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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks at Dover

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?

A week after winning the pole in Charlotte and driving home with a top-15 finish, Aric Almirola showed once again that Richard Petty Motorsports is a team on the verge of a breakthrough year. Almirola drove the No. 43 to a sixth-place result at the Monster Mile on Sunday, while teammate Marcos Ambrose finished 10th. That made RPM the only multi-car organization to see each of their entries finish inside the top 10 at Dover; it’s also the first time the team has done it all season. Mike Ford continues to work wonders since becoming Almirola’s crew chief; they haven’t finished lower than 19th in four starts together.

Now, are either one of these two drivers going to make the Chase? Probably not. But is it conceivable that this success could turn into some top-10 finishes and even a win or two? It’s looking more and more that way as both men improved their point positions with the day’s results… and for a team like RPM, that steadiness could be the saving grace as they search for more dollars.

What… was THAT?

Almost lost in the Dover shuffle this weekend was a bit of news that’s sure to come as a blessing to some Sprint Cup teams – and a bane to others. After a four-year moratorium, it appears that NASCAR may be ready to lift the ban it imposed on testing at nationally-sanctioned tracks. That move was made to help teams defray costs, but it didn’t really work as planned as the larger organizations were able to find unsanctioned places to test at like Rockingham, Road Atlanta and even Texas World Speedway.

Now, NASCAR appears ready to reverse that ban, at least to some degree, according to a FOX Sports report from Friday. The plan, in its preliminary stages, is to add five to seven test sessions to the 2013 rulebook. It’s unclear whether these will be in the hands of the teams, allowing them to choose venues and dates or if they will be scheduled by NASCAR and open to all.

Is this adjustment necessary? Right now, the ban has been inconsequential for some of the bigger organizations, like Roush Fenway Racing, who have chosen not to test at alternate tracks and instead focused on simulations and technology. But for the teams that don’t have that computerized brainpower, “extra practice” will be a mixed blessing: it’s still very expensive (a two-day test runs roughly $250,000) but less so than items like a 7-post shaker rig. Many teams also feel that the ban has put their young drivers at a disadvantage, as they have had no chance to test at tracks where they have not raced before. So if NASCAR does open that door, it could go either way: smaller teams with “young guns” at the wheel might catch up, or the major, multi-car organizations could use an overload of travel and money to retain their edge, widening the gap. In the grand scheme of things, it will probably be a little of both as teams decide how to best use their resources.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

The old adage that racing the track is more important than racing your opponents proved to be the case for Mark Martin on Sunday. After laying claim to his third pole of the year, best in the Cup Series, Martin had a lightning-fast Toyota for the early going, leading three times for a total of 43 laps; only Jeff Gordon and a dominant Jimmie Johnson led more than Martin did on the day. However, Johnson was able to keep up with the track, and drivers who bided their time early, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick, were able to improve as the day wore on. Martin’s team did no such thing, gradually sliding backwards before a two-tire stop for track position forced a serious struggle over the race’s final 50 laps. In the end, a bid to become Sprint Cup’s oldest winner, at 53 wound up far short; the No. 55 came home in 14th place. It was a solid, lead-lap finish, but not what Martin and his Michael Waltrip Racing team were hoping for once the day began.

When… will I be loved?

While he may have made the fans who have been lamenting the lack of cautions happy, it’s a safe bet that Tony Stewart won’t be feeling any love in the garage this week as his impatient move on Landon Cassill triggered a 13-car pileup and ended several teams’ days before they were able to get started. Cassill was already loose on the exit of turn 2 when Stewart stuck his nose under the right rear – a surefire way to loosen up a car and completely unnecessary at that juncture in the race. Regan Smith then got into the back of Stewart, making the whole thing worse, and was a class act in taking the blame. However, the bottom line was that Stewart got a little too aggressive, too soon.

“We don’t have the luxury of being patient,” Stewart claimed after the incident. But here’s the bottom line: it was the reigning champ’s own qualifying effort, a lowly 29th, that got him the start amongst the midpack cars. Had he recognized the situation, taking time to climb through the field many people, including himself would have had a much better day. There’s always time to be patient that early, and Stewart’s experience leaves him no excuse. Maybe for him, it will be inconsequential but for many of the teams involved in that wreck, it’s catastrophic. The teams struggling for top-25 finishes don’t have the luxury of a brand-new Hendrick-supported car to replace the ones they lost.

Why… not stagger distances at more tracks with two races?

Once upon a time, both races at Dover were 500 miles instead of the current 400, and they were hell on cars. Drivers, too. Both Pocono races have been shortened by 100 miles as well. Both races at Loudon, Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Richmond, Kansas, Michigan and Talladega are the same length as well. Perhaps it’s time to rethink this concept, as it could lead to more excitement for fans. Currently, running the same distance twice at tracks allows teams to at least start on the same page as far as strategy and setup. But making one race longer than the other would force them to think outside the box in order to save engines, tires, fuel, and driver. As a longer race would run later into the day, fans would see teams dominate early and then fade as conditions changed, teams nursing engines, and a variety of fuel strategies playing out. The races at Charlotte and Daytona, for example, run at very different paces when they’re 100 miles longer or shorter.

It wouldn’t be difficult. Bristol and Martinsville should remain 500 laps all the time; they have enough other aspects going for them. At Dover, Pocono, Texas, Kansas and Talladega, one 400-mile and one 500-mile show would work just fine. Michigan could go with a 400-miler and a shorter, 300-mile race. Richmond could go either way, with either one 400 and one 500-lap event, or even a 400 and a 300-lapper. Both Phoenix and Loudon could add 50 laps to one race or the other. Switching things up would not be difficult for NASCAR or the racetracks, but it would make a difference in the product race fans in the stands and at home would see. It’s really a no-brainer.

How… many of the drivers in the top 10 after Dover should you expect to still be there after Richmond?

Of course things always change in racing; a hot streak for one team and a summertime slump for another could cause the picture to change drastically. But should teams run the next 13 races at roughly the pace they have for the first 13, nine of the current top 10 appear to be a safe bet. The top seven are all but a lock. Clint Bowyer, in 10th after Dover, is the most at risk, because current 11th-place Brad Keselowski is one of those drivers who can go on a tear and make up a lot of ground in a short time. It’s hard to imagine current 12th-place Carl Edwards not rallying to make the Chase, but that’s a harder call to make – his season to date has been anything but stellar. Bowyer has been consistent, if not brilliant, while Edwards has been on an up-and-down ride – and so has Kyle Busch, who’s currently in eighth. Any big movement will likely be between these four.