NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Sylvania 300 at Loudon

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s second race of the Chase at New Hampshire? Amy Henderson has you covered with her journalistic rendition of the Big Six questions everyone wanted to ask after the race…

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

He didn’t get much television time, except for a brief stint during green-flag stops when he took over the race lead, but Regan Smith very quietly put his No. 78 in the top 10 for the day, finishing 10th. Sure, he capitalized on fuel mileage… but Smith raced all day to get in position to do so. Considering what he has to work with driving for a single-car team, this fourth-year veteran has really shown some mettle in the driver’s seat in 2011. It would be interesting to see what he could do in the cockpit of a car like the No. 33, possibly open at Richard Childress Racing for an entire season in 2012.

What… was THAT?

“Wait, what?” Part I: Drivers getting slapped on the wrist for swearing on television is nothing new. However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver collecting a fine before the race even starts. At least until Loudon, where Kurt Busch upped the obscenity ante by dropping an F-bomb on an ESPN cameraman after his No. 22 failed pre-race inspection. Dude, look, everyone knows you’re frustrated, but the cameraman was just doing his job. You could have, um, I don’t know, walked around him instead of making drama where there wasn’t much.

“Wait, what?” Part II: Speaking of the No. 22 not making it through inspection, the car was held for the body being too “offset” from the rear wheels. According to the team, the issue came from over-adjusting the track bar, and could be fixed by another track bar adjustment. That got me thinking, if the fix was as simple as a track bar adjustment, what’s to stop that team (or any team) from simply adjusting it back out of line during the race and then making a tweak to put it back within tolerances before post-race inspection, or during the final pit stop? Perhaps NASCAR needs to look at not allowing cars to be able to be adjusted to illegal proportions.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

For the second week in a row, the man who won the pole saw his chances for winning the race slip away on the fumes of a spent fuel cell. This week’s victim was Ryan Newman, whose Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and owner won the race while Newman, after winning the July event at Loudon and tearing it up during qualifying, had to settle for bringing it home 25th. The result also was the likely demise of Newman’s 2011 title hopes as he slipped to 11th in points, 34 behind leader Tony Stewart.

When…will I be loved?

Villain of the week, villain of the week… yeah, what villain? Sunday’s race at Loudon was so tame (perhaps another unwanted byproduct of the Chase?) that finding a villain is like trying to find bad chocolate: it’s only going to be out there if you get nit-picky. And since I don’t want to pick nits, I’m going to jointly blame NASCAR and Goodyear for the type of racing we’ve been saddled with this year. A softer, less durable tire compound would all but eliminate fuel-mileage racing by forcing teams to pit for tires before the end of a fuel run. Yes, the teams would hate it, and some would argue that it would be more dangerous. But I don’t buy that it would add danger if the teams created a pit strategy around changing tires before it came to blowouts.

Softer, grippier tires would also play into other strategy; they’re fast as can be on a short run, but need to be pampered for longer runs. A better compound would make for better racing and passing, especially on restarts, and would reduce fuel mileage racing either by forcing teams to pit before the end of a fuel run or by the cautions caused by tire failures when teams try to push it too far. It would put another aspect of racing back in the teams’ hands, which is never a bad thing.

Why… don’t start-and-park teams at least try to beat each other?

OK, maybe it defeats the purpose of starting and parking, but you’d think it would be beneficial to those teams to at least wait out a few others before cashing it in for the day. Why settle for, say, 42nd, when you could run until some more dropped out, giving the team more money for the effort? I get why some teams start and park (and think others are pretty low, leading on their drivers and employees), but I don’t understand why teams, especially the ones doing it for the right reasons, don’t at least and try to wait it out a little longer. If they need the money to race, shouldn’t they capitalize?

How… is the title picture looking after the second Chase race?

For all but the top four in points, the picture can be summed up in one word: bleak.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I really think that anyone more than 20 points out after New Hampshire is down for the count. If the teams control their own fates from here on out, fifth-place Jeff Gordon will have to beat a streaking Stewart by 23 positions somewhere along the line in the next eight weeks. While that’s certainly possible, especially with the crapshoot commonly known as Talladega on the table, there’s not a lot of hope for a storybook ending with a lot of teams. Considering Gordon as the long shot, I’d wager the champion will come from among the top four in points right now: Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski or Carl Edwards. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson is done. Preseason favorite Denny Hamlin was done last week and put an exclamation mark on it this week.

Really, what this year’s Chase has illustrated so far is just how ridiculous the whole system is, especially when coupled with the current points system. Two of the four drivers in the top four flat don’t deserve a championship based on a full year’s performance, while two of the three drivers who had a barnburner of a points battle going on before NASCAR reset the points are all but finished in Johnson and Kyle Busch. Often, the Chase doesn’t turn out the way it might otherwise have, but this year is making a mockery of the first 26 races. Why have them at all at this point?

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