Looking for the Who, What, Where, When, 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… the Big Six.
Author’s Note: Before I write the rest of this column, I want to give a sincere and heartfelt thanks to NASCAR for letting us go home again at long last — most especially to Andy Hillenburg, who kept a candle in the window to light the way. You have given race fans a gift whose value is immeasurable. Sunday, we saw the sport at its finest, and for that a mere thank you is inadequate to express what I felt when I sat among the crowd and did something I never thought I’d have an opportunity to do: watch a NASCAR race at Rockingham.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Although Greg Biffle had the best car at the end, the dominant driver of the night at Texas was left feeling robbed after a battle with a lapped car cost him the race lead and, ultimately, the win. Jimmie Johnson was clearly the class of the field for most of the night, leading the most laps (156) and making it look easy. But with Biffle closing in as the laps wound down, Johnson found himself locked in a battle to pass Ryan Newman, who was already one lap behind. While that battle raged, Biffle was able to close and pounce, passing the No. 48 for the final time. Johnson didn’t give in easily, driving so hard he smacked the wall twice trying to gain momentum, and that ultimately ended any chance he had of getting back around Biffle. It’s too bad Newman intervened, because it may have been a much more exciting competition in the closing laps if he had not.
What… was THAT?
If you’re looking for the biggest WTF of the weekend, look no further than the entry list for Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, which was missing two of its most popular drivers this week; both Kenny Wallace and Trevor Bayne were forced to sit out due to continuing sponsor woes. Wallace, the series’ all-time starts leader, is a three-time Most Popular Driver in the Nationwide Series, and Bayne is the 2011 Daytona 500 champion. Both are winners in the division, and both have a large, loyal fanbase. So, what gives? There is a serious problem with the economic climate in the sport when drivers like Wallace and Bayne are watching from the sidelines. Although the Nationwide Series is gaining popularity, and more than 70% of fans say they prefer seeing the regulars win, there is a serious problem with funding that has seen many of those same teams and drivers watch from the sidelines in recent years. This issue is more than just a bummer for a couple of people; it shows that there is a serious fissure still present in that series, and NASCAR needs to make a real commitment to fixing it if it is to survive.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
He didn’t end up in Victory Lane, but Martin Truex Jr. has been knocking on that door for weeks, and it won’t be long now for the Mayetta, N.J. native, who finished sixth on Saturday night. Truex and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have been red hot since last fall at Talladega, when they snatched up four top-10 finishes in five races to finish the year. Truex picked up 2012 right where he left off, with five top 10s in the first seven races and no result lower than 17th. Truex led four times for more than 60 laps on Saturday, flexing his muscle and it looks increasingly like this driver is on the brink of not only a win, but more than one of them.
When… will I be loved?
Although anyone who has ever been cut off on the highway will tell you that it’s one of the most dangerous and maddening moves another driver can make, most refrain from doing something rash. On the racetrack, drivers sometimes give into that temptation, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just couldn’t take it when Bobby Labonte slid up in front of him, giving Labonte a tap in the right rear that resulted in the 2000 Cup Series champ scraping the wall. Earnhardt didn’t suffer any damage; but for a driver who entered the night second in points, giving in to frustration, even if it is legitimate, could have been costly. Did Earnhardt have a legitimate beef with Labonte? Although Labonte did cut him off, it looked more like a case of a spotter jumping the gun on clearing his driver than a deliberate move on Earnhardt. There’s a fine line between not letting yourself be pushed around and making moves that can come back to haunt you. Earnhardt will need to be careful not to cross that line if he wants to be a serious title contender.
Why… did the Camping World Truck Series teams get extra tires this week?
Because, even after nearly a decade, Rockingham is still Rockingham. The 1.017-mile track hasn’t hosted a NASCAR race since 2004 and never a Truck Series race before Sunday, but it didn’t take long for the track to remind everyone of one of the reasons it had a reputation for being difficult. Even with the harder compound of today’s Goodyears, the place still eats race tires for lunch. In past races at the Rock, a driver felt like hell on wheels on fresh rubber, but once that feel went away (which was only a matter of a few laps), he just felt like he was in tire hell. Tire management was the key to taming the tough little oval carved out of North Carolina’s sand hills, and this was one of the reasons why fans loved the races there – tire wear makes for good racing. Goodyear, take note: although the durability of today’s tire generally rivals that of the ones seen on the Flintstones, it has contributed to the decline of the on-track product. Think soft.
Now, the Rock is back, and Goodyears are once again on the menu.
In the end, a few extra sets made all the difference; Rockingham served up a great show, and the crowd didn’t disappoint. Truly, it warrants something bigger and better next year: a standalone CWTS/Nationwide weekend on a Cup off week. It could be huge, and NASCAR would be crazy to let that opportunity slip away.
How… soon do teams need to start paying attention to points and the Chase?
Believe it or not, we’re now more than a quarter of the way through the first 26 races. Although the teams in the top 10-15 can still concentrate on simply winning, those further back who are hoping to be Chase contenders need to start thinking about what they need to do right now to improve their chances. With points at a premium, these teams need to do two things: get to the front, and not tear up equipment. Unfortunately for fans, that can sometimes mean they don’t have the “checkers or wreckers” mindset that the fans would like to see because they can ill afford a backmarker finish as they head into the warmer months. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger — who have had fast cars and terrible luck — need to go for wins, but they can’t take the chances someone like Biffle or Matt Kenseth can to get them.