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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

After lurking in the top 10 for much of the race, it was Kasey Kahne who was Jimmie Johnson’s strongest challenge on the green-white-checkered restart at the end. Kahne roared into second and dogged Johnson on the restart. Johnson had been getting stellar restarts in the second half, and Kahne was best in class when it came to hanging with the defending series champion. He made a furious run on the two-lap shootout and fell just short of challenging for his first win of 2011.

What… was THAT?

Apparently NASCAR can still see things that nobody else can. Either that or a driver dominating a race constitutes “debris” now, because the debris caution at lap 205 was, by all accounts, completely manufactured. Why? That part is up for debate. Perhaps they think fans would prefer the manufactured excitement of a restart over a runaway performance. Conspiracy theorists might say it set up a fuel-mileage race that they knew a few certain teams could not win. Whatever the reason, the caution was a totally bogus call.

When spotters reported to drivers that NASCAR was looking for debris, I didn’t hear one single driver say that there was any… in fact some reported that the track was clear. To add insult to injury, NASCAR did it again with just over 20 to go, this time to pick an obviously dangerous piece of duct tape. And several spotters reported to their drivers that NASCAR was again looking for debris with 12 to go, and again drivers reported back that the track was clean. Note to NASCAR: fans may not like the race winner, but most would prefer whoever wins does it because the race naturally plays out that way. Fake debris is not natural.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It’s been a tough year for Greg Biffle, and Kansas was no exception. Biffle started on the pole, looked to have a dominant car early… and faded by the time the crossed flags signaled halfway. Biffle made a charge late in the race on four fresh tires, but couldn’t find consistency and had to settle for an eighth-place finish on Sunday.

When… will I be loved?

This week’s villain didn’t cause a wreck. He didn’t cheat, didn’t drive dirty, didn’t tell his crew anything about a monkey or a football on the radio. He just should have known better. It’s understandable that Jeff Gordon stayed on track while his engine went south, because he was running 15th and needed to finish to have any chance at a fifth title. But when the thing did finally detonate with just three laps to go, Gordon, who was running the inside line, stayed in the groove for a long time before dropping to the apron as he should have immediately done. Nobody spun in fluids from Gordon’s car, but they easily could have, and in a race where drivers made few mistakes and fewer questionable moves, a veteran putting the field in unnecessary danger tops the list.

Why… did Clint Bowyer wind up at Michael Waltrip Racing?

That’s simple: economics. While Bowyer did have a sponsor to offer in 5-Hour Energy, the reported $13 million that the company is willing to put up simply isn’t enough to run a Sprint Cup team in 2012, at least not according to Richard Childress’s math. Childress tried to make the numbers work, but in the end, concluded that $13 million just isn’t enough to put together a quality program to race against teams with twice as much money. For Waltrip, a team owner whose teams aren’t going to set the world on fire anytime soon anyways, $13 million will buy a mid-pack car each week and a mid-pack points finish. Childress, who has six championships as an owner and is a frontrunner for another one this year, is in a position to not settle. Waltrip, still building his team, took the deal; beggars can’t be choosers.

How… does the Chase picture look with six races left?

I said last week that Johnson needed to win at Kansas to be a factor in the championship hunt, partly because history shows that wins are just too important in the Chase, but more so because in not being able to close the deal for six months, a team does not show championship caliber. Johnson and his team finally showed that on Sunday. Meanwhile, Carl Edwards, another driver who has run near the front but has not been able to close the deal, went into Kansas with a piece of the points lead and a front-row starting position.

He came out with the points lead to himself, but because for the second week in a row he had to come back from a lap down, is on shakier ground than he was a week ago. His lead is just one point over Kevin Harvick, who, out of the top three, has the most wins, and Johnson, both of whom are more than capable of reeling off top finishes in bunches. Despite the points lead, Edwards simply isn’t looking like a championship driver right now. He needs a dominant race to change that. Sure, he’s coming back from adversity to score very good finishes. Now the No. 99 team needs to not put themselves in that position in the first place, or one week, they won’t be able to come back.

That said, Edwards could have that at Charlotte. Among drivers with more than 10 starts at CMS, only Johnson has a better average finish than Edwards.

So who’s a threat after Kansas? Johnson finally threw his hat in the ring with Harvick and is now just four points off the lead. Leave Edwards in the mix because of the lead, but he needs the win. The same goes for Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski; if either can grab a win, they’ll be right back in it, and both are capable of doing that at Charlotte. Kurt Busch, though just 16 back, didn’t look at all this week like the winner he was at Dover, and that inconsistency makes Busch more of a longshot than perhaps the points suggest. Tony Stewart, at 19 back, had a shot at a great day at Kansas, but couldn’t quite capitalize. Too much more of that, and Stewart will fade out of the picture.

Kyle Busch continues his history of not being able to put together a postseason to match his regular season brilliance, and at 20 out, needs to come up big to have any chance. Johnson is the case in point here. He was in and almost identical position to two weeks ago, and despite a second place and a win in two weeks, he’s still in third place, four back. Busch needs two big weeks just to get back within reach.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now an entire race worth of points away from the top spot. He had a solid run at Kansas, but hasn’t shown championship caliber performance in 2011. But he made the Chase and is consistently in the top 15… that had to come before a championship season was even a possibility. Wait ‘til next year should be his mantra. Gordon’s blown engine all but ended his title hopes as well, and Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman are both too far out, with too little hope for a turnaround, for it to be their year.

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