NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

While Paul Menard became the first driver to take home his first Sprint Cup win at Indianapolis, Jeff Gordon was busy behind him, putting on a clinic of how to drive Indy’s tight track. Gaining more than seven seconds on Menard in the final eight laps, Gordon came from 15th in the late going to finish second. On the heels of a performance that was at least as impressive as the race winner’s, could 2011 finally be the year that Gordon wins his fifth Cup title? He’s looking awfully strong as the season heats up.

What… was THAT?

Most drivers will tell you there are two races on their bucket lists: the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. The first, rightly so, but the latter? Really. I understand the history of the place, but it’s not NASCAR’s history, any more than running Darlington would make it IndyCar racing’s history. I mean, it would be cool as an equestrian competitor to ride in the Olympic dressage arena, but doing so outside of the Olympics really doesn’t mean much. Sure it would be cool, but why pretend it’s any more than a cool opportunity to play on someone else’s playground?

So why make it out to be something better than a speedway known for boring stock car races, not unlike the much maligned Auto Club Speedway? Why elevate it to something it isn’t based on someone else’s accomplishments there? Take away the hype, and to NASCAR it’s really just a glorified Fontana. To the IRL, it’s so much more, but it’s theirs, like Darlington is NASCAR’s. That’s where the hype should be.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

David Ragan got passed almost as soon as the green flag fell, and that ended his view of the front of the pack as the day wore on. Ragan flirted with a top-10 finish, but at the end of the day could only manage 23rd. As an added bonus, he also wound up as my villain of the day.

When… will I be loved?

Indy is a big track, but that doesn’t mean you can come up off your line and not take anyone out. Just ask Ragan, who came up on Landon Cassill in a three-wide situation that ultimately ended with Cassill wrecking and several others having to take evasive maneuvers through the grass to get out of the way. Cassill had nowhere to go when Ragan came up on him; Jimmie Johnson was already running to his outside and had no more room to give. Several others also lost track position getting the grass out of their grilles in what was just a messy and avoidable situation.

Honorable mention in the “I wonder why they’re mad at me” category this week goes to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who remarked after the incident that leaving Cassill out on old tires in front of the field wasn’t “fair to Landon.” After dropping Cassill, the then-reigning Nationwide Rookie of the Year from his JR Motorsports ride in favor of a driver by committee deal with a bunch of other drivers, Junior really shouldn’t be making judgments about who is or is not “fair to Landon.”

Why… does the lineup rule work that way, anyway?

After Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race, Elliott Sadler questioned an old rule, and one that most definitely had a hand in the outcome of that race. Under caution in the race, Justin Allgaier’s car suddenly burst into flames, forcing Allagier to drop out of second place to address the issue. That allowed fourth-place Brad Keselowski to move up to second, which ultimately gave Keselowski the race win. The rule is that after the cars have doubled up, if someone drops out, that line moves up to take the spot.

But why? It seems to me that this is highly unfair to the drivers the line is allowed to pass, drivers who earned their positions through racing or pit work instead of having them handed to them. Really, it doesn’t happen often, but why let it happen at all? One of two things should be happening here. Preferably, NASCAR should wave off the restart and correct the lineup, which on Saturday would have put Sadler in second. Seriously, it would be a maximum of one lap, perhaps two on a short track to swap them over if the drivers did it right: drop back to leave a space, blend, and double up. Sadler, not Keselowski, had raced to third, he should have been the one moved up here.

Alternatively, NASCAR could not let them move up at all before the green flag, leaving the hole empty until the restart line. Really, setting the field by positions earned should be a no-brainer.

How… are the wild-card Chase spots shaping up with six races to go?

Menard’s Brickyard win means that Keselowski will likely be left in the cold unless he can catch another win. With six races left for drivers to take advantage of the opportunity to take a spot on wins, Denny Hamlin and Menard are the current frontrunners for the spot, with Ragan lurking just behind Menard in points. All four drivers are tied with one win apiece. A second win for any of them (and for Keselowski, another spot in the standings in addition) would vault that driver ahead. Right now, it would be Clint Bowyer giving way to a wild card driver, but Earnhardt and Tony Stewart are close to the jeopardy line as well, and a bad race, or a win or two among that group, could change who’s in and who’s out in a New York minute.

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