NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte

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 in her Big Six.

Editor’s Note: Click here for Amy Henderson’s other article this Monday about Jimmie Johnson‘s near-tragic wreck… and Sunday’s crash where we weren’t so lucky.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

For a team whose very existence was in serious doubt just a year ago, Richard Petty Motorsports showed flashes of a much brighter future at Charlotte. Both Marcos Ambrose (fifth) and AJ Allmendinger (seventh) posted top-10 results, while Allmendinger wasn’t too far away from contending for a Chase berth this year. Ambrose won his first Cup race as well this year, while AJ has been close – the No. 43 team may also win a consolation prize of 13th position in points. The consistency isn’t quite there to call them 2012 Chase contenders so early, but they have steadily improved… and beat some bigger, more established teams in the process.

What… was THAT?

2011 has been especially hard on the smaller teams in the Cup garage. But Lady Luck has been especially cruel to Casey Mears and the No. 13 team. The Germain Racing car is running a limited schedule as it is, but it seems like in the races where they have been able to run, trying to flex the strength of their Toyota a parts failure has happened to derail them. At Charlotte, Mears was running mid-pack until green-flag pit stops, when the team discovered that the car wasn’t taking fuel, which forced extra stops. The team salvaged a solid if not brilliant run, only to lose the engine with less than 10 laps to go. At Dover, a fuel pump wire was the culprit, erasing any shot of a lead-lap performance. The team has also had power issues at a couple other tracks, including Bristol, where Mears had a very strong car. It’s hard to call the team snakebit though; it’s much more likely the product of simply not having the funding to race every week. Whatever you want to call it, it’s tough for the little team that is trying hard to improve.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

When the night began, Tony Stewart looked like he was ready to run away from the field and hide. But a combination of pit strategy and luck allowed the field to track down Stewart and pass him as the night got cooler. A late-race tangle with Greg Biffle didn’t help Stewart’s cause, along with an untimely caution that got him off sequence; in the end, the driver of the No. 14 finished eighth. That’s definitely respectable, but four Chasers had better nights, and Stewart lost ground in his quest for a third Cup championship.

When… will I be loved?

Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first Chase track to show its teeth this year, and several drivers, not just title contenders suffered its wrath. A three-car incident was sparked when David Ragan dropped to the apron to make a pass and came up the track into Kasey Kahne, who had nowhere to go because he was racing Jeff Gordon hard in the middle of the track. As the laps began to wind down, Stewart drove up the track under Biffle, a move that eventually led to Biffle hitting the outside wall in frustration. Finally, with just under 20 laps to go, Johnson got loose racing Ryan Newman for position and slammed the wall. None of the incidents were intentional or even caused by unduly hard racing; they were just a friendly reminder that the track can have the final say in any race, at any time.

Why… so many crew chief rumors?

Will Steve Addington leave Kurt Busch or won’t he? Will Greg Zipadelli switch loyalties? Who will be Danica Patrick’s head wrench? The questions are rampant as the season draws to a close, but the answers are not so clear. The rumor mill is in high gear, and while both Addington and Zipadelli have denied persistent whispers of their jumping ship, scuttlebutt is often more correct than it first appears. It’s also interesting to note that while Silly Season for drivers was fairly quiet, the biggest movers could be among the crew chief ranks. In addition to the head wrench speculation, there’s also the Competition Director role to fill at Stewart-Haas Racing, and it’s likely that a talented crew chief will be lured off the pit box to take it. In a sport where the driver is only a part of the team equation, this story is one to watch in the coming weeks.

How… is the championship picture developing halfway through the Chase?

While it’s still almost impossible to pick a true favorite because it changes from week to week, it’s crystal clear now who is out of it, and after Charlotte, you can add five-time defending champion Johnson to that list after he got loose with just a handful of laps remaining and slammed the wall head-on so hard it lifted his rear wheels off the ground. Johnson’s 34th-place finish all but ends any hope he had of defending the championship an unprecedented sixth time in a row; he dropped to eighth place, 35 off the lead. Johnson isn’t alone, though. Fifth-place Stewart and sixth-place Brad Keselowski just about finished their chances off this week as well, sitting 24 and 25 points out, respectively. Busch, in seventh, hasn’t looked like a contender at all. Their last, best hope is to avoid all trouble at Talladega next week while the top four all get in it deep. If the top four come out of Alabama unscathed, it will drive the final nail into the coffin for this group presently ranked 5-8 in Cup contention.

The bottom Chase group behind Johnson — which includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Newman, Gordon and Denny Hamlin — were finished before they arrived in Charlotte.

As for the top four, give Matt Kenseth the edge after winning Saturday night. Kenseth is ultra-consistent, and can sneak into a top spot in a race like a night breeze. Kenseth is only seven points behind Carl Edwards, who had a top-three finish but who has not been able to close the deal and win a race for more than six months. Kenseth has won three times since Edwards last visited Victory Lane; Harvick has won four times in that span. If it comes down to sealing the deal at the end of a race, Edwards has fallen a step behind, and with just a five-to-seven point shortage, the other two could chip away at his lead if they edge him on the track. Finally, Kyle Busch put himself in the game with a second-place run at Charlotte, but has yet to prove he can thrive under the intense pressure of the Chase.

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