Amy Henderson · Monday November 18, 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?
No, it’s not about the finish this week. But if it’s about racing the way racers were meant to race, all the while doing it with class, then Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Ken Schrader, and Dave Blaney should be recognized for their contributions to the sport as they walk away for what’s likely to be the final time. Labonte’s exit came a week ago, the others’ just Sunday… but what they gave to the sport and its fans will be remembered for years to come.
The numbers tell only part of the story of any driver’s career, and this group of drivers represent a link to a simpler time in NASCAR, where Bill France, Jr. was still in charge and the possibilities—for them and for the sport—seemed endless. The sport is lucky in that there are still drivers who race the way racers are meant to race, and do it with class, but something will be missing in Daytona.
What… was THAT?
Just when you think you’ve seen it all in NASCAR, something happens to prove you wrong. This week, it was Paul Menard’s exploding tire that topped out the weird-o-meter. Menard suffered a cut tire on a restart bottleneck, which was replaced in the pits, but apparently a piece of the tire was caught in the rear of the car. Subsequently, the right rear wheel ignited while Menard was running under the green flag.
Menard brought the No. 27 to his pit stall, where his team prepared to put out the fire and change the tire so that they could roll the car to the garage, but as they moved toward the car, the tire exploded, lifting the rear end of the car off the ground and knocking the crewmen back. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, though Menard was done for the night. The explosion was so loud it could be heard in the press box, and Menard was still inside the car when it happened. It could have been a tragic end to the season, but luckily, there were no major injuries, and that means this one simply goes down on the list of bizarre things that can happen in NASCAR.
Where…did the defending race winner wind up?
Well, the good news is that Jeff Gordon is the owner of record of the No. 48 and carted home his sixth owner’s title on Sunday. Unfortunately for Gordon, it’s looking less and less likely that the driver will ever capture an elusive fifth driver’s title. He put up a valiant effort in the Chase after a last-minute inclusion, but he couldn’t erase a season’s worth of bad luck in ten weeks, and unlike a year ago, he couldn’t find the magic at Homestead, either, coming home 11th when all was said and done.
Gordon is on the down side of his driving career, and his chances for another title seem remote. It was once thought it would only be a matter of time until Gordon matched and eclipsed the seven-title mark, but his old-school style never jived with the Chase era. Whether he goes out as Four-Time (a nickname given to him by Jimmie Johnson and his friends before Johnson won any of his own championships) or Five-Time, though, Gordon is a certain Hall of Fame driver, third on the all-time wins list. The Jeff Gordon Era is over, but the man races on.
When…will I be loved?
That’s a question that Jimmie Johnson has been asking for more than a decade. To many race fans, though, Johnson is the villain—he wins too much, he cheats to do it, he’s not really that good.
But Johnson continues to become more and more successful—with his sixth championship, he’s closing in on Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each have seven. At 38, Johnson has a chance of taking eight (or more; teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said Sunday he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson won ten of them) titles. And while fans might not like it, he’s going to be mentioned in the discussion of the best of all time. Johnson’s peers will tell you that. Richard Petty will tell you that.
And accusations aside (Johnson’s cars have been legal all year, and in the last few years, other teams have had as many and more violations as the No. 48. Contrary to popular belief, the No. 48 isn’t the only team pushing the envelope.), Johnson can flat drive. He’s aggressive, but he respects his competitors, races them the way they race him. He’s smooth in a way most can’t match. It’s fun to watch him race when he’s at his best. He’s winning in an era where the competition is stronger than ever. Beyond that, Johnson is a nice guy. Yes, he’s been overprocessed like imitation cheese by his PR people, but he is as genuine as they come, humble in the face of all his success. His background is strictly blue-collar; he doesn’t come from family money, and he worked hard for his success. His story should be a feel-good affair, not the tale of silver-spoon-fed privilege that some seem to think.
Johnson should be good for the sport; he’s a blue-collar success story who earned what he has. He’s a nice guy, he’s not fake, and he’s not boring when the cameras aren’t on him. Years from now, it’s likely that his accomplishments will be remembered in a much fonder light (a lot of fans absolutely despised Earnhardt during his career but have come to appreciate what he was and what he stood for, too). He’s not a villain…but a lot of people want him to be.
With Johnson’s sixth title, the curtain fell on the 2013 points race, and teams head back to the shop on Monday to begin work on their 2014 season. So, who’s got an edge on hoisting the next Cup?
You can never count Johnson out, of course, but look for Matt Kenseth to be just as big a threat as he was this year. Kevin Harvick moves up a half-a-notch in equipment, and he’s come close a few times, so you have to like his chances. Denny Hamlin finished out the season strong. If he can get to 100% healthy, he’s going to be right there, but his health is still a question mark. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is driving like he means it, and had Chicago not happened the way it did, the last few races this year might have been different. Could another Earnhardt engrave his name on the sport’s biggest prize? What about Kurt Busch in his new ride? What about little brother Kyle—is 2014 the year he finally puts it all together? Perhaps it’s too early to speculate—it’s a long time until Daytona and there are sure to be a few rule changes and a few crew changes between now and then that could make a difference. But that’s the beauty of it all… there is always next year.
How…did the little guys do?
Phoenix Racing: Kyle Larson (No. 51 Target Chevy): Larson showed a glimpse of the talent that made him Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Sunday, finishing 15th in the No. 51. Yes, it was a Ganassi car, but if Larson can do that out of the box in 2014, he could bring Earnhardt Ganassi Racing back to relevance in the sport. But that’s still a big “if,” as Larson, as talented as he is, lacks experience at the top level. Still, he and Austin Dillon represent the best rookie class the series has had in years.
Swan Racing: Parker Kligerman (No. 30 Lean 1/Swan Energy Toyota): Speaking of Cup rookies, if Homestead was the final audition for the seat of the No. 30 for 2014, Kligerman should be at the top of the list. His 21st-place average finish in the two races he ran was the best of any driver with two or more races in this car in 2013. His 25th place at Homestead was better than most of his more experienced small-team peers, and this team has shown flashes of being something more. It will be interesting to see where they go in their sophomore season.
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): In what’s become a trend of late, Gilliland was this team’s best finisher in 27th. He’s also taken over the second spot in points among these drivers from Ragan. The good news for Ragan was that after a string of three terrible races (43rd, 42nd, 35th), he had a small rebound to finish 29th. Wise parked after 119 laps.
Germain Racing: Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): On one hand, 28th isn’t terrible after qualifying 40th and fighting an ill-handling car all day with limited success. On the other hand, this team is at a point where they shouldn’t be qualifying 40th. But they enter a partnership with Richard Childress Racing for 2014 that’s similar to the one that moved Furniture Row Racing out of this group altogether… so things could be looking up.
BK Racing: David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 VooDoo Barbeque & Grill Toyota & No. 93 Dr. Pepper Toyota): At least Reutimann had an uneventful if uninspiring night, finishing two laps down in 31st. You know it’s not your day, though, when there are two cautions in the first 30 laps and you’re the cause of them both… which was exactly how Kvapil’s day kicked off, as he got into the outside wall both times. Still, give the No. 93 team credit for perseverance, as they did finish the race, though they limped in 19 laps down in 37th.
Tommy Baldwin Racing: Dave Blaney & JJ Yeley(No 7 Florida Lottery Chevy & No. 36 United Mining Equipment Chevy): Yeley had an uneventful race, finishing 32nd with hardly a notice, while Blaney got noticed for the wrong reason—a lap 91 spin that relegated him to 38th, the last car still running in what will most likely be his final Sprint Cup race. The team quietly announced earlier in the weekend that Michael Annett will be behind the wheel of the No. 7 in 2014.
Circle Sport: Landon Cassill & Tony Raines (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 Chevy): Cassill finished 33rd on Sunday, but overall, he’s showed just how talented he is, often running above where the equipment should have been capable of in 2013. He’d be dangerous in a top-flight ride. Raines pulled to the garage after 104 laps.
FAS Lane Racing: Ken Schrader (No. 32 Federated Auto Parts Ford): Schrader was always one of those drivers who, even if he wasn’t atop a fan’s list of favorites, often was mentioned in “If my guy can’t win, I’d sure like to see Schrader get one.” He walks away from Sprint Cup competition after 29 years, but he won’t stop racing something, somewhere. He finished 34th in his swan song, but that shouldn’t take away from the racer he’s been.
NEMCO Motorsports: Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Royal Teak Collection Toyota): With Royal Teak on the car, Nemechek went the distance Sunday, though he managed just a 35th-place result. One of just six active drivers who ran in the 2001 Daytona 500, often considered the defining race of this era, Nemechek is one of the last independents in the sport these days.
JTG-Daugherty Racing: AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Win My Car Toyota): There have been rumors of an RCR technical alliance in the future for this team, but no official word, and this team badly needs an overhaul that begins outside the driver’s seat. After finishing 10 laps down in 36th on Sunday, you have to wonder whether Allmendinger regrets signing that contract for 2014 now that a championship ride is open in IndyCar.
Wood Brothers Racing: Trevor Bayne (No. 21Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): After making headlines for his MS diagnosis earlier in the week, Bayne was looking to have a solid day to end his Cup season and perhaps turn some sponsors’ heads. Unfortunately, the No. 21 didn’t cooperate, and the engine expired on lap 223, leaving Bayne in 40th place.
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