NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

A year ago, he was on top of the world, coming off his first Chase run and shouldering with pride the almost singlehanded building of his team from upstart to contender, something he learned from his days at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Yet Brian Vickers had yet to face the biggest challenge of his life. In May 2010, Vickers was hospitalized with blood clots in his lung and legs, a condition which could have killed the young driver, who was suddenly uncertain if he would ever take the wheel of a racecar again. But Vickers made it back after surgery to repair a hole in his heart, and just three races into the season, he picked up where he left off, finishing in the top 10 and looking like a contender. Just three races in, and that’s feel-good moment number two.

What… was THAT?

I’m going to change the focus of this question from here on out. Just as a driver with an unexpectedly spectacular performance gets the shoutout, this one’s going to be all about someone who, by all counts, should have had a great run but didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an engine detonate in as spectacular a fashion as Kyle Busch’s did on Sunday. Usually even the most well and truly blown engine produces a smokescreen, but Busch’s went out in a blaze of glory, literally. Flames shot from under the car as Busch was rallying back from an earlier scrape with the wall, and Busch radioed to his crew, “There are flames in my face.” As Busch pulled into the garage, flames were still shooting out the tailpipe of his car. It was as scary an incident as you can see without a wreck involved, and it was great to see Busch walk away unscathed. Hand it to Busch, though; that guy sure knows how to put on a show.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It was a rare pole for Matt Kenseth, a driver not known for qualifying prowess, and early on it looked as though Kenseth was on cruise control, but after a flat tire and subsequent race spent struggling to get back on the lead lap, Kenseth finished a hard-fought 11th. Considering how long Kenseth was trapped a circuit down, that’s no walk in the park.

When… will I be loved?

The drivers were on their best behavior for the most part, but the same could not be said for several right-front tires on Sunday. Tire woes plagued drivers throughout the race, ending Jeff Gordon’s day early and relegating others to the back of the pack, most notably polesitter Kenseth and points leader Busch, whose day later ended with the aforementioned spectacular detonation of his engine. I’m not blaming Goodyear. At least some of the problems can likely be attributed to camber, and while that extra tilt might add some grip, it’s a fine line, and it looked like some teams crossed it.

Why… no penalty for the No. 99’s loose tire?

Here’s a ruling that made zero sense. When a tire escaped the crew of the No. 99, it rolled across a pit box or two into the No. 48 pit before it was corralled, but did not roll across the lines onto pit road itself. Television crews showed the Scotts-clad crewman rolling it back, but there was no penalty. Had it rolled onto pit road proper, it would have been am immediate penalty. As it was, there was no penalty and Edwards went on to win the race. The reason for the rule is simple: safety. If a car hits a loose tire, not only can it cause damage to that car or an accordion-style crunch-up, but the tire has the potential to seriously injure someone in the pits. So why is that less true if the tire rolls into an adjacent pit? Had Jimmie Johnson been sliding into his box at that moment, he’d likely have hit either the tire or the crewman running after it. It was lucky that he wasn’t. The rule for other equipment is that it can’t leave the pit box of the driver it belongs to. So, why no penalty? For the second time, Edwards grabs a win in Vegas because of a non-penalty. Talk about beating the odds.

How… is Richard Petty Motorsports faring after nearly closing the doors last fall?

While it’s only three races into 2011, things are looking up for the team since Petty took control and pared it from four cars to a two-car organization. Marcos Ambrose put the No. 9 on the front row in Sin City and followed that up with a fourth-place finish. Ambrose has improved at each race this year, getting caught up in a wreck not of his doing at Daytona and finishing 16th at Phoenix.

Meanwhile, teammate AJ Allmendinger sits eighth in points even after finishing 19th at LVMS on the strength of 11th- and ninth-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix. Is that an improvement over 2010? Oh, yes. In the first three races last year, Allmendinger finished no better than 25th, and Ambrose finished 41st, 35th and 14th in the first three. They aren’t out of the water yet, but when it was sink or swim for RPM, the team is doing a steady dog paddle.

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