NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2010 Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

A few teams went into panic mode when the yellow flag didn’t make an appearance in the closing laps of the race, but one that didn’t was one that had already gone into panic mode earlier when driver Jamie McMurray sideswiped the wall hard enough to knock the spoiler loose from its mounts. The No. 1 team made a quiet comeback, marching back to 10th at the checkered flag. McMurray might not be fighting for the championship, but his 2010 season is his best ever, and he has earned something just as important as the trophies he’s collected-respect.

What… was THAT?

OK, I know NASCAR wants to be fair (or at the very least to give the illusion that they want to be fair), but taking cars to the R&D center a week and a half before the race for “pre-race inspection seems a little extreme. NASCAR took the primary cars for the Ford 400 from the three title contenders, though that race won’t even be run until next weekend. This opens up a lot of questions. Will those teams be allowed to work on those cars as every other team will be able to do until they load up for Florida sometime later this week? If they won’t, that’s a pretty serious disadvantage for three teams trying to win a championship as well as a race. If they will, well then, why bother? It seems rather silly to me. If one of the cars shows up illegal at the last race of the year while running for a championship, they deserve the appropriate penalty and loss of points.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Carl Edwards had something to prove. Sure, he won the Nationwide race on Saturday, but that wasn’t against the level of competition he faces in Sprint Cup, a series where he hasn’t won in two years. He won the Kobalt Tools 500 pole at Phoenix and had the car at the end to take him to victory lane snapping a 70-race winless streak in the process. Edwards is good enough to get it done in Cup. Perhaps it’s time to concentrate on doing just that for Roush Fenway Racing and sponsor Aflac.

When… will I be loved?

It was a quiet race at Phoenix, with few on-track incidents and little drama between drivers, a far cry from last week’s knock-down drag-out version of racing. Still, one driver was left fuming when it was all over. Denny Hamlin’s love for the No. 11 car’s carburetor is at an all-time low following a race in which he could have sealed the title, but instead had to pit for fuel while his competitors cruised to the end without refueling. Hamlin’s frustrations showed in his post-race interviews, where worry replaced the brash arrogance of one week ago.

Why… does NASCAR continue to turn a deaf ear?

A recent poll on NASCAR.com, the sanctioning body’s own website, caught my eye. The essence of the questions posed to fans was, “Does this year’s close point[s] race make you like the Chase more?” There were three answer choices: Fans could vote that they liked it now, had always liked it, or that Hell would freeze before they would like it (OK, it was that they would never like it) The overwhelming majority chose Hell freezing-er, the third option. Yet NASCAR still insists that the Chase works and the fans love it. I’m thinking that most fans, as evidenced by their response to NASCAR’s own poll, don’t love it. And most probably don’t appreciate being told that they like it any more than they like being told why they aren’t watching the races. Gee, NASCAR, could the two be connected?

How… many still have a shot at the Cup with the white flag in the air on the 2010 season?

Thanks to a couple of gallons of fuel, three. Hamlin had the title in the bag at Phoenix until a dearth of late cautions turned Phoenix into a fuel mileage race, one that Hamlin lost and both Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson won. While Hamlin fought back to 12th place at the end, he dropped a lot of points in the coffers of Johnson and Harvick and carries just a 15-point lead into the final race of the year. Harvick is just 46 back, and is historically the best of the three at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Purists will argue that Harvick is the most deserving driver given that he’s actually earned the most points this year, and I don’t disagree. Johnson is weaker at HMS than the other tracks but he is a bulldog of a competitor and (in part thanks to his new pit crew) still has an outside shot as well. Hamlin won the race at HMS last year, and the title is still his to lose. But 15 points isn’t much to help you sleep at night, either.

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