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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It’s perhaps a little disappointing to Denny Hamlin to get kudos for finishing ninth at Richmond, a track where he has been dominant in the past. But consider that Hamlin was involved in the same early crash that involved Dale Earnhardt Jr., and that the front-end geometry on his Toyota was severely damaged, his performance was nothing less than impressive. It also ensured Hamlin of his sixth Chase appearance.

What… was THAT?

I can’t say that I’m a fan of NASCAR’s selectively allowing the boys to have at it. First, Kyle Busch was allowed to blatantly wreck Elliott Sadler in the CWTS race at Bristol without so much as a public slap on the wrist. Then at Richmond, there were three separate payback incidents handled three different ways.

Brian Vickers was called immediately to the hauler and held for several laps for turning Marcos Ambrose after Ambrose took out both Vickers and teammate Kasey Kahne (NASCAR was unclear, saying Vickers wasn’t parked). But when Earnhardt did the same to Travis Kvapil, there was no such call to his radio (though he was correctly denied the free pass for being involved in the caution), nor for Jimmie Johnson for turning Kurt Busch (or, that matter, for Busch, if his initial turn of Johnson was intentional. That one could go either way). Now, they may have been called in afterward, but why only a public acknowledgement for Vickers? And why no callout for Busch at all? NASCAR needs to decide where the line is… and penalize those who cross it equally.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Unfortunately the night didn’t end the way it began for David Reutimann. After winning the pole, Reutimann wasn’t able to back it up in the early going, and had his chances ended for good when Clint Bowyer made one of several mistakes on the night, slamming Reutimann into the wall and relegating him to a 26th-place finish when the night was finally over.

When… will I be loved?

This week’s villain? Take your pick. Ambrose caused some carnage early, but Vickers thanked him on behalf of the field. Earnhardt turned Kvapil after Kvapil nudged him, but unlike Vickers, didn’t get called to the hauler to answer to NASCAR. Kurt Busch found an awfully convenient time to overdrive his car and lock up the brakes, somehow managing to make his only mistake of the race just when the No. 48 was conveniently outside him. Johnson was equally third-grade, spinning Busch around, though it didn’t damage Busch’s car. Bowyer caused a pair of incidents: the early one that Ambrose finished and then later when he wiggled into Reutimann and Johnson, giving both and up-close-and-personal visit with the wall. All in all, the field seemed bent on making up for the fact that we haven’t had a good villain lately. And they did a heck of a job.

Why… does there even need to be a Chase under the new points system?

After all, there were five drivers within 24 points before the reset. And any of them could easily have taken the title when all was said and done. And they’d have done it without gimmicks, without fakery, just by racing. NASCAR created a naturally closer battle with the new one-point system this year, making the Chase superfluous and silly. Best of all, without a reset, anyone who could take the title actually deserved to win it. Anyone who won it only because of the reset? Not by a long shot. Perhaps when Sprint’s contract with NASCAR runs out, the unpopular, contrived Chase can expire right along with it.

How… does the field stack up going into the Chase?

Breathe easy, Junior Nation. Your man made the Chase.

Beyond that, Kyle Busch goes in on top though only symbolically, as Kevin Harvick will go into the Chase in a points tie with Busch based on wins. A red-hot Jeff Gordon goes in third on his three-win season. Matt Kenseth is fourth on two wins, while Carl Edwards rounds out the top five with a single win. Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt round out the top 10, with the wild-card spots going to Brad Keselowski and Hamlin. Wild-card drivers do not receive bonus points. Both Stewart and Earnhardt are winless in 2011.

From here on out it’s anyone’s game. Based on recent performance, my early pick for the favorite is Gordon, who has finishes of first and third in the last seven days. For Gordon, it’s a chance to prove he can win under this format-and in the process take one from his prodigy Johnson. Nobody wants it more.

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