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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

He didn’t have the most spectacular race of the day, but Martin Truex Jr. had arguably the quietest top five of the day. Truex rarely got mentioned during the race, but he had his No. 56 machine up front when it counted. While Truex might not have been on most people’s radar, he took on some that were, beating out Juan Pablo Montoya, AJ Allmendinger and Jeff Gordon, among others. Truex gained a points position as well, vaulting him over a struggling David Ragan. There haven’t been many bright spots for Truex this year, and the ones he’s had have been quiet, but there is no doubt that Truex was there on Monday. Just ask the 39 guys he beat.

What… was THAT?

It wasn’t a huge surprise to learn that, after an engine-building merger between Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development, a Gibbs car would be running a TRD engine before the year was out. The surprising part is that Denny Hamlin will apparently be the one running the TRD powerplant as soon as Michigan, and that Hamlin and his team requested the change because they reportedly aren’t happy with the current Gibbs engines they’re being given. Looking ahead to the Chase, Hamlin says that his team felt that they were likely to lose at least one race to engine failure. While the engines will be one and the same in the near future, it’s still a bit of a surprise to see Hamlin express such complete distrust for the equipment he’s being given. Then again, it was also a bit of a surprise to see Hamlin struggle so much this year after very nearly winning the 2010 title. Is Gibbs putting all of their proverbial eggs in one basket this year? Perhaps that’s why Hamlin’s basket has looked rock-bottom empty in 2011.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After a dominating day, it was Kyle Busch’s own mistake on a green-white-checkered restart that cost him the win. Busch got a little too hot for just one corner, but that was all it took for both Brad Keselowski and race winner Marcos Ambrose to leave Busch third for his efforts. The finish was still enough to boost Busch into the points lead, which he’d have been handed after Richmond anyway. Still, landing the top spot a few weeks early might give his team the momentum they’re looking for heading to crunch time.

When… will I be loved?

Dumping the race leader is bad from a lap down while only a handful of laps into the race is bad form. Doing it from a lap down when you put yourself there by running over someone else is really bad form. But that’s exactly what Kurt Busch did in the very early laps, first spinning himself off of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s back bumper while trying to give Junior a shove, and then, when race leader Allmendinger got by him as he came off pit road, Busch punted Allmendinger in the bus stop. Allmendinger never saw the front of the field after that. It’s one thing to rough up the side of a car for a top-five position with a couple of laps to go. Punting a guy before a quarter of the race is on the books because you didn’t like being lapped? That’s another thing, and not a very pretty one.

Why… do teams use road-course ringers in this day and age?

Even before Boris Said caused a nasty accident between series regulars, you have to wonder why some teams use road-course specialists in today’s NASCAR. 10 years ago, a ringer might contend for a win, but now, Said was the best of the lot and couldn’t crack the top 20. Meanwhile, Dave Blaney sat at home so Ron Fellows could finish 30th in his No. 36, a position that Blaney could probably have secured for himself. Replacing Landon Cassill with Said may have paid off in the short term in the form of a handful of points at best, but what of the big picture? As the team grows and improves, they’re going to need to keep their regular driver in the seat if they become Chase contenders, and then they’re in a corner with a driver with little road-course experience, as they’ve handed his seat away for the right turns. The only context in which a ringer makes sense is for teams fighting for 35th in points and the guaranteed starting spot that secures. However, that didn’t happen today, as the regulars hovering around the bubble (Casey Mears, Robby Gordon, Andy Lally) generally did better than the ringers close to them in points (Said, Fellows and Andrew Ranger). Perhaps it’s time to use the big picture when it comes to road racing, because the instant gratification of a ringer is a thing of the past.

How… is the back half of the Chase shaping up with just four races to go before the reset?

It was good news for Earnhardt fans as the dust cleared in Watkins Glen, as his 14th-place finish solidified his position a bit. Earnhardt sits in ninth place on the chart, 11 markers ahead of 10th-place Tony Stewart and 38 ahead of Clint Bowyer in 11th. Earnhardt and Stewart are not out of the woods yet, but can take a deep breath heading into Michigan; solid runs there should put both drivers in great position for Bristol. The two wild-card spots remain unchanged after the Glen; Hamlin and Keselowski still cling to those, with Paul Menard breathing down their necks. Ragan fell out of the top 20 after a miserable day at the Glen and will need to improve his points position drastically to contend. Ambrose, also out of the top-20 cutoff, is ahead of Ragan in points now, so Ragan, who was so close to a Chase berth a couple of weeks ago he could almost touch the trophy for the photo op, looks to be nearly out of contention entirely.

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