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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix

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 the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Looking for a 2012 Chase darkhorse pick? One driver making a case for consideration in recent weeks is AJ Allmendinger. Allmendinger qualified on the outside pole at Phoenix and kept it in the top 10 all day long, finishing a solid sixth and making a case for himself as a Chase hopeful for next year. Allmendinger has just one top-five finish in 2011, but he has a career-high 10 top 10s and has appeared several times to be knocking on the door of a first victory. His 16th-place points ranking is also a career high, and he could grab one more spot on the charts (he sits just three points behind 15th-place Greg Biffle) before he’s done. Not bad for a guy who was almost out of a job this time last year.

What… was THAT?

The one thing NASCAR takes the most heat from race fans about is inconsistency in making penalty calls. While it wasn’t on the scale of last week’s Truck race debacle, when Brian Vickers wrecked Matt Kenseth just past halfway on Sunday, the sanctioning body could have gained a little street cred had there been a punishment for Vickers. Given similar situations, a few laps on pit road would certainly have been appropriate. There is a three-lap penalty for intentionally causing a caution, and while that’s truly meant for drivers who spin or stop on-track to bring the yellow so they don’t lose a lap on a pit stop, it could certainly apply in this type of situation as well. While Vickers’s move on Kenseth was nowhere near the magnitude of the CWTS incident (it was under green, and Vickers didn’t hook Kenseth in the right rear, for starters) it warranted more attention from NASCAR than it got.

Despite Vickers’s claim that Kenseth slowed in front of him (the No. 17 had had some brake issues), the driver of the No. 83 had been intimating that he was seeking payback for an incident at Martinsville. Drivers policing themselves is one thing, and had Vickers turned Kenseth at Martinsville when he intended to, it might have been acceptable. Vickers missed his shot that day, though and therefore missed his opportunity. NASCAR shouldn’t have let this one go.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Kenseth’s third pole of the season was a personal best, but his day didn’t end nearly as well as it started. Kenseth’s handling faded as the race wore on, and the above-mentioned contact with Vickers sent him limping to the garage for extended repairs to the No. 17 machine. Because of the damage from the incident, Kenseth was relegated to a 34th-place finish, 74 laps down to winner Kasey Kahne. Though Kenseth’s championship hopes were slim entering this race, they were taken away completely this week.

When… will I be loved?

In the case of the repaved Phoenix International Raceway, give it a few years. The track proved to be very tough for both the Nationwide and Cup drivers to get a handle on, but don’t expect it to stay that way forever. The graduated banking in the corners and the wider frontstretch will make passing easier, plus the expanded dogleg on the backstretch and elevation changes will be a welcome challenge for drivers in the days of cookie-cutter tracks. The sport needs more unique ovals, and Phoenix did a good job of creating one. Remember, new pavement rarely produces great racing, and fans will have to be patient with most of the tracks that have been redone in the last year or so. But at least, in the case of Phoenix, it will be worth it in the end.

Why… was there snow on the racetrack at Phoenix?

No, the white stuff didn’t fall from the sky this weekend, but several of the Coca-Cola sponsored drivers had special paint schemes to promote Arctic Home, an initiative to raise awareness and money to help preserve the habitat of polar bears. Polar bears are considered a vulnerable species, though not yet endangered, due to a decline in nearly half of its subpopulations in recent years. Several Coke drivers, including Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart and Joey Logano sported white caps to show their support, and McMurray wore a special firesuit to go along with the snowcap paint scheme on his roof. Several other Coca-Cola drivers also participated in the promotion, which runs through Homestead and supports the Arctic Home initiative. Fans can help raise funds and awareness by purchasing special white Coke cans or bottles with white caps. It’s the first time that Coke has ever changed its red can to support a cause.

How… does the championship picture look with just one race to go?

With all but Stewart and Carl Edwards mathematically eliminated from contention, Edwards carries a three-point advantage to Homestead. All Edwards has to do, provided that Stewart doesn’t lead the most laps at Homestead, is finish ahead of Stewart, and recent numbers at Homestead-Miami say that’s a likely scenario. However, it would be foolish to count out Stewart. He’s a two-time champion, and he knows how to play the last race of the year.

What it really boils down to is not making mistakes, and that may be where Edwards now has an advantage. Throughout the Chase, he’s raced for points, while Stewart has raced for wins. If it comes down to needing the win, Stewart may still have an edge, but if it comes down to simply track position at the end, that’s been Edwards’s forte for the entire Chase. Edwards hasn’t shown that he’s willing to risk anything to win, but if he doesn’t have to, he can carry this one home. If it comes down to racing for the win, checkers or wreckers, I like Stewart’s chances.

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