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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol

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?

What does this guy have to do to earn a full-time ride? For the second time this year, running a limited schedule, Brian Vickers scored a top-five finish at Bristol. Vickers even looked like he might have a shot at winning late in the race, but he got loose battling Carl Edwards for the lead and fell back after making a spectacular save to keep the No. 55 out of the wall. He ended up in fourth place when the checkers fell. Vickers probably was the driver to beat at the time of his bobble.

The big question for Vickers is: where does he go from here? He has done an admirable job filling in for Mark Martin in the No. 55 for select races, but Martin is signed with Michael Waltrip Racing for the lion’s share of the 2013 schedule as well, and Vickers deserves a ride before 2014. Vickers is a proven commodity with two Sprint Cup wins and a Nationwide Series title… and yet, his name hasn’t been heard in the mix for a ride. MWR has been reportedly looking at a fourth team for Vickers; but as of yet, that’s merely a possibility. He’s as good as some of the drivers whose names are being bandied around… and why his name isn’t among them might be the biggest question of Silly Season.

What… was THAT?

With his fourth win of 2012, Denny Hamlin is likely to find himself in the points lead in two weeks. What’s wrong with that picture? How about the fact that despite having four race wins, Hamlin trails point leader Greg Biffle by almost two complete races’ worth of points? That’s right: Biffle has a 75-point lead over Hamlin after Bristol. Two weeks from now, unless Biffle wins at both Atlanta and Richmond, that’s out the window.

Although I understand NASCAR’s desire to reward winning, the fact that the guy who is the best driver for the majority of the year doesn’t have a points advantage entering the Chase is just plain wrong. The points leader after 26 races should be the points leader going into race 27. How about this as a solution: Reset the leader’s points to whatever the reset number is. Put the driver or drivers with the most wins five points behind him UNLESS his total lead after Richmond was less than five points, in which case, keep the margin the same. Then count backwards from there, setting the drivers with each successive number of wins three points behind the ones in front of them, back to the drivers in the top 10 with zero wins, and then the two wild-card entries. The current system, instead of rewarding continued excellence, makes that effort all but worthless.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Bristol featured an unlikely polesitter after Casey Mears rocketed to the top of the speed chart in the weekend’s first practice and an afternoon rain shower wiped out qualifying. The first practice sets the qualifying order (the fastest driver goes out last, usually an advantage), and, if qualifying is subsequently cancelled, sets the field. (If all practice is also rained out, NASCAR reverts to owners’ points to set the grid.) The rain gave Mears the pole, and the driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Ford, an underfunded operation, made the most of the spot, leading 26 laps to kick off the night. Mears was later running 11th when Regan Smith ran into his left rear, cutting down the tire and sending Mears into the wall hard enough to knock the toe out of the No. 13, relegating Mears to a 21st-place finish.

Mears’s pole, his first since 2007 and the first Cup pole ever for Germain Racing, revealed yet another iniquity in NASCAR’s rules: despite taking the pole via practice speed, Mears does not receive a pole award and, therefore, will not be allowed to participate in the Budweiser Shootout next year at Daytona. That rule made sense before the current rules were put in place and starting order after a rainout was always set by owner points. If it comes to owner points now, I’m not opposed to the point leader not being given an official pole. But when the grid is set on practice speed, the top spot was earned by the fastest car in what essentially becomes the qualifying session. And a pole earned by speed should be recognized as such. Making the Shootout would have been a huge coup for Germain and Mears, an organization on a part-time schedule due to lack of funding. For an organization that claims to make changes in the interest of the sport, NASCAR missed the boat on this one.

When… will I be loved?

If some people do, indeed, enjoy racing for the wrecks, then Saturday night was right up their alley. Picking a villain this week was difficult, but not for a lack of action; the problem lay more in deciding which driver deserved it the most after a rash of incidents. Although Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth got most of the attention for a wreck that admittedly did look deliberate, at least they were racing hard for the lead when it happened and neither driver was necessarily in over his head. (Note to drivers who walk off in a huff: if your going to display poor sportsmanship, at least chuck your helmet and make it funny.) However, several drivers did cause crashes that were completely avoidable had they exercised a little patience. The two biggest culprits of the night: David Ragan and Smith. The Ragan and Regan Show accounted for a role in at least six caution flags, a few wrecked racecars, and a lot of hard feelings.

Ragan got things started early with a chain reaction at lap 81 and was later tangling with Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 123. Ragan then ran into the back end of another car on lap 148, setting his own car on fire from and spending several laps behind the wall for repairs as a result. Kasey Kahne also suffered damage in that incident as a result of fluid on the track from Ragan’s racecar.

Smith, meanwhile, tangled with Kurt Busch to bring out a yellow flag on lap 322 and later looked like he had some kind of a beef with left rear tires. First, he got into polesitter Mears while Mears was having his best day in three seasons and was inside the top dozen when Smith cut down his left rear, relegating the No. 13 to a mediocre 21st-place finish. Smith then got into the left rear of Danica Patrick, who was having a solid run before her night was ended as a result of the cut tire from Smith’s car. Smith was involved in his fourth caution of the night when he shed debris on the track on lap 422 after contact with Greg Biffle. Smith went on to finish in 16th place, higher than any of the drivers whose races he ruined.

Why… do people prefer this kind of racing over what we saw in the spring?

Apparently fans have different expectations for the racing at tracks like Bristol and Talladega, because at any other track, the type of racing that we saw earlier this year at Bristol (drivers able to race cleanly two- and three-wide throughout the field for most of the day) would have garnered high praise. Yet at Bristol, it was labeled boring, and fans and media said that there were not enough caution periods. (I know many fans don’t like it when it’s stated they want more wrecks; but face it, three things cause cautions: debris, mechanical failures and wrecks. Maybe everyone is really watching and hoping for debris on the track or for someone to lose an engine every 50 laps, but I find that kind of hard to believe.) Then, this week, after several wrecks, many of them caused not so much by hard, smart racing but by guys driving over their heads, they touted the race as the return of all that is right in the racing world.

Personally, I prefer the clean two- and three-wide style of racing to the wreckfest on Saturday night. This racing was not as much like the “old” Bristol as some seem to want to think, either. Before the 2007 changes to the track, there was beating and banging because that was about the only way to pass… and a good driver could do it without wrecking the other guy in a true bump-and-run. Much of the trouble arose when plenty of drivers couldn’t master the move that week and caused a wreck. That wasn’t the case this weekend; cars could pass cleanly if they displayed patience, but many drivers tried to make moves they never should have attempted, and that caused the carnage. I didn’t find it all that great, though the last 50 laps were great to watch because nobody did anything out of line and they settled it the right way, without interference. So, if people truly don’t enjoy the wrecking, how come racing that would have been labeled great at most tracks just wasn’t good enough for the Bristol bullring?

How… did the little guys do?

JTG Daugherty Racing (Bush’s Baked Beans Toyota): Bobby Labonte has always been quiet, and this week. he was in full-on stealth mode, avoiding making noise on track to finish 14th. The 2000 Cup champion beat six of this year’s top 10 drivers en route to his team’s third top 15 of 2012.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevy): Smith had a solid 16th-place finish, though his day, as noted above, wasn’t without incident as Smith was involved in four separate tangles on track. Still, Smith was able to pick up his seventh lead-lap finish of 2012.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil raised the bar for himself and his team at Bristol; despite his 18th-place finish, Kvapil ran inside the top 10 during the race after starting 38th. This was Kvapil’s fourth-best result of the season. Landon Cassill had a slightly rougher night en route to finishing 24th, 10 laps down. But even those difficulties weren’t as bad as they seem on paper; Cassill beat his season average finish of 28.7 by nearly five spots and claimed his second-best finish since Michigan in June. Looks like the BK camp is on the rise late in the season.

Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell Ford/Glory Foods Ford): A few days after Inc. Magazine named FRM among the fastest-growing independent companies, both drivers were involved in on-track trouble. David Gilliland, who finished 20th, got into the back of Aric Almirola at lap 224, ending Almirola’s night. Ragan mixed it up on track all night long with less-than-stellar results (see above)—not exactly what Glory Foods probably wanted to see in their first race, especially after Ragan was forced to finish without the hood with their name on it.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): What started as a banner weekend for Germain Racing and driver Mears ended in heartache as Mears started on the pole (see above for details) and was running in the top 12 with fewer than 100 laps to go when Smith ran over his left rear, cutting his tire.

Curb Racing (K-Love/Curb Records Ford): In just their third complete race this season, Michael McDowell and Curb Racing had a decent night, logging a 23rd-place finish, four laps down. The finish is McDowell’s best of the year in the Sprint Cup Series.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (SealWrap Chevy): During a race where Dave Blaney had backing to go the distance, things fell apart. Blaney had a mechanical problem that was first incorrectly announced as a blown engine, but was able to return to the race and finished 26th, 26 laps down with heavy damage from an on-track incident. (TBR is also technically the owner of Danica Patrick‘s No. 10 Chevy, but she races under the considerably wealthier Stewrt-Haas banner.)

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Busch got the short end of the stick, getting involved in two separate wrecks after starting 20th. Busch had the rear deck lid of his Chevy knocked askance after an early brush with Ragan and Hornish, and then suffered extensive damage after tangling with Smith later in the night. Busch is a free agent after this season, and the next few weeks could be paramount for him as he considers the future.

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