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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Capital City 400 at Richmond

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.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

If the television broadcast was the sole source of information about Saturday night’s race, it would be easy to wonder if Brad Keselowski was even in the field for all the mention he got. Keselowski most certainly was in the field, and although he wasn’t a contender for the win, he did drive the no. 2 to a solid ninth-place finish under the lights. Keselowski gained two spots in the standings to 13th, and as of now, would hold a wild-card Chase spot. Despite Keselowski’s win at Bristol last month, Penske racing as a whole has struggled somewhat to open 2012. Keselowski and teammate AJ Allmendinger have just five top-10 finishes between them, including Keselowski’s finish on Saturday, and the team as a whole hasn’t shown the strength of its competitors in 2012, or of Keselowski’s late-season tear in 2011. It’s not time to hit the panic button just yet, but the Penske teams need to capitalize on the speed they have and finish races if they hope to make a title run.

What… was THAT?

Everyone knows by now that the next Sprint Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports will be the organization’s 200th, but another driver is looking for a career milestone as well. Ryan Newman’s next pole will be the 50th of his career. Pole number 50 will move Newman, a driver known throughout his career for his qualifying ability, into sole possession of ninth place on the all-time pole winners’ list. Newman currently ranks third among active Sprint Cup drivers for pole positions, behind Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Newman, the 2002 Sprint Cup Rookie of the year, has at least one pole in each of his 10 full Cup seasons through the end of 2011, though he has yet to qualify on top this year, and had a career-best eleven poles in 2003.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

For a driver scaling back his schedule, Martin certainly isn’t scaling back his driving. The 53-year-old Martin took the top starting spot over Carl Edwards 31 years after he took a Richmond pole for the first time, and was a top-five contender all night long, finally bringing his No. 55 machine home in eighth place. Michael Waltrip Racing continued to show early-season strength, with two cars taking home top-10 finishes on the night (Clint Bowyer finished seventh). Thanks to the efforts of Martin and Brian Vickers, the No 55 is playing the spoiler in owner standings, lurking around the top 10 all year. Both Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have given credit to Martin’s veteran experience as part of the team’s meteoric rise so far this year. Martin may be taking a few more days off, but he’s not showing any sign of slowing down any time soon.

When… will I be loved?

During another week with drivers being on their best behavior, it’s hard to name a villain. But if you ask a couple of teams, they might say the NASCAR rulebook caused them considerable angst. First, after making up 26 positions on the racetrack to lead, Jimmie Johnson was penalized for a loose tire in his pit box on lap 313, after a crew member rolled it back to the wall too early (the tire has to be carried or pushed back to the wall to be considered in the control of the team.) Then Edwards clearly jumped a restart with 82 laps to go and NASCAR showed him the black flag for his effort. Neither driver was able to recover from his penalty; Johnson finished the race in sixth, while Edwards came home 10th. The calls didn’t hurt Johnson or Edwards in the standings (Johnson actually gained a spot), but that’s probably small consolation after each was handed a bitter (though deserved) pill to swallow.

Why… should Elliott Sadler be worried about his Nationwide Series points lead?

After Sadler, his Richard Childress Racing teammates and the three teams in the Turner Motorsports stable presented their Nationwide cars for inspection on Thursday, NASCAR confiscated the upper-front bumper-cover section of all six cars. All six teams allegedly altered the wheel well section of the nose piece, which is designed by the car manufacturer. The RCR teams altered both sides, while the Turner teams made changes to only one side. Altering the bumper cover of a racecar is specifically prohibited by the Nationwide rule book, so it’s likely that a substantial penalty will be handed down.

This will be an interesting storyline to follow as the penalty will likely be similar to one that was given to the No. 48 Sprint Cup team earlier this year, which was later largely overturned on appeal. Though that penalty was for an allegedly illegal C-pillar, there are similarities: like the No. 48 infraction, these were discovered via a visual inspection and, in Sadler’s case at least, supposedly had been raced before and passed several inspections, including the extra scrutiny a race winner generally receives. The difference between the two is that the nosepiece is factory designed and subject to a specific rule as such. It will be interesting to see how the sanctioning body handles this case, given that the earlier one was overturned except for a monetary fine to the crew chief.

How… convenient were those debris cautions?

Did anyone notice that after a week in which fans complained about the lack of cautions so far in 2012, there was suddenly a lot of debris on the track at Richmond? While one would hope that that was simply coincidence, the fact remains that three of five caution flags were for debris and that the cautions changed the complexion, and most likely the outcome of the race. FOX camera did not show the debris in two of the three (that third one was legit in the aftermath of Jeff Burton scraping the wall), and the only thing that drivers saw to explain the final, game-changing caution was a water bottle that wasn’t in the racing groove?

It would be a major step backward for NASCAR to revert to throwing unfounded debris cautions to tighten up the field. Long green-flag runs have always been a part of racing. To expect side-by-side racing for the lead for up to 600 miles of competition is simply unrealistic, and sometimes the race just has to play out. A race unaffected by smoke and mirrors in an attempt to spice it up for the fans is far better than one riddled with cautions for something that simply isn’t there. Cautions should be thrown for a crash or an engine failure, or for actual debris on the track; that’s a serious safety issue. But one thing the yellow flag should never be used for is simply to tighten up the field for excitement.