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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen

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?

Although Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski were making the last lap at Watkins Glen one for the ages, another driver was quietly posting his team’s second top-five run of the year. Sam Hornish Jr. followed up his third-place finish in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday with a fifth-place run on Sunday. But the numbers don’t tell the whole tale. Because Hornish has an open wheel background, it’s often assumed that he has extensive road-course experience. But he doesn’t; Hornish’s three IZOD IndyCar Series titles came when the series ran almost exclusively on oval tracks. Hornish had just 11 road-course starts under his belt when he made the move to NASCAR.

The weekend also showed just how much Hornish has matured as a NASCAR driver two years after not reaching his potential and losing his Cup ride. But team owner Roger Penske, for whom Hornish has won an IndyCar championship and an Indianapolis 500, knew the potential was there. So he backed Hornish’s program off, moving him to the Nationwide Series. And Hornish has learned how to race a stock car, winning at Phoenix last year and sitting third in Nationwide points so far in 2012. But perhaps nothing illustrated Hornish’s improvement better than one lap during the race on Sunday. Many fans will remember Hornish getting over his head in the Texas Chase race in 2009, getting loose under title contender Jimmie Johnson and denting Johnson’s title hopes (Johnson would go on to win). But this time, Hornish wasn’t over his head. And when Johnson snookered him by outbraking in a corner, Hornish never hesitated, coming back with a vengeance to put the crossover on Johnson, leaving Johnson to fret on the radio. If Hornish continues to race as he has in recent weeks, there will be no more deserving driver to take over the No. 22 on a permanent basis.

What… was THAT?

Was it just me, or was there an unusually high number of mechanical issues at the Glen this week? Starting with Brian Vickers’s first lap engine failure, it was game on in the durability contest… and a lot of teams lost. There was some speculation by media that teams using lighter parts to save weight was a culprit. That’s a possibility; at some point, there’s a tip in the balance between durability and fast. And Watkins Glen is certainly tough on racecars. But you have to wonder why, if teams are trying so hard to save weight every week, the problems manifested themselves all at once. I think it’s more likely that, with only two road-course races on the schedule and none in the Chase, that some teams simply spend slightly less time preparing for them.

Teams have to build four basic types of racecar: superspeedway, intermediate, short track and road course. The current car makes them slightly more interchangeable, but teams still have to concentrate on different areas for different tracks. In essence, they’re putting a fourth of the effort into just two races, and that’s a little difficult to do with the Chase looming. The way to remedy this is not to eliminate road courses, though; it’s to add two more, including a Chase race. Four road-course races would give teams both the reason and the experience to build better road-course cars. Not to mention, the racing on the road courses is almost always some of the best of the year.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

You can’t accuse Juan Pablo Montoya of being slow in qualifying. For the second week in a row, Montoya sat on the pole. He set the fast time at Watkins Glen with a blistering lap that set a new track record, but unfortunately for Montoya, that would be the highlight of the weekend; a mechanical failure relegated Montoya to a 33rd-place finish on what had started as a promising weekend.

Montoya wasn’t the only Earnhardt Ganassi driver to suffer mechanical gremlins on Sunday. Teammate Jamie McMurray also saw his day go up in smoke after a tire problem turned into a wrecked racecar, leaving McMurray in the garage after only 24 laps. For a team that has seemed snakebitten all year long, the Glen should have been an anti-venom, as both Montoya and McMurray are excellent road racers. Instead, both were left looking for answers for yet another week.

When… will I be loved?

Oil on the track cost Kyle Busch the victory on the last lap. But the oil had been there for at least a lap prior to that; some drivers were all over the radio complaining of fluid on the track before the white flag flew. NASCAR had to have known about it either by monitoring radio chatter or a team telling a pit official. Yet the yellow flag didn’t fly and ultimately, Busch and other drivers had to pay for the non-call in points.

Besides leaving the No. 18 team and its fans feeling cheated out of the win that almost surely would have handed them a Chase berth, NASCAR’s mistake in not throwing the yellow could have ended up with a driver seriously injured. Sure, they wanted to end under green, but had they acted immediately, there could have been a green-white-checkered finish. Sure, a G-W-C might have meant some teams running out of fuel; but at least it would have been, ultimately, in their hands. As it is, several teams will be left to wonder what might have been had the sanctioning body done the right thing. With the wild card race as tight as it is and both Busch and Jeff Gordon victims of the oil slick at the Glen, it’s entirely possible that someone’s Chase hopes were dissolved in oil Sunday.

Why… am I feeling a little cynical after the Nationwide race?

I was happy to hear Carl Edwards say he wasn’t planning any Nationwide Series races in 2012. In truth, I wish some other Cup drivers would do the same for next year. But was I surprised when Edwards announced that he’d be racing on Saturday at the Glen? Well, no, not at all. Edwards’s reason for competing, he said, was to help Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the No. 6 team as Stenhouse battles for the championship. And I find the guise of helping Stenhouse hard to buy. If Edwards had really wanted to help out his teammate, wouldn’t the best way to do that be by coaching the younger driver from the pit box, maybe taking a few shakedown laps in practice?

Think about it. Edwards finished ahead of Stenhouse, which ultimately cost Stenhouse in the points department on a day that should have seen him make maximum gains as leader Elliott Sadler faultered. How, exactly, does that help? And how much, if at all, did Edwards or his team spend actually working with the No. 6 team and Stenhouse during the race? There was no mention of Edwards helping Stenhouse during the race in either driver’s post-race comments. So, forgive me if I have a hard time swallowing the whole story. The much more likely explanation is that Edwards hasn’t won a Cup race since Las Vegas in spring 2011, and he knew he’d have a better-than-average shot ot grabbing a trophy on Saturday… and to some drivers, it’s apparent that a trophy is a trophy, no matter who you’re beating to get it.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Two weeks, two top-10 finishes. For one of the bigger teams, that might be practically a foregone conclusion. But for Regan Smith it was a career-best road-course finish. And for Furniture Row Racing, it’s a small triumph for a team running on a considerably lower budget than the teams they’re running with. More importantly, the team is in negotiations with manufacturers for 2013, and strong finishes will attract attention and support.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears had a solid day at Watkins Glen, finishing 16th. Don’t think this team is improving much? Look at the numbers. Mears has posted more top-20 finishes this year (five) than in all of 2011 (four). He failed to crack the top 20 once in 12 races with Germain in 2012. Until there’s more funding, improvement is relative, and it isn’t going to happen overnight, but it is undeniably there for the two-time CWTS championship owner in the team’s still-young Cup career.

Leavine Family Racing (TWD Ford): Gaining a foothold in the Cup ranks is difficult, and for upstart Leavine Family Racing, 2012 has been an uphill battle of starting and parking on a limited schedule due to lack of funding. However, the team did commit to running the two road-course races in their entirety, and this week Scott Speed made the most of that commitment, finishing the day in a solid 15th place, outrunning several full-time teams in the process.

Front Row Motorsports (ModSpace Ford & Scorpion Coastings/Al’s Liners Ford): David Gilliland and David Ragan finished 20th and 22nd, respectively. Both drivers bettered their road course finishes over Sonoma with solid lead lap finishes.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Rumors often circulate about one driver on a team getting better equipment than the other, but one look at the results for BK Racing and it’s clear that this team is doing all they can to ensure the best results for both Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil. This week, which saw Cassill and Kvapil finish 23rd and 24th, respectively was just the latest example of whow equal the two teams are in that camp.

Circle Sport (LittleJoesAuot.com Chevy): Stephen Leicht made the most of the rare opportunity to race a full race, finishing 26th and on the lead lap. It’s the first lead lap finish for the No. 33 since Joe Falk purchased the team from Richard Childress earlier this year.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Miller Welders/Freightliner Toyota): It was a disappointing week for Bobby Labonte, who raced at Watkins Glen amid rumors of his possible replacement by David Reutimann at JTG, which the team has since denied. Labonte was looking at a solid finish when his car began to drop fluid on the track with just under two laps to go. Labonte managed to nurse the car to a 27th-place, lead-lap finish, but several teams were upset at him for remaining on track as the fluid form his car caused several spins.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Watkins Glen was the second time that Kurt Busch looked to have an excellent chance for a top finish on a road course, only to have it all go away. This week, a mechanical failure on the No. 51 resulted in the left-rear wheel parting company with the car, shuffling Busch, who led the weekend’s first practice session, to a 31st-place finish.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevies): It was another weekend of blank hoods and early exits for the TBR teams of both Dave Blaney and JJ Yeley, who finished 36th and 40th, respectively. It must be a bitter pill to swallow for a team like TBR, which wants to run full races, have to pack it in early when some of those for whom start-and-park is seemingly a way of life found sponsorship for the Glen.

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