Amy Henderson · Monday November 11, 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?
If you were surprised to see his name at the top of the score sheet, you’re probably not alone. The television broadcast paid little attention to Juan Pablo Montoya, but in his penultimate race in NASCAR, Montoya had a banner day. He finished 6th after starting fairly deep in the field in 19th, best among non-Chase drivers for the week.
While many fans won’t be sorry to see Montoya leave NASCAR for the greener pastures of IndyCar next season, there’s no denying that Montoya was a throwback to drivers past. Aggressive and unapologetic, Montoya evoked images of a young Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. Though he was never able to build the career that those men did, he never backed down from pressure and never settled for a single position less than he thought he could get. Not every driver can say that in this day and age.
What… was THAT?
Without much fanfare, one of NASCAR’s finest drivers drove what’s likely to be his final race on Sunday. Maybe it’s for the best, Bobby Labonte has been running for a backmarker team in recent years, and as a result, hasn’t posted a top 5 since 2011. It’s a quiet exit for one of the sport’s last non-Chase champions, and in a way that’s fitting, a reflection of the man himself. Labonte was never known for being flashy, but he amassed an enviable career with 21 victories. He’s the only driver to win a Nationwide (then Busch) series title as a true Nationwide competitor for a true Nationwide team to go on to win a Sprint Cup title (Brad Keselowski’s NNS title came while Keselowski was also running full time in the Sprint Cup Series for owner Roger Penske).
A week from now, three other drivers (Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, and Ken Schrader) will join Labonte on the sidelines. To put that in perspective, those four drivers have been in drivers like Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and many others have never run a Sprint Cup race without at least one of those drivers in it. It’s almost the end of an era (but not quite; Jeff Gordon was a rookie the same year as Labonte and is still active), and the sport will never be the same. If it’s possible to be better for knowing a single person, then NASCAR is immeasurably better for having known these four.
Where…did the defending race winner wind up?
A year ago, Kevin Harvick had just announced that he’d be leaving Richard Childress Racing after 2013 to race for his good friend Tony Stewart in 2014, and most prognosticators predicted a long and fruitless season for the lame duck Harvick. Instead, Harvick has had one of the finest seasons of his 13-year Sprint Cup career. If not for a 20th-place finish at Loudon in September, he might have been headed to Homestead to go toe-to-toe with Jimmie Johnson for the championship. Even after a heated criticism of team owner Childress, Harvick came out on top in the desert, bringing his No. 29 team straight back to victory lane.
Stewart-Haas Racing gains Harvick at a critical time in his career; Harvick isn’t getting any younger, and he’s hungry for a title. And with equipment that’s at least as good as he got at RCR, perhaps even a tick better, Harvick has to be among the early title favorites next year.
When…will I be loved?
“Trouble! And the caution comes out!” Hearing those words on a broadcast makes most fans sit up and pay attention, immediately scanning their screens for the problem. This time, though, they had to turn to Twitter if they wanted to know the cause of the trouble, because ESPN was too busy talking about the Chase drivers and their pit stops to let viewers know what had happened on the race track to bring out the yellow flag that set up the stops. Reporters at the track had to inform fans via Twitter of the cause (debris from Joe Nemechek’s No. 87). That is simply unacceptable.
That move, along with the network’s miss on the very next caution, where they showed Timmy Hill sitting in the middle of the track but never showed what precipitated Hill’s situation, gives ESPN this week’s villain award, hands down. The Chase might be the big story, but what’s going on out on the track is a story as well. Fans tune in to see a race, and while they should be informed of the title hunt as it unfolds, ESPN should be mindful that there was other action in Phoenix that fans might have wanted to see.
After 35 weeks is it really all over but the shouting? It would seem as though it is; Jimmie Johnson leads Phoenix with a 28-point advantage over Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick is back, despite winning on Sunday. All Johnson has to do to wrap up his sixth title is finish 23rd or better at Homestead next weekend. That’s if Kenseth wins and leads the most laps.
It came down to who could overcome the most on Sunday, and while Johnson was able to overcome a couple of pucker-worthy moments during the race that sent him back deep in the field only to recover and finish third, Kenseth and Co. never could get the No. 20 to handle to Kenseth’s liking throughout the race and he was never a serious contender for a top finish. If it came down to mistakes in Phoenix, the No. 20 team simply made the biggest one, missing the setup. And that was all it took for Johnson to blow this thing wide open.
The trophy isn’t engraved with Johnson’s name just yet; engines blow, tires go down, the competition gets overzealous and ruins other people’s days. Johnson still has to survive 400 miles. But that’s just it—he has to survive, and that’s all. Kenseth and Harvick don’t control the outcome anymore; Johnson does. Part of that is a direct result of Phoenix; Johnson was able to overcome some issues, Kenseth wasn’t, and an ill-handling No. 20 in the desert is likely going to be the difference in who’s champion and who’s runner-up. Headed to Homestead, it’s all in Johnson’s hands.
How…did the little guys do?
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Wounded Warrior Project/Clorox Toyota): It was fitting that among this group, at least, Labonte went out on top in what will in all likelihood be his last race as a full time Sprint Cup driver. The 2000 Cup champion came home 22nd and hung onto the lead lap until the bitter end, falling a lap down just as the race drew to a close.
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): While Ragan may get more attention, Gilliland has often been the best of the FRM bunch this year, and this week was no exception. Gilliland kept his nose clean and was able to gain a few spots in the closing laps, finishing 24th, nine spots better than he started. Ragan had a terrible day; his 35th-place finish was the highest he’d run since the opening 60 laps of the race, often falling as low as 41st. Ragan was 30 laps down and the last driver whose car was still running at the end. Wise parked early.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears lost ground at the end of the race to finish 27th. He ran inside the top 20 at times, but the end result has to be a huge disappointment to the team after Mears finished 14th in the spring race. They’ve definitely fallen a bit behind as the season wears on.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley(No 7 Ultra Wheel Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): TBR had a solid day, with both Yeley (29th) and Blaney (30th) inside the top 30. That might not seem like a lot, even to some of the teams in this group, but after a spin for each driver during the race, it’s not a terrible day.
Phoenix Racing; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Sunday was definitely not the kind of day Allagaier was hoping for—his future in the No. 51 is not set in stone and his 31st-place result was disappointing. With a best finish of 24th for the driver, will owner Harry Scott, Jr. put his trust in Allgaier for 2014 or look elsewhere?
Phil Parsons Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 98 GunBroker.com Ford): On one hand, most drivers aren’t really very happy with a 32nd-place finish, four laps down, but McDowell, who’s usually called to the garage early, finishing at all is a rarity. Having a sponsor on the hood doesn’t happen often for this team, and going the distance isn’t usually in the cards…which leave the team behind the 8-ball when they are able to run a full race.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 US Chrome Ford): Hill made his final appearance of 2013 in the No. 32, as Ken Schrader will run at Homestead. Hill’s race was marred by an early spin, a rarity for the youngster, but he was able to finish the race, coming home 34th.
BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 Horizon Toyota & No. 93 Dr. Pepper Toyota): When it rains, it pours. Reutimann, who spun not once but twice, had the better finish (39th) of the BK drivers, and he left with the car looking like a hatchback. Kvapil’s engine expired after just 129 laps, relegating him to 41st. That makes for a long flight home…
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt (No. 30 Lean 1 Toyota): Whitt struggled with the No. 30 early, and a lap 146 incident left the car a smoking, mangled hulk on the backstretch and in 40th place for the day. It’s evident that this team is looking for a young driver to build around for 2014, and if recent races are any indication, they should look to Parker Kligerman. In seven races in the No. 30 this year, Whitt has managed a best finish of just 27th, while Kligerman posted an 18th place in his Cup debut in the car, and former driver David Stremme had a handful of top-20 results as well. The team is capable of some decent runs; they need to choose wisely.
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