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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Southern 500 at Darlington

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Saturday night’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… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

After making a rather stealthy climb from his 21st-place start into the top 10, Joey Logano had a brush with the turn 4 wall at Darlington Saturday night. Logano dropped out of sight with a bad tire rub, seemingly out of contention after the halfway point but the fourth-year Cup Series veteran was far from done. The youngster, who has won the last two Nationwide Series races and sits 15th in Sprint Cup points, made a steady climb back into the top 10, rising to 10th by the checkered flag. It seems three months after crew chief Jason Ratcliffe came on board and the team began an effort to build around Logano, the work is paying off: he has three top-10 finishes so far this year (none lower than 26th) and sits within striking distance of the Chase. Compare that to 2011, when Logano had just one top 10 in 11 races, two outside the top 30 and sat languishing outside the top 20 in points. Does Darlington’s success mean the young driver nicknamed “Sliced Bread” for his talent is finally hitting his stride?

What… was THAT?

After seven months peppered with near misses and a night wrought with fuel mileage drama, car owner Rick Hendrick reached a milestone that only one other team has ever reached: 200 Cup Series wins. Only Petty Enterprises has more (268).

When Hendrick entered the Cup scene as a car owner, armed with the vision of a multi-car super-team in the 1980s, most rivals were single-car outfits. That model was not just a necessity in most cases but the NASCAR ideal: two-car programs like Junior Johnson’s often ended with drivers fighting, not forging a partnership for success. Hendrick was told his concept would never click, yet the car owner committed to it, setting about proving the naysayers wrong. His first win as a car owner came at NASCAR’s oldest track, Martinsville Speedway, with driver Geoff Bodine in 1984. 28 years later, and 26 years after expanding into a multi-car operation, Jimmie Johnson delivered win No. 200.

In between, HMS has won races at 25 different tracks, with 15 drivers and 21 crew chiefs, and has captured the most prestigious trophies on the circuit, including the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 race events. Hendrick has 10 Cup championships as an owner with three different drivers (Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte) as well as multiple Nationwide and Truck Series titles, while his multi-car team model has become the gold standard in NASCAR today. Turns out that was some idea…

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Greg Biffle set a blistering pace on his qualifying run, and early on in Saturday night’s race, it looked as though he’d be an all-night contender as he led twice for a total of 74 laps. However, as night fell with a bang over the Track Too Tough To Tame, Biffle’s fortunes faded along with his car’s handling. Biffle was able to hang in the top 10 for much of the latter stages, but when all was said and done, he was forced to settle for a 12th-place finish, at his worst when his rivals were at their best. The Ford driver still holds onto the points lead, but teammate Matt Kenseth is gaining, surging after a sixth-place effort on Saturday. Biffle’s lead shrank to just two points over Kenseth, though he gained a little breathing room over third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who struggled to 17th and fell to 14 points off the pace.

When… will I be loved?

The Track Too Tough to Tame produced a race that was tamer than usual, but hotter heads prevailed on pit road after the race. Apparently, Kurt Busch, unhappy with Ryan Newman for a late-race tangle, bumped Newman’s car on pit road, igniting a scuffle between team members from the Nos. 51 and 39. That will likely lead to hefty penalties for Newman’s gas man, who bumped a NASCAR official trying to break up the fracas. Busch and Newman didn’t get involved in the physical fighting, but if NASCAR determines that Busch hit Newman intentionally on pit road, that will likely mean a penalty for the beleaguered driver as well. For Busch, 2012 is supposed to be a year of redemption after Busch’s behavior led to his dismissal from Penske Racing at the end of 2011. With just a one-year deal at Phoenix Racing, Busch may not have many bridges left to burn at this point.

Why… is Darlington called the Lady in Black, anyway?

Because that’s the color NASCAR’s grande dame wears after every race. The nickname comes from the tendency of drivers to run mere inches off the outside wall for the last 60 years. By the end of a race, the walls in the corners are coated with black from the tires as the cars earn their “Darlington stripes” by brushing the wall ever so lightly, lap after lap. The black marks often extend all the way through both turns and onto what is now the frontstretch. Running so close to the wall for 367 laps is truly racing on the razor’s edge, because of the enhanced risk taking that line poses. The high line at Darlington has always been the fastest way around, and to win after 500 miles of flirting with the Lady is one of the most prized accomplishments a driver can have in his career.

How… come so many people think caution free equals boring?

There’s been a bit of a back-and-forth recently between two factions of fans, as some have complained about the boring nature of long green-flag runs. That’s left the media in a tough spot, forced to speculate if these critics would rather have manufactured cautions or lots of wrecks. But what I think it boils down to is a matter of perspective. Many race fans have a particular driver they pull for, and it’s possible that how that driver is faring colors their perspective on the race. If he’s not doing well, especially if another driver is dominating, perhaps a long green-flag run seems lackluster. Double that if the driver who is leading is one they have a dislike for.

Meanwhile, those arguing that the green-flag racing winds up just as exciting might be watching with a broader perspective; rather than pinning their hopes on any driver, they’re watching the details. You can have a battle for 23rd place, one that goes on lap after lap without that ugly yellow-flag interruption. Or how about a 10th-place driver picking off the competition, one by one, stalking each in turn and timing the perfect move? Because they’re watching with an eye for the whole picture, the picture they see is different. This view is also harder, if not impossible to see on the television broadcasts, so if you’re not watching from the stands at a track, you aren’t going to see it. That difference was palpable as I watched from the press box Saturday night; being there allows you to see racing you’ll never see or hear about, side-by-side action that makes 2012 seem far more exciting than it’s been portrayed.

There are, of course, other factors in this complex situation. But part of it is a matter of the perspective fans are watching from… and that will never change.

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