NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan

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?

If Michigan proved anything, it was that the best car doesn’t always win. Ask Jimmie Johnson. But if you have a great car, you can sometimes still make a statement, regardless of what the results sheet says. This week, Sam Hornish Jr. did just that, though he wound up 12th when the smoke cleared. Hornish, who is contending for the Nationwide Series championship, made the decision to stay in Montreal until the conclusion of that race, forgoing all practice for the Sprint Cup race (Parker Kligerman practiced and qualified the No. 22.). Starting at the back on Sunday, Hornish made quick work of most of the field, despite his lack of practice, charging to the front and looking like his lightning-fast No. 22 would be a contender for the win.

The real question here is why Hornish isn’t a lock to keep this ride on a full-time basis. He’s done everything asked of him, going back to the Nationwide Series and learning tracks and strategies. As a result, he now sits second in points with a real shot at a championship. He has clearly improved in the Cup car as well—yet Joey Logano’s name is being bandied about for the No. 22 next year. Unless Roger Penske has another deal in the wings for Hornish, that seems a bit unfair. Hornish has done everything asked of him since being given the chance to step back and essentially start over. He’s earned a second chance.

What… was THAT?

Sometimes something happens during a race that makes you realize an area of safety that is seriously lacking. After one of the scariest wrecks I’ve seen in a long time, it’s painfully apparent that there is a need to take a look at ways to make the ends of the pit wall near the garage openings safer. When Bobby Labonte got loose in front of him, Mark Martin was the victim of a chain reaction. His car spun onto pit road and hit the wall in Johnson’s pit, which was right behind an opening in the wall. Martin ricocheted across the opening and slammed into the end of the wall just behind the driver’s side door, partially severing the car in front of the left-rear wheel. The impact also ruptured the oil pan, causing a fire under the car.

Thankfully nobody was hurt, because it could have been much, much worse. Had Martin impacted the wall a foot or two more toward the front of his car, he might not have walked away. His impact with the wall stopped the No. 55 car from spinning through Kasey Kahne’s pit, behind the wall, as well. As it is, hot oil was spilled in Kahne’s pit, luckily in the pit stall, luckily missing the crew members. It was a scary wreck, and although everyone walked away, it illustrates one of the few places on the track that have not been addressed and updated to improve safety. NASCAR averted a tragedy, and hopefully will now be able to improve things for the future.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It’s heartbreaking enough when you win the pole only to discover that the car in race trim isn’t the class of the field. In Martin’s case, he backed up the pole with a dominant performance in the early laps, only to have his day end in 35th place after a nasty, scary wreck on lap 64. For Martin, who is racing on a part-time basis this year, the best shot he’s had all year for a win disappeared in an instant. Martin, as always, shook it off and spoke only of the strides his team has made and how much fun he’s having. Now for Martin, in the twilight of his stellar career, victory lane has become elusive. But Martin has shown time and again that the drive is still there, that, at an age where many in his profession are enjoying a quiet retirement, he still wants it as badly as ever.

When… will I be loved?

I’m probably talking to a brick wall here, because the networks have pretty much proved they don’t care, but this week’s award for bad behavior goes to ESPN for their coverage of Sunday’s race. Not only did the network, as usual, only focus on a few select teams while all but ignoring several others who deserved mention, but they also couldn’t be bothered to break in from commercial when Martin slammed the wall in the aforementioned wreck.

Generally, listening to the scanner throughout the race is enough to at least get the gist when the networks drop the ball. But today, listening in just made it worse; as the TV showed commercials, I was treated to Chad Knaus screaming at his crew to get the fire extinguisher, knock out the right-side window, and get him out now–all in a voice that suggested the utmost urgency. Frankly, not being able to see what was happening was just scary. Plus, when there is a crash, surely the ensuing caution period allows plenty of time to go back and finish the commercials. It probably wasn’t any worse this week than any other week, but with the scary radio chatter and the severity of the crash, it made it look that way to me.

Why… are people so quick to excuse poor sportsmanship?

We’ve all heard the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, better not to say anything at all.” And in life, that’s generally a good rule to live by. It’s certainly better than saying something you might regret later. But should this sound advice be an excuse for poor behavior?

Some would argue that it does, that Kyle Busch last week and Johnson this week should have walked away rather than to say something on camera that made them look bad. Yes, they should have. They should have gone to their haulers, taken 15 minutes to rest and have a cold drink after a heartbreaking day, and then made a brief statement. Really, is it so hard to say, “I’m heartbroken over a disappointing finish, but I want to thank my fans for your support,” and end it at that? Drivers don’t owe the media anything, but I would argue that they do owe something to the fans. If nothing else, walking away sulking is reminiscent of a 4-year-old when you didn’t let him win at Candy Land. It’s simple poor sportsmanship and it sets a lousy example. Giving Busch a bye on that because it’s better than saying something rude on camera or excusing Johnson because it’s far out of character isn’t OK. Bad behavior is bad behavior, and those who exhibit it should be called on it. Those who exhibit it regularly should be pointed out regularly. Perhaps both Johnson and Busch should watch Martin face the cameras at MIS after his best chance at a win in a long time evaporated. Martin got it right.

How… did the little guys do?

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): For one of NASCAR’s elite teams, finishing 15th might be considered a disappointment; but to many smaller teams, a top 15 is a worthy accomplishment and surely deserving of at least a mention. Travis Kvapil got the finish, but not the praise he deserved on the broadcast. Both Kvapil and Landon Cassill had small but important gains this week, with Kvapil’s 15th-place finish setting the pace among the smaller teams and Cassill laying down his best qualifying effort of the year with a ninth-place start.

Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell Ford/Long John Silver’s Ford): The David and David Show had another solid showing this week, with David Gilliland finishing 18 after a wild high-speed backwards slide through the frontstretch grass early in the day. David Ragan came home 23rd, his second-best run since Dover in June. This team is holding their own on the track.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (TMone.com Chevy/Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy): David Reutimann was on standby for an ailing Ryan Newman, but was not needed. That was a good thing; Reutimann went on to finish 21st, tying his second-best for the season (his best was 11th at Daytona in July; he’s finished 21st three times so far) and giving his team a needed boost. For an unsponsored Dave Blaney, the day ended after just 34 laps, with a vibration listed as the official cause.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Clorox Toyota): Labonte finished 22nd, two laps down. That’s six spots better than he started the day, but unfortunately for Labonte, the view fans will remember of the No. 47 is Labonte getting loose racing Juan Pablo Montoya and losing the car just before Martin got caught in the chain reactions and went for his wild ride.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith didn’t leave Michigan with the finish he deserved. After starting a respectable 18th, Smith had a decent run derailed by an inpatient Marcos Ambrose, who turned Smith into the wall on lap 76 wile Smith was working inside the top 12. Smith finished 47 laps down.

Phoenix Racing (HendrickCars.com Chevy): Kurt Busch struggled with his car throughout the race, slapping the wall on a few occasions before slamming the barrier hard on lap 135, ending his day.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): This team has showed drastic improvement in recent weeks, but an unsponsored race meant an early exit for Casey Mears, who finished 37th after completing just 36 laps. That has to be tough to take for Mears who, like Blaney, has seen his team’s forward momentum stifled for a lack of funds. Both Mears and Blaney sometimes get unfairly lumped in with the teams whose intention is to start-and-park for most of the year; both teams have been forced into early exits by lack of sponsorship, but that has never been a long-term plan for either driver.

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