NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2010 Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Usually this doesn’t go to a driver among the favorites going in, but this week finds an exception to that. While Kevin Harvick was considered a threat to win going into the weekend, it looked like all chance of that disappeared when he was involved in a crash and later shed a huge piece of his car’s nose on the racetrack. But not so fast: Harvick nearly won the race with that gaping hole in his car, leading at the white flag and eventually finishing second to teammate Clint Bowyer and dramatically improving his title hopes in the process. Just 38 points separate Harvick from what many feel is rightfully his – the points lead.

What… was THAT?

Even a day later, I’m still amazed: NASCAR actually made a yellow-line call right at Talladega. At the end of the Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday, Kyle Busch dropped below the line to beat runner-up Aric Almirola. At the moment Busch’s wheels touched the line he held a very small advantage over Almirola, meaning that he did not advance his position. I guess whoever said, “there’s a first time for everything” knew what he was talking about.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After a wild day at NASCAR’s version of a roulette wheel, Juan Pablo Montoya finished strong in third place. A contender for the win all day, Montoya lead laps and showed how easily he could draft to the top. He might have had something to say about the final outcome had the last-lap melee not occurred. As it is, Montoya was a player.

When… will I be loved?

It’s pretty hard to pick just one villain at Talladega. After all, at least one is at fault in every incident, and most of those are simply racing deals. Still, one guy is left wondering where the love is a little more than the others this week. Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted to his role in Jeff Burton’s wreck, but it wasn’t that incident that earns him the spot. Instead, it was his complete lack of working as a teammate to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson that earns him a second look. Not only was Earnhardt of little help to his teammates after his day ended (which, at that point, should have been his only job), but he pushed Denny Hamlin into an early lead and the five bonus points that go with that. He pushed Johnson almost to the front, too, and dropped him like a hot potato short of the lead. With friends like that, who needs rivals?

Why… is this race so late in the Chase?

This race was moved in 2009 after a schedule realignment to accommodate a date swap between Atlanta and Fontana, and four races from the end is a rotten time to hold a race in which drivers have little control over their own destiny. I really don’t think this one belongs in the Chase at all, but if it HAS to be, it should be among the first three races, when the innocent victim still has time to recover.

How… many drivers still have a legitimate shot at the title after Talladega?

It’s down to three: Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick. The top three are separated by just 38 points with three races left to decide the winner. Fourth-place Gordon is over 200 points out… for all intents and purposes, he’s done.

But the top three are far from done, and it’s still anyone’s game. With Texas, Phoenix and Homestead on the horizon, it’s tough to call. Hamlin has the best average finish (9.6) of any active driver at Texas, but it’s exactly half a spot better than Johnson (10.1) and just over three better than Harvick at 12.9.

Johnson takes a slight edge to Phoenix where he leads all active drivers with an average finish of 4.9. That’s nearly seven spots better than Hamlin (11.6) and a full 10 better than Harvick (15.0). But at Homestead, it’s Harvick with the best average (8.4, second overall) over Hamlin (10.6) and Johnson (12.7) Yes, calling this anyone’s game might just be the understatement of the year.

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