NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 STP 400 at Kansas

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It’s really only a matter of time now. Often when a team is just behind the curve and finds that certain something that makes them a threat, when the win does come, it can trigger a string of top finishes. That’s exactly where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sitting these days. A win eluded him by less than a gallon of fuel at Charlotte, and Earnhardt came up swinging at Kansas, getting stronger throughout the race. Even after spinning the car on his own on lap 152, Earnhardt made it clear that he was going to be a factor in the race. Earnhardt’s second-place run was his best finish since Martinsville and his career-best at Kansas.

He’s finished outside the top 14 just twice this year, while in 2010 he finished in that group just 12 times… one more than he has already done this year. Earnhardt was also the top-finishing Hendrick Motorsports driver on Sunday, something he’s done four times this year. At Charlotte last week, Earnhardt expressed his desire to be relevant in today’s NASCAR… oh, yeah, he’s relevant. And it’s for his prowess on the track, not just his popularity.

What… was THAT?

By now fans have heard all about the altercation in the garage between team owner Richard Childress and driver Kyle Busch after a Camping World Truck Series race. After Childress driver Joey Coulter raced (and beat) Busch for fifth place in the race, Busch caught up with Coulter after the checkered flag and rammed the side of his truck. During the on-track battle, Coulter raced Busch cleanly, but did get loose under him, rubbing the No. 18 slightly, but unintentionally.

Perhaps Childress felt he was doing what NASCAR won’t in punishing Busch for his post-race actions. Busch is on probation for ramming another Childress-owned truck after the checkered flag, yet NASCAR determined that Busch did not violate his probation. Huh? A guy is on probation for hitting a car intentionally after a race, goes out and hits another car intentionally after a race, and it’s all okay? For the second week in a row, that leaves a bitter question that should never have to be asked: what if Kevin Harvick had been the one going after another driver after a race? Would he not be in violation of his probation either? No matter the answer, there should never even be a question-but yet again, NASCAR’s non-action has left that question to be asked.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After a tumultuous couple of months that saw the No. 22 of Kurt Busch on a backwards skid down the points chart, Busch snared the pole at Kansas and looked to be a strong contender for the win early in the day. Busch’s Dodge would fade at the beginning of a run, but when the race wore on, he’d be right back at the top. The car was clearly among the class of the field, something which hasn’t happened for Busch in some time.

Unfortunately for the No. 22 team, the fuel filling system didn’t want to cooperate, and there was trouble getting fuel into the car on pit stops, costing Busch valuable track position that he then had to gain back. The issue may also have contributed to Busch running low on fuel late in the race. While the team knew they’d have to pit for fuel, Busch ran dry earlier than expected, and the car stalled exiting pit road, costing spot after spot as the field went by. Busch was able to rebound to ninth as others were also forced to pit, while teammate Brad Keselowski took his Dodge to Victory Lane.

When… will I be loved?

It was another tame race this week. Cookie-cutter tracks will often ensure that, but there was a villain. It wasn’t a driver getting hotheaded or even a crewman making a bad decision. In this case, it was Mother Nature who made things difficult for the race teams. The heat in Kansas was brutal, with the sun beating on the track surface all race long. Last week at Charlotte, temperatures inside the racecars approached 130 degrees, but the race ran into the night where the track cooled off, keeping drivers and crews cooler.

This week there was no such relief from the relentless sun, and it definitely took its toll on the drivers. Earnhardt Jr. was vocal about it on the radio before the race hit the halfway point, and both Earnhardt and race winner Keselowski looked a bit worse for the wear on Sunday. It’s yet another reason that the sport is so difficult, and why winners win. But it wasn’t just drivers. There were several reports of fans needing medical assistance due to the extreme temperature as well, and that’s not good for anyone, or for the image of the sport. But it does beg the question…

Why… isn’t this a night race?

One of the newest improvements at Kansas Speedway is track lighting. So why on earth wasn’t this weekend’s race a Saturday night special? A night race would have been a better choice for the fans in attendance. Between the heat and air quality, lots of fans were forced to seek medical assistance, which most likely resulted in some of them not being able to watch the race they bought tickets for. Considering that tracks aren’t exactly breaking the record books on ticket sales, can they really afford for fans to miss the event or to possibly decide not to renew their tickets next year because they were miserable in the heat? Bottom line, better scheduling on the part of NASCAR and Kansas Speedway would have made the STP 400 a more enjoyable and safer race for the fans. And isn’t that the point?

How… is the Chase shaping up halfway through the regular season?

Nothing is set in stone, of course, but with 13 races left until the championship field is set, the picture is getting clearer. It’s probably safe to call the top five (leader Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt, Harvick and Kyle Busch) virtual locks to make the cut. The picture is still cloudier for sixth through 10th (currently Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman). Among that group, only Kenseth has a points win (Kenseth has won twice this year), and Busch, Stewart, and Bowyer have just five top-five finishes among them. Denny Hamlin in 11th and Greg Biffle in 12th aren’t safe yet either, as NASCAR made changes that will give those spots to the two drivers in 11th to 20th with the most wins. Right now that would mean Biffle being left out in favor of Jeff Gordon, who won at Phoenix. If Keselowski can gain just one points position, it would put him in the Chase mix as well with his win at Kansas. Looking down the road to Richmond, the usual suspects appear to be in position to make a championship run… but a few surprises are waiting in the wings.

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