Amy Henderson · Monday November 4, 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?
One thing for the Chase drivers; they’ve all been good in the Chase races, leaving little room for other drivers to shine. Two drivers who have run with the Chase drivers in recent weeks were again able to keep pace in Texas. Brad Kesleowski and Denny Hamlin each posted top-10 finishes this week. Keselowski is the poster boy for just how competitive the sport really is; the defending champion unable to defend his title because he was outgunned by 13 others. Hamlin’s season was over almost before it began, thanks to an injury that serves as a reminder of just how dangerous the sport still is. The question for both drivers in 2014 will be whether they can put this season behind them, regroup, and be contenders. It’s going to be a tall order for both.
What… was THAT?
For all the talk about a lack of opportunity for young talent in the sport, there are a few promising young drivers making their way into NASCAR’s top series. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has had a credible rookie season for Roush Fenway Racing after winning back-to-back Nationwide Series titles. Next year, Austin Dillon will run his first full Cup season in a Richard Childress Racing ride and Kyle Larson will run full-time for Chip Ganassi. Parker Kligerman put together an impressive Cup debut this week, outracing Dillon in inferior equipment. Justin Allgaier looks poised to move up in 2014. There are several drivers in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series who are gaining attention as well.
All in all, there is as much young talent available as ever. Some of them are stuck in inferior rides or lower series as some owners insist on reserving top-flight rides in the Nationwide Series for their Cup stars, but others are starting to make an impression. The problem is that the majority of Cup drivers are still relatively young and several years from retiring. Some drivers in mid- and lower-tier teams will be shuffled out, opening up sports, but that’s a mixed blessing. It’s a start, but driving for a backmarker team doesn’t mean that an owner or sponsor will see you and realize the talent they could have in their stable. All in all, the future of the sport is bright, and could be brighter still is NASCAR were to promote the regulars in Nationwide and CWTS better.
Where…did the defending race winner wind up?
Last year, he did it in thrilling fashion, battling door to door with Brad Keselowski late in the race, neither driver giving an inch, until he wound up firing the six-shooters in Victory Lane. This year, Jimmie Johnson used a different tactic—complete domination—to reap exactly the same result. Johnson led 255 of 334 laps en route to winning the race and once again wearing the cowboy hat in the winner’s photos.
Johnson also leaves Texas with a seven-point margin over Matt Kenseth—the exact same number of points that separated him from second-place Brad Keselowski a year ago. Keseloski won the title, so Johnson is hardly safe in his position atop the charts. And things could still get interesting: Johnson’s numbers at Phoenix International Raceway (20 starts, 4 wins, 13 top 5’s, 16 top 10’s, 6.4 average finish) make him the favorite there over Kenseth (22 starts, 1 win, 5 top 5’s 9 top 10’s, 17.2 average finish). But it’s more of a wash at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kenseth (13 starts, 1 win, 3 top 5’s 5 top 10s, 17.6 average finish) has slight bragging rights over Johnson (12 starts, 0 wins, 4 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s, 15.2 average finish) based on his win. In other words, don’t engrave that trophy yet with either name.
When…will I be loved?
After a wild affair at Martinsville a week ago, Texas was downright tame—it was more of a Mild Asphalt Circus than a wild one, and there were a lot of empty seats at the track. The crowd who did attend was treated to a dominating performance, but for fans who wanted more action, the race was nothing to write home about.
It’s hard to call anyone a villain this week, partly because drivers are more careful, for the most part, at tracks like Texas, and rightfully so. It’s also late in the Chase and nobody wants to be “that guy” who took out one of the contenders from a lap down or more. Still, tires were an issue, something that was hinted at in a test a few weeks ago, where Matt Kenseth slapped the wall after a blown Goodyear.
This time, it wasn’t a test, and tires put an end to any last-ditch title bids by either Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch, leaving the championship battle to be decided between a pair of drivers whom many fans consider to be fairly vanilla in flavor. It was most likely going to happen anyway, but to have it happen because of tires will leave a sour taste in many fans’ mouths as they wonder what might have been for the young gun and the aging veteran who looked for a while like they might make it a closer race.
And then there were two. Any doubt (or optimism) that someone not named Kenseth or Johnson will be at the head table in Las Vegas in a month was erased under a Texas moon as Johnson dominated and Kenseth did a credible job of keeping pace. Kenseth had to overcome a pit road speeding penalty, but Johnson had to come back from a botched stop by his pit crew, meaning that this title could very well come down to a single mistake.
Who does that favor? If the biggest opportunity for mistakes comes on pit road, then give the advantage to Kenseth. Joe Gibbs Racing has created excellent pit crews throughout the organization, while Hendrick Motorsports’ model of selecting top athletes and molding them into a coherent group has left them just a tick behind the competition. Whether it’s chemistry, passion, or something else, this is the one area where the No. 48 has been lacking for the last three or four years.
No matter which driver walks away with the title, though, the season came down to exactly the two drivers it should have. Kenseth and Johnson have been the class of the field since the engines fired in Daytona, and, despite a playoff system that rewards mediocrity through a points reset, the two have made it clear who the two best drivers in the sport are for 2013. That’s what a season should come down to, plain and simple.
How…did the little guys do?
Swan Racing; Parker Kligerman (No. 30 Swan Energy/Lean 1 Toyota): This team continues to impress, this week with Parker Kligerman behind the wheel for his Sprint Cup debut, where the 23-year-old brought the team its best finish (18th) since David Stremme finished 17th at Bristol in August, and its second-best ever finish on a non-restrictor plate track. If the team had Kligerman in the seat as an audition for next year, he could have made himself the front-runner this week.
Circle Sport; Austin Dillon & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Boot Barn Chevy & No. 40 Interstate Moving Services Chevy): Take this one with a grain of salt; the No. 33 is a totalt Richard Childress racing effort when Austin Dillon is behind the wheel, so his 22nd-place result is easily where he should have finished. Cassill struggled in the team’s regular second car, finishing eight laps down in 34th. Speed costs more at the intermediate tracks, making tracks like Texas harder on these teams.
Phoenix Racing; Kyle Larson (No. 51 Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau Chevy): Larson finally got to finish a Sprint Cup race after mechanical woes cut his first to attempts short and while he wasn’t a top-10 threat, he did have a solid day of the type a rookie needs: he logged laps, learned how the cars handle and how to communicate that to his crew chief, and stayed out of trouble. Many a Cup winner has had an inauspicious start to his career, so it’s too soon to judge Larson, who has been solid if not brilliant so far.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 SaferCar.gov Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): Gilliland led his team in the finish department this week, finishing four laps down in 26th, a fair day for a team searching for speed. Ragan’s engine expired after just 81 laps, relegating him to a 42nd-place finish. Ragan was running 25th and on the lead lap at the time, so the failure stings a bit. Wise parked this week.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (Nos. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): It was Reutimann on top for this team in Texas with a 28th-place result, four laps behind Jimmie Johnson, while Kvapil finished a lap behind Reutimann in 32nd. Neither driver is signed for 2014, and it could be time for a change at BK; the team has stagnated a bit this year and it’s possible that some new blood might help them take a step forward to where they need to be among their peers.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft Quick Lane Ford): No matter how you slice it, running on a part-time schedule is tough, and that really shows up at intermediate tracks like Texas, where a few weeks off can mean falling behind for a team that’s not on track each week. Bayne’s 29th-place run showed just that—this team isn’t keeping up with its peers.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construdtion Chevy): It was another tough week for this struggling team, with Yeley finishing five laps down in 30th and Blaney coming home as the last car still running, eight laps behind in 35th. Baldwin said a few weeks ago that he hoped the pieces would fall into place for this team as the season wound down; they need some good news as they try to build.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): This team just flat missed the setup in Texas—this track continues to be a thorn in the side of the No. 13 team, who has struggled there recently. Mears complained all day about lack of grip, and nothing the team did seemed to improve the car for long, and they limped home to a 33rd-place finish, eight laps down.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Clorox Toyota): It’s hard to say how this team might have performed among its peers, because the engine lasted just 144 laps before going up in smoke, leaving Labonte in 40th place.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 US Chrome Ford): Hill’s power plant didn’t even make it far as Labonte’s this week, and his day was ended after 125 laps.
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