading as the laps wound down. Then, a Lap 366 spin ended his bid for a better day and left him 35th.
Phoenix Racing; Kyle Larson (No. 51 Target Chevy): For the second time in as many Cup races, Larson’s day ended early. The engine on the No. 51 expired after 160 laps, and a spin in the oil from the failure put an exclamation point on Larson’s exit. He didn’t run as poorly as the results showed, but he didn’t have the car to run with the best of this group from the start, either.

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Contact Amy Henderson

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