NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

There were a few drivers deserving of recognition. Jimmie Johnson gained 15 spots from start to finish, and AJ Allmendinger got his first top 10 of the season and sits fourth in points, for instance. But how about getting your team their second-best finish ever and their fourth-ever top 10? That’s just what Kasey Kahne did on Sunday with his sixth-place run. His newly-numbered team had just one top five and three top-10 finishes since 2007, and Kahne’s run is also the team’s best ever on a non-restrictor plate track. While Kahne will only be in that car this year, it has to be good for the team to finally see what it is capable of, and to build for the future.

What… was THAT?

One thing that has been a real positive for the sport in this very young season is seeing some unexpected faces in the top 10 across all three series. Of course Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win was an eye-opener, but he wasn’t the only face that fans aren’t used to seeing in top spots. Veterans like Bobby Labonte and Kenny Wallace found the top 10 in Cup and Nationwide, respectively. Allmendinger put his underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports car in ninth today, joining Labonte, David Gilliland and David Ragan, CWTS drivers Justin Johnson and Jennifer Jo Cobb and NNS drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Wallace as pleasant surprises so far this year. One can only hope this trend continues. It’s great for the sport.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Carl Edwards won at Phoenix in the fall and was gunning to do it again, setting a track record in the process of winning the pole. However, Edwards tangled with Kyle Busch early on and wound up a disappointing 28th. He did however, receive a lovely consolation prize courtesy of Busch: a shiny new black front end for his No 99 Subway machine. It probably wasn’t very consoling, though, as Edwards lost the points lead to none other than… Busch.

When… will I be loved?

It wasn’t intentional, but that’s semantics to the 13 teams whose drivers ended up wrecked on lap 67 when Matt Kenseth couldn’t hold his car down in turn 2 and got into the side of Brian Vickers, cutting Vickers’s left rear tire. Vickers spun into traffic, gathering a dozen other cars, some of which, like those of Travis Kvapil, Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray, were completely destroyed. While Kenseth certainly didn’t do it on purpose, you have to wonder why, just 67 laps into a 312–lap race, he didn’t drive a little smarter while backing off just a bit if the car was hard to handle. Surely, a former series champ knows that sometimes driving smart for one lap is more important than driving fast in the big picture.

Why… do they need to repave Phoenix, exactly?

Sure the pavement is old, but it isn’t damaged, and it races well. Repaving a track rarely, if ever, improves the racing for the first few years, while a worn track certainly makes the drivers work for it, and that usually means good racing. While Phoenix is worn, it’s not dangerous. And while we’re at it, what are they even thinking in making a change to the dogleg off turn 2? It’s part of what makes the track unique; do they really need to make it into just another cookie-cutter track? Sure, it’s difficult. Who says racing should be easy?

How… much can you learn about the season from Phoenix?

It’s still too early to know anything for sure, but in what many consider the first real race of the season, there were a few indications of what the Cup season could look like. Jeff Gordon showed that he hasn’t lost a step when he flat outdrove young phenom Busch in the final laps. Don’t think he’s not gunning for that fifth title right from the start. Dale Earnhardt Jr. came back from late-race issues to finish 10th, and while two races do not a season make, Earnhardt is racing smart and looking better than he has in a couple of years. Johnson showed that he can still take a lemon and make lemonade, but that should surprise nobody. Nor should anyone be surprised at Busch’s performance which was, in a way, a microcosm of his career to date; Busch ran over the field in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, but couldn’t quite get it done in the big race. Sound familiar? So, while it’s still to early to judge, some drivers are beginning to show their hands.

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