NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

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?

Talladega seems to be one track where there are some unexpected names at the top of the scoring pylon at the end of the day. Although part of that is due to the high rate of attrition at restrictor-plate tracks, there are also some teams that just seem to find the extra horsepower they need at the plate tracks. This week, it was David Ragan, who has hardly made a peep since moving over to Front Row Motorsports after his Roush Fenway ride was shut down due to lack of sponsorship. It’s Ragan’s first top-10 run of the year, and it shouldn’t be a surprise; Ragan won at Daytona last July and is strong at the plate tracks. But for a driver with an average finish of 27th for the year (eight spots lower than his 2011 average), it has to feel good to be among the leaders.

What… was THAT?

Sunday’s race at Talladega featured one season-high number that won’t make the headlines. The Aaron’s 499 saw more terminal engine failures than any race this year, with four. Only Daytona, Las Vegas and Kansas came close with three apiece (and one at Las Vegas, with the listed reason as a start-and-park team and, therefore, to be taken with a grain of salt). If you look at engine failures this season, the restrictor-plate tracks stand out: while hosting only 20% of the races to date, these tracks have seen just under 37% of the early expirations.

So what’s to blame? At least in part, it might be time to point the finger at the rules NASCAR instituted to help break up the two-car tandems at the plate tracks. After the three issues at Daytona, NASCAR made no changes. Instead, the finger was pointed at the brand-new fuel injection system, an argument that was bolstered by three more engines detonating at Las Vegas a week later. But in light of Sunday’s powerplant problems, it may be time for NASCAR to take a second look at the rules they put in place, which cause the engines to overheat in close drafting situations. The problem here is that they apparently cause the same issues in the pack. Fans don’t want to see the two-car draft, but do they really want to see their favorite driver’s day ended early by the rules to end it?

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

As is typical of Talladega, it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. All it takes is one wrong move on somebody’s part and a dozen or more days are ended early at one pop. That was the case for polesitter Jeff Gordon on Sunday. After starting on point, Gordon went to the back and drove back to the front and took some of his own lumps due to water pressure issues on the No. 24. But it was a lap 143 incident that ended Gordon’s day, relegating the driver to just a 33rd-place finish.

Still, Gordon’s qualifying effort should not be forgotten among the wreckage of his finish. Gordon tied a NASCAR record with his 20th straight season with at least one pole, tying Hall of Famer David Pearson’s all-time record. That means that Gordon has won a pole in every year he has competed full-time on the Cup circuit. This week’s was his 71st pole overall (third all-time). In addition, Gordon is sixth all-time in races won from the pole with 19.

When… will I be loved?

One sure way to make people mad at you at a restrictor-plate race is to throw an ill-timed block. It’s by no means a dirty move; it’s instinctually trying to protect position. But the danger lies in the act that there’s a split-second window in which to make the move work. This week, AJ Allmendinger tried to throw a block at Denny Hamlin after that window had already closed. The ensuing multi-car crash ended the hopes of a dozen other teams. It wasn’t the only wreck of the day, but it was the most preventable.

Why… is intentionally wrecking an opponent on the cool-down lap different than doing it under caution?

Although it would seem on the surface that an intentional bumper after the end of the race would be similar to the same act under caution in the race, it appears that NASCAR doesn’t see it the same way. NASCAR made it clear at Texas last fall that they will not tolerate a driver wrecking someone deliberately under caution when they parked Kyle Busch for the weekend after he put Ron Hornaday Jr. in the wall under caution. But the sanctioning body has made no such move for similar incidents on the cool-down lap, unless they occurred on pit road.

The latest such incident happened on Saturday at Talladega, when Danica Patrick, angry with Sam Hornish Jr., deliberately turned Hornish into the wall after the checkers flew, causing extensive damage to the No. 12. NASCAR officials indicated that they will speak with Patrick and Hornish, whose rivalry has simmered for years, beginning when the two competed in go-karts and later IndyCar, but will not penalize Patrick. Rivalry or no, Hornish’s initial contact with Patrick was not intentional, but the result of a cut tire. Hornish slid up the track and pinched Patrick against the wall. All of this makes one question how this was different than the Busch-Hornaday situation last year. But although it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that NASCAR didn’t want to penalize a media darling, NASCAR has a history of turning the other way when a driver tries to settle a dispute on the cool-down lap (one of the most memorable was a swipe Carl Edwards took at Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Nationwide race a few years back). Perhaps it’s time to revisit that position… surely turning a car after a race has ended is just as dangerous as doing it under a yellow flag.

How… big a title threat is Brad Keselowski?

It’s hard to say at this point, because so much more weight is on a driver’s Chase performance than what he accomplishes in the regular season, but Keselowski should be looked at as a very real title contender. Keselowski’s fifth-place run last year came after a slightly inconsistent Chase run, and he does have a feast-or-famine streak; he’s just 12th in points this year despite two wins and also got into last year’s Chase on a wild-card berth. But Keselowski and Paul Wolfe just get better and better as a team as time goes on. Keselowski is a smart, calculating driver, which he showed in his win on Sunday, pulling ahead of Busch off turn 4 when it was clear that Busch didn’t have any drafting help, taking the slingshot away from Busch and the win for himself. He showed last year that he can drive through adversity, when he powered his way through the late summer despite a fractured ankle. While he may not be at the top of anyone’s title favorites list right now, he bears keeping an eye on. If he gets hot in the Chase, he’s going to be tough to beat.

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