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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono

Looking for a different way to look at Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson breaks down what you should remember from 500 miles at Pocono by asking the six basic questions learned in journalism school: Who, What, Where, When, Why And How. Here’s the list from her notebook from a weekend in the Pennsylvania mountains:

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Before I give my usual shoutout to someone else, I can’t go without mentioning Jeff Gordon who, by virtue of his first career Pocono win, ties with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (one of whom is in the Hall of Fame and the other of whom will likely be announced this week) for third on NASCAR’s all-time Cup wins list with 84. Only David Pearson and Richard Petty have more. As for the guy who didn’t win but still turned an unexpected performance? That will be a first; I can’t recall ever giving the shoutout to the 37th-place finisher before!

But Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team showed what champions are made of on Sunday. When a valve broke in the No. 99 engine early Sunday, they could have packed it in and gone home early (that’s what teams usually do in their situation). Instead, the team removed the offending valves in time for the final laps and sent Edwards back out on track for four laps. It didn’t help Edwards in points; he lost 34 of his 40-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, but it did show that a team could remove parts from a broken cylinder and return to the track. Given the points system in place, that could potentially be the difference in a championship or runner-up finish. Clearly the No. 99 team won’t settle for anything less than all they can do to win. Extra brownie points to Edwards for taking the time while his car was being fixed to visit the TV booth and talk to the broadcast team and the fans at home.

What… was THAT?

Up until a few years ago, shifting gears at Pocono at various points on the track was common practice. But a new gear rule a few years back negated the gear changes. Until now. Another different gear brought shifting back into the mix, and that’s a very good thing. Anything that adds to the strategy in a 500-mile race is a good thing. And adding gear shifts into the mix does that in a couple of ways. One, it’s hard on engines, so teams have to consider durability more than ever when prepping for these races, and two, it saps fuel mileage, shortening a fuel run by two to four laps. So while shifting can make a car faster, it comes with a certain risk. And that’s just how it should be.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It appears that personnel changes at Penske Racing may have been the medicine the team needed as Kurt Busch took the pole for Sunday’s race. Forced to a backup car for an earlier crash, Busch was among the strongest in the field on Sunday, ultimately falling just short of race winner Gordon, finishing second by a couple of seconds. That’s a far cry from a team that was struggling to finish in the top 10 a month ago.

When… will I be loved?

Sunday’s race was another one where the boys weren’t really having at it. There were a few spins and whatnot, but certainly nothing villainous. Except for one call from NASCAR that didn’t need to be made. Early in the race, three of the Richard Childress Racing contingent were racing for position with old nemesis Kyle Busch. And while it’s true that the group did race a bit harder than was strictly necessary so early in a 500-mile event, not one of the drivers did a thing wrong. Yet NASCAR felt the need to tell them to back off.

Really? Two of the drivers involved (if you can even call it that) are already on probation. They know this. The other two were simply there and racing for position. Did they race extra-hard? Probably; generally when you want to show someone up you try harder, but there wasn’t a hint of any of them “having at it.” Perhaps there were some head games at play, but come on, this is Sprint Cup racing, and if a driver can’t deal with a little of that, he should seek employment elsewhere. And NASCAR most certainly didn’t need to get involved. The drivers involved handled the situation better than the sanctioning body in this one.

Why… did the No. 18 fail post-race inspection?

After multiple measurements, NASCAR determined that the height of the M&M’s left front corner Toyota was not within specifications. The car was found to be 1/16th of an inch too low. That may not sound like much, but NASCAR already builds a tolerance into their measurement, so it was that plus the 1/16” out of line. A low front corner can add an advantage by adding downforce to that corner, helping the car to turn. NASCAR Competition Director Robin Pemberton says that once a car is outside the tolerances, “It doesn’t matter, it’s too low.” The car will be inspected at NASCAR’s research and development center to see if the infraction was due to part failure. Any penalties will be announced Tuesday and will likely include driver and owner points deductions if there was no failure on the car. It’s unclear whether this would affect Busch’s probationary status, as that’s in effect for something not mechanical.

How… is the wild card spot for the Chase playing out?

As of the conclusion at Pocono, only one driver, Gordon, is eligible for a wild-card Chase berth. Two others outside the top 10 (Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith) have race wins but aren’t currently within the top 20 in points. A third 2011 winner, Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, isn’t eligible for points in the Cup series and is not even in the mix. Right now, that would mean the wild card spots would go to Gordon and Denny Hamlin, who is 12th in points but without a win. Keselowski dropped to 22nd in points, so he’ll need to pick it up if he wants to steal a Chase berth this year.

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