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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

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?

While Clint Bowyer was holding off all comers for the win, his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates were having a strong race of their own, solidly in the top 10. Although Martin Truex Jr. got caught in a late-race traffic jam that forced him off the road and into 22nd place after leading 15 laps early on, it was Brian Vickers who really shined in just his third Cup race of 2012. Vickers drove his way through the field from a 21st-place starting spot, inserting himself into the top 10 and then the top five, muscling past Jimmie Johnson in the late laps to take home a fourth-place finish.

What makes Vickers’s run even more impressive is that the 28-year-old hasn’t been in a Cup car since Martinsville in early April, and Sunday marked just his third start all year. Vickers, who found himself out of a ride after Team Red Bull shut its doors at the end of 2011, signed on with MWR for just eight races this year. Vickers has certainly made the most of his limited seat time with two top-five finishes in the three races he’s run so far. That’s important for Vickers, a former Nationwide Series champion, in his search for a full-time ride going forward. Whether that’s at MWR or somewhere else remains to be seen, but Vickers is certainly making a case for himself as a full time competitor somewhere.

What… was THAT?

I don’t know, but you can’t call it a race broadcast. Not only were there times when less than three minutes elapsed between commercial breaks, but there was an awful lot that the cameras and announcers just plain missed. Thank goodness for Twitter, because that was the only way fans were going to hear about such things as spins by Bobby Labonte and Ryan Newman, Travis Kvapil running into the dirt but staying on course, Kevin Harvick running out of fuel (well, TNT did report on that one… 15 minutes later), a mystery issue reported by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin’s early exit, or the late-race fade by Marcos Ambrose. None of these were discussed on the airwaves Sunday.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my Friday column about television’s role in their own ratings problems. Not only did the broadcast ignore all those issues, but they failed to complete a full “Through the Field” segment and barely (if at all) spoke of some superb finishes, like the top five of Vickers in only his third race this year, Jeff Burton’s best finish since Daytona, AJ Allmendinger’s second top 10 of the year and Casey Mears’s best run of 2012. TNT missed more of the race than they covered on Sunday… a real shame for a lot of race fans.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After winning his second pole in a row by setting his second track record in a row, road-course ace Ambrose was a heavy favorite to win on Sunday. Early on, Ambrose was a threat, but as the laps wore on, Ambrose faded to the back end of the top 10 and then fell as far back as 16th before climbing back to finish eighth.

While eighth wasn’t a bad run for Ambrose and his Richard Petty Motorsports team, it probably marks the end of the team’s wild-card Chase hopes. Ambrose is a respectable 16th in points, but he realistically would need two wins to vault into a wild card spot, and the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen represent his best chance for those wins. If Ambrose repeats his 2011 win at the Glen, he’d still have to climb past Joey Logano and Newman in points to have a shot, and that means beating Gibbs and Hendrick equipment on a weekly basis. It’s possible, but Ambrose’s chances took a major blow Sunday.

When… will I be loved?

There wasn’t a lot of wrecking at Sonoma, and what there was was more racing incident than on-track feuding. However, sometimes having no teammates at all would be better than the “help” a pair of drivers received from their shopmates on Sunday. First, when Jeff Gordon’s streak of abominable luck continued with a dry gas tank, it looked as though Gordon was going to at least get a little help to his pit stall when Kasey Kahne pitted at the same time and pulled off the track behind Gordon. But instead of offering a push, Kahne simply drove on by, leaving Gordon to creep the rest of the way to his box on his own.

But Gordon wasn’t the only driver stewing at his teammate after the race. Hamlin compared Logano to a bowling ball after Logano got into turn 11 too hot and sent Hamlin for a ride which ended with the No. 11 in the garage for the day with a broken trailing arm. Although Logano took full responsibility for the incident, he has been driving a little on the aggressive side lately, and perhaps it’s time to back off just a touch. Should Logano win another one, he could very well make the Chase, and he’s already got a lot of guys unhappy with his driving over the last couple of months. There’s a fine line between standing your own ground and making enemies.

Why… isn’t there a road-course race in the Chase?

This is a question every race fan should be asking, because road courses are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what kind of winning streak a team hits on the ovals; a road course can throw a wrench in the works in the blink of an eye. Many of the drivers who are favorites week in and week out are out to lunch when they have to make right turns. Plus, the argument that all types of track should be represented is a valid one. Every other type of track (short, flat and banked 1-mile, intermediate, and superspeedway) is represented, and road-course racing requires the same amount of skill to win on. So why are they absent?

Which twists and turns should land in the final 10 races? It’s hard to go wrong with Sonoma. The June race could be replaced by a doubleheader with the Nationwide Series at Road America, and it would be hard to imagine anything more than a very local fan outcry if Sonoma were to replace Kansas in the final 12. Having the difficult, technical Sonoma in the Chase could only add legitimacy to a system which many question the validity of; at least the champion would have had to tackle every type of track to get there.

How… is the Chase field shaping up with 10 races to go?

With every passing week, the Chase field gets clearer, and it becomes harder and harder to break in. Barring some kind of freak disaster, the top four are in, and more likely at least the top seven will still be in the mix come Chicago. Below that, it’s a little shakier. Truex’s off-road adventure at Sonoma really cost the New Jersey native, and his team is not as experienced at those around them at racing to make the Chase. On the other hand, Brad Keselowski has been inconsistent and Carl Edwards hasn’t looked like a winner all year, so those last three guaranteed points sport could come down to the wire, and you can’t count out Kyle Busch or Newman should either one hit a hot streak. And although Busch or Newman hold the wild card spots right now, a second win by a streaking Logano and/or intermediate ace Kahne could vault Logano and/or Kahne into the picture. If his bad luck ever lifts, Gordon is a threat for a couple of wins, too. So there’s plenty to watch as the race to the Chase enters the summer homestretch.