NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’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?

His face said it all as he sat in front of the media after the checkers; second place after being the class of the field for much of the day and leading nearly half of the laps in the race hurts. And make no mistake, race winner Kasey Kahne ran a smart, clean race to take his first New Hampshire win, but it was Denny Hamlin who really had the best performance of the afternoon.

Hamlin led five times for a total of 141 laps, nearly twice as many as the next guy on the list, Kyle Busch, who led 72 circuits. And caught at the back of the pack late in the race due to a miscommunication that resulted in spending valuable seconds in the pits, taking four tires instead of just two, Hamlin made passing at Loudon (arguably one of the most difficult things to do in Cup Series racing) look like child’s play, surging through the field toward the front and cutting down Kahne’s lead by a visible margin nearly every lap. In the end, Kahne was able to use lapped traffic as enough of a diversion to keep Hamlin from closing enough for a winning bid, but that didn’t make Hamlin’s performance any less memorable. And the look on Hamlin’s face when he came into the media center said he knew just how good he was.

What… was THAT?

Jeff Hammond said to me at Loudon that a racer is someone who, no matter what he may have done in his career, wants to win the next race every bit as much as he wanted to win the first one. Two of the drivers who came up in the conversation each illustrated just what it means to be a racer on Saturday night, far from the spectacle that is Loudon. Kenny Wallace won his first career championship in the DIRTcar Summer Nationals, the dirt racing series known as the Hell Tour for its grueling schedule and fierce competition, beating some of the top dirt modified racers in the country in the process. Tony Stewart helped make it happen.

Wallace was one race shy of the 10 needed to qualify of the title (the series takes each driver’s 10 best races for points) but had to be in Loudon for a production meeting Saturday. Stewart, despite not having a car to run himself, decided to make a trip to Eldora, the Ohio dirt track he owns. Wallace was sick to his stomach about not being able to race for the title, and inquired around about chartering a plane to Toledo for the final race. Stewart understood the importance as a racer, and made sure Wallace was on his plane when he left for Eldora. After a phone call to Wallace’s team in Terre Haute to make the five-hour drive back to Toledo, Stewart’s plane made a detour. Wallace finished sixth in the race, good enough to secure the title.

Niether Wallace nor Stewart did it for the attention. They did it because they are racers… and racers, no matter what, race.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

For Busch, the fact that he has some of the strongest racecars in the field every week is little consolation. After winning the pole for the Cup race, Busch had every reason to be confident on Sunday. New Hampshire’s confines suit Busch’s style; the track is as tough and ornery as the driver, and Busch has wins there in all three national touring series. Impressive by any standard.

But a pit-road speeding penalty and later getting caught a lap down when the caution flew during a pit cycle left Busch in 16th when the checkers flew, worst in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable at the end of the day. Busch’s talent alone won’t earn him a Chase berth, either. Right now, Busch is hanging by a thread in the second wild-card spot, 66 markers out of the top 10 and just nine ahead of 14th-place Ryan Newman, who also has one win; meaning that as things stand, Newman could take the final wild-card spot away simply by passing Busch in points. Brilliance and consistency don’t always mesh, and they certainly aren’t meshing for Busch this year.

When… will I be loved?

Villain? What villain? The race at Loudon was so tame that the drivers looked like perfect angels for most of the day. Sure, there were a few disagreements; at one point, Matt Kenseth’s spotter accused Paul Menard of “driving stupid,” but it couldn’t have been that stupid, because Menard didn’t make any major mistakes and all was well.

On the other hand, the cautions that flew for “debris” were a little sketchier than Menard’s prowess Sunday. I tried to find it, but well, someone in the control tower has better vision than I if there was anything on the track. It may be designed to make things more exciting, but in reality, that kind of manipulation ultimately hurts the entire race because if the best cars can race each other for the win, it’s a better show for the fans.

When he came into the media center after the race, Hamlin said it all, though he did his best to remain PC, telling the assembled media that the debris “if there was any” hurt the end of the race, and said that it’s NASCAR’s responsibility to make sure that if there is debris, it is truly something that could pose a hazard during the race before throwing the yellow flag. Hamlin is right. Sure, restarts are exciting, but creating them under false pretenses is a sham.

Why… do people want to see a New Hampshire race eliminated?

Loudon is one of those racetracks, like Darlington, where the view from inside is vastly different from what you see on TV. With the tight confines in the corners, there is nearly always some hard racing somewhere. Plus, it’s one of those tracks that separate the best from the rest because it’s one of the most difficult on the circuit, and the driver is a more important part of the equation than at most tracks, which is something most fans have said they want. It’s a unique track, a flat mile, vastly different from the other two mile tracks on the schedule, Phoenix and Dover. Since renovations several years ago, there is passing. The track can’t help the lack of cautions to mix things up, and the crowd in the stands was one of the healthiest of the year at somewhere between 80-90%. That was far more than there were at even Bristol, making NHMS one of the more stable venues in NASCAR. There’s nothing about Loudon that deserves to be silenced. Save the cutting of dates for the cookie cutters.

How… did the little guys do?

New Hampshire is just tough, plain and simple. It’s an expensive and long haul north for teams, and that leaves some of the smaller teams in a bind, unable to afford to run the race without a sponsor, and that bit a couple of the small teams who normally would go the distance if there was money to be had. But others did make it to the end and salvaged a decent day.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Luke & Associates Toyota): There is a reason that Bobby Labonte leads the drivers of these teams despite not having a single bonus point in 2012: Labonte very quietly finishes races. He was the top of the heap at Loudon, finishing 23rd, on the lead lap.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Kurt Busch was fast in practice, but struggled during the race, finishing a lap down in 24th. Busch is excellent at Loudon with three Cup wins and one in the Truck Series, but even his prowess couldn’t overcome his equipment.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith will have a new crew chief at Indy; in Pete Rondeau’s last race, the pair finished 26th, two laps down.

Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell Ford/ Front Row Motorsports Ford): David Ragan looked good in practice all weekend, but in the end it was the other David, David Gilliland, who had the best finish for FRM Sunday in 27th, two laps down. Ragan finished 34th after his engine expired after 139 laps.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Year-old equipment is wearing on the team as the season goes on. Landon Cassill just edged Travis Kvapil at New Hampshire, finishing 29th to Kvapil’s 30th, each three laps in arrears.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Mohawk Northeast Chevy/Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy): It was lack of money, not lack of trying that hurt owner Tommy Baldwin at his New England home track. David Reutimann was scheduled to run the distance, but fell 81 laps shy after his engine expired. Dave Blaney had to pull off the track after just 68 laps.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): GEICO was on the hood, but New Hampshire was not a sponsored race for Casey Mears, and after four straight top-20 runs, Mears was forced to park after just 91 laps without the funding to race all day.

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