Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H in her Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
With one team whose driver hasn’t won a race since 2007 and another that has a rotating cast of characters in the cockpit, NASCAR fans could be excused if they didn’t think of Michael Waltrip Racing as an elite team. But MWR has certainly made a case for themselves so far in 2012. Martin Truex Jr. has very quietly gone from a top-20 driver, to a top-10, then a top-five one while building chemistry late last season with new crew chief Chad Johnston. He has obviously carried that momentum into 2012, where the Mayetta, N.J. native sits fourth in points leaving Bristol and looks to be on the verge of his second career win. During a contract year for he and sponsor NAPA, it’s perfect timing, as was a third-place Bristol effort that was his second straight on the half-mile bullring.
Meanwhile, the No. 55 Toyota has been strong with Mark Martin behind the wheel, with a pole and a pair of top 10s in three races. But Martin didn’t race at Bristol. However, that didn’t turn out to be an issue for the team, as Brian Vickers led 125 laps en route to a fifth-place result in his first race of six in the No. 55. Vickers looked like he had never been gone from the Cup Series, driving a race that belied his overaggressive reputation. There was no hint of malice, nor revenge; just the obvious joy and relief at being in the driver’s seat.
Because it’s Bristol, where the drivers pick their entrance music and introduce themselves, Denny Hamlin and Casey Mears deserve an honorable mention for their choices. Hamlin danced down the walkway to “Show Me How to Dougie” (it’s safe to say he won’t get an invite to Dancing With the Stars for his performance), and Mears introduced himself like a basketball announcer announcing the league rockstar, prompting Jimmie Johnson to consider hiring Mears to emcee his next special event. Bristol’s unique driver introductions are a perfect beginning to the races.
What… was THAT?
NASCAR opened the drivers’ meeting to race fans at Las Vegas, and while it gave those fans a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes, many drivers think NASCAR took this one one step too far. The intent of the meeting – to go over safety information or rules updates for the upcoming race, to give a few necessary warnings, and for teams to air any questions they have has become more of a media circus in recent years, where more time is spent on introducing celebrities in attendance than on making sure the teams understand their race procedures. Is it time to return to the days when only drivers and crew chiefs are privy to the meeting?
“It hasn’t been for a long time a true drivers’ meeting in the true sense of the word,” Matt Kenseth told the Bristol Herald-Courier. “Nobody is going to raise their hand and ask a question in that environment. They have been letting more and more people in and I remember when we used to do it my first couple years in the series… it was never a media event or a fan event.” Really, the meeting isn’t very exciting. It’s a vital part of the drivers’ and crew chiefs’ weekend, but fans and even celebrity guests really aren’t missing anything by not being allowed to attend. Perhaps this is one part of NASCAR that should stay behind closed doors.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Greg Biffle was trying to become the first driver since 2005 to post top-five finishes in each of the first four races of the year, but it wasn’t to be. Biffle fought the racetrack and an overheating race car for much of the afternoon, able to bring home just a 13th-place finish in the end. The good news? That’s Biffle’s worst performance of the year, and there are teams for whom 13th would be a great best finish. Biffle also leaves Bristol as the series points leader, and along with teammate and Daytona 500 champ Kenseth is making 2012 look like a Roush Fenway kind of year so far.
When… will I be loved?
Bristol may have been fairly tame, but it’s only the fourth race of the season; nobody is really mad at anyone yet. However, it’s never cool to wreck your own teammate, even accidentally, and that’s what Dale Earnhardt Jr. did to Jeff Gordon on Sunday. Earnhardt was racing inside Gordon for position and got into the side of Gordon’s No. 24. The end result was an early exit for Gordon, with heavy damage to the racecar. While Earnhardt reported on the radio that the two Chevys had barely touched, the four-time champion’s take was slightly different. “I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like,” said Gordon. “We definitely didn’t hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left-rear [tire] immediately. We were a little bit too tight and he was pretty good on the restart there and we were racing hard. I know that it wasn’t intentional, but it certainly ruined our day.” Sometimes lack of intent doesn’t completely make up for a costly mistake.
Why… was the attendance so low at Bristol, of all places?
There was a time that the wait list for tickets to either of Bristol’s two Cup races was measured in years. But as racing moves deeper into the 21st century, the demand has dropped significantly. Perhaps half of Bristol’s 156,000 seats were filled on Sunday. 78,000 isn’t a terrible number, but sure doesn’t look like the Bristol we used to know. If you go with the easy choice – and it is a valid one – it’s a sign of the times. Fans are having to pick and choose events, and the night race in August is a bigger draw. Want to stay within an hour of the track? Better be prepared to pay in the realm of $200 a night for a $75 room. Gas is over $4 a gallon. Airline fees are going up. So, yes, that’s part of the picture, and to say it isn’t is incorrect.
But the bigger part of the issue is the one nobody wants to admit: Bristol isn’t the same since it was reconfigured a few years back. Drivers like it; it’s now a multi-groove track where they can find someplace to race to suit their cars. Some fans like the long green-flag runs and appreciate how hard it is to pass. For many, many spectators, though, it means less of what they loved about Bristol: beating and banging and blowing the chrome horn. Kenny Wallace summed it up nicely on Friday, saying, “This new track is really a good track. The fans don’t care for it because we don’t have to beat and bang. There’s less wrecking. It’s sad to say, nobody will admit it, but fans love to see those damn wrecks!” There was plenty of racing on Sunday, but it didn’t have that overaggressive short track feel. That’s what’s missing now.
How… much of a title threat is Brad Keselowski?
Keselowski was a threat in 2011 and he’s one in 2012. The Penske racer, now in his third season with the team has shown that he can win on any type of track. He demonstrated last summer that he is one tough cookie, too, after suffering an avulsion fracture of his ankle and promptly going on a tear to make the Chase. With a top-five points finish in his first playoff season, he’s proven that he won’t back down from anyone, anywhere. And he’s got fast racecars. If Keselowski stays on his game, he’ll be a title favorite come summer. Sponsor Miller has never won a Cup title despite having two former champions carrying their banner at Penske Racing over the last two decades. Rusty Wallace didn’t win them a title, despite a stellar win record. Kurt Busch couldn’t do it, either. But the company’s “Blue Deuce” could be on the cusp with Keselowski. He’ll be a title threat until he wins one, and that’s probably a “when” and not an “if.”