Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono

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.

Author’s Note: Before I write about a race that now seems trivial in light of the tragedy that took place afterward, I would like to take a moment to send my heartfelt sympathy and prayers to those who were hurt in the storm at Pocono Raceway and to the family of the fan whose life was cut short too soon. Every once in a while we are given a painful reminder of the real cost of the sport that we love, and Sunday’s events serve as just that. Racing at its best is beautiful, but at its worst is tragic.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

In an era where many drivers don’t know how to turn a wrench, it was a refreshing change to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the bull by the horns and helping his crew when the No. 88 suffered a transmission failure. By the time his crew got to the garage from pit road, Earnhardt had the car up on jackstands on the left side and was working on the right. Although handling the jack might not seem like a big deal, it is on a couple of levels. One that a lot of drivers, including some championship-caliber ones, wouldn’t have thought to do that.

Second, it reminds us that sometimes it’s the little things over the course of a season that mean the difference between a championship and second place. Earnhardt showed on Sunday by his simple move that he is a serious title contender. Two years ago, the picture might have been a far different one, but this is 2012 and Earnhardt is showing the mettle of not just a Chase driver, but of one who could go all the way to the head table in Las Vegas. Yes, Earnhardt’s transmission woes meant he finished a disappointing 32nd. It’s his first finish worse than 23rd all year and only his second race outside the top 20. That’s better than Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson, all of whom have three finishes of 20th or worse on the year. If Earnhardt can grab another win or two, he could be real trouble in the Chase.

What… was THAT?

It wasn’t long ago that most people were willing to write off 2012 as a complete disaster for Jeff Gordon. Now, with six races to go before the Chase, Gordon showed why you can never count out a four-time champion. With his win in the rain-shortened Pocono event, Gordon put himself in the second wild card spot in the Chase with just six races left until the championship run begins, passing Kyle Busch in points to take a provisional hold on a Chase berth.

Although Gordon is not likely to be a major title threat, he showed Sunday why he is perhaps the greatest driver of a generation, that one guy you can never count out until the checkers fly. Because if there is a way to get in position to win, Gordon will find it, just as he did Sunday at Pocono. His season has been deceiving in that he has run better than his wild-card competition nearly every week, only to have good finish after good finish slip away in a wave of epic bad luck. If Gordon can turn the luck around for good, he could be a darkhorse when the title run begins.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After winning the pole for the Pennsylvania 400, Juan Pablo Montoya had to be more optimistic than he has had reason to be in a long time about his chances on Sunday. However, the struggles that have been the story all year at Chip Ganassi Racing once again reared their heads after the green flag. When teams whose setups favored longer runs began to show their strength, Montoya faded, finishing 20th when the rains came.

It isn’t that the Ganassi teams don’t have fast cars or good drivers. It isn’t that they haven’t hired the best personnel available. It’s as simple and as complicated as chemistry; both Montoya’s No. 42 team and the No. 1 of teammate Jamie McMurray just have not jelled like the team has hoped after wholesale changes in the offseason. It isn’t the drivers, but if performance doesn’t improve, it could be the drivers who wind up on the hot seat. It’s easier to fire the person in the spotlight than to isolate a deeper problem.

When… will I be loved?

It was hard enough on the frontrunners when Johnson’s flat right-rear tire triggered a four-car crash on the final restart, sending Johnson into Kenseth in front of the field, collecting Denny Hamlin and Bobby Labonte in the aftermath, but NASCAR didn’t help matters much by throwing the caution late (Johnson got loose and into Kenseth at the front of the field, yet 13 cars had time to pass Johnson by the time the caution came out and froze the field!? Good thing nobody was hurt…) and caused a controversy with their scoring of the race after the accident. Even after the race was called for rain, there were lingering doubts about the correctness of the finishing order. In a day and age where there is electronic scoring information and/or video covering virtually every inch of racetrack, it shouldn’t be so hard to sort out who is running where at the moment of caution. Sure, it might take a few extra caution laps to sort out, but in the long run, NASCAR needs to take more care in making sure they’re getting the running order correct before the race is restarted or over.

Why… wasn’t John Wes Townley in the No. 32 when the green flag fell?

After a first-lap crash in the first practice session of his first Sprint Cup race, Townley reportedly made the decision himself not to continue with the weekend, leaving team owner Frankie Stoddard scrambling to find a replacement driver. Jason White had to go to NASCAR to get a Cup license, but luckily White had raced a Cup car at Pocono in the past and was allowed to drive.

Although on one level, removing himself from the car was probably the best move Townley has ever made at the racetrack and no doubt resulted in a collective sigh of relief from the competition, it also shows that Townley’s level of commitment to his career is… well, pretty much nonexistent. It also illustrates the problems with the buy-a-ride system that has become more prevalent in this day when sponsor dollars are desperately hard to come by. It’s kind of sad; Townely’s father, who is the CEO of Zaxby’s restaurants, apparently wants his son to race as a way to keep him on the straight and narrow. But the younger Townley obviously views his NASCAR career as nothing more than a very expensive hobby. Zaxby’s as a company would be much better served to put their logo on the hood of a reputable driver instead of continuing to be the butt of criticism about the family money being the only reason that Townley (a poor driver on a good day, and one who is now branded as a quitter as well) has a ride.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Amid rumors that the team will switch manufacturers from Chevrolet to Dodge in 2013 and add a second car to the stable, Regan Smith quietly posted his best finish of the year, a ninth place, in the team’s first race with Todd Berrier at the helm after Berrier replaced Pete Rondeau.

Front Row Motorsports (ModSpace Ford/ Taco Bell Ford): David Gilliland was the top horse in the Front Row stable this week, posting a lead lap 21st-place finish, his second-best result this year and the second best result of his career at Pocono. David Ragan came home 28th, just behind his 2012 average finish of 27.5.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (TMone.com Chevy/CRM Hiring Veterans Chevy): David Reutimann improved on his season average finish of 27.5 by more than three spots, finishing 24th in the No. 10 and keeps the car inside the Top 35 in points with a 30-point cushion for rookie Danica Patrick’s limited schedule. Tony Raines filled the seat for Dave Blaney, who was on hand at Iowa to coach his son Ryan Blaney in the Nationwide race. Raines dropped out of the race after just 36 laps citing fuel pump issues, but in reality, it seems as though the No. 36 has become a start-and-park to support the No. 10 for Patrick.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil and Landon Cassill finished together in 25th and 26th place, respectively, one lap down. Although the finishes aren’t what Kvapil and Cassill likely dream about at night, the team is making slow gains in equipment that is over a year old, which put them behind the curve from the start.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Scott ProductsToyota): Labonte was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time on Sunday, getting caught in the wreck on the final restart caused by Johnson’s flat tire. This team, which had begun 2012 optimistic about growth and the addition of a second team for 2013, has stagnated somewhat over the summer months, with a 10th-place at Daytona the only finish better than 24th since Sonoma in June. However, the season isn’t a terrible one; Lanonte leads all of the small team drivers in points, sitting 23rd.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Hard contact with the outside retaining wall put a halt to Kurt Busch’s day after 84 laps. Busch had a better weekend than his result, though, qualifying sixth and leading three laps of the event.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): For Casey Mears, the disappointment of not finishing the race was pre-determined, as the Pennsylvania 400 was not a sponsored race for the No. 13 team. Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker were able to use the race as a test session, however, trying different tire and pit strategies during the 40 laps they were able to complete.

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