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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta

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 not for a badly-timed tire problem for Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. wouldn’t be getting my shoutout — because he’d have won the race. Instead, Truex had to settle for fourth after a wild restart. Adding insult to injury, Truex, who has flown under the media’s radar all year long despite being a fixture in the top 10 in points, garnered relatively little television attention compared with the night’s other race leaders.

Attention or not, what Truex and teammates Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin have done is remarkable. In one year, Michael Waltrip Racing went from a team that had never had a driver finish in the top 15 in points to one that will have two (Truex and Bowyer) in the Chase. Although it’s unlikely that the team is ready to go all the way to the championship, they are setting themselves up to do just that in the future. And a year ago, nobody would have guessed that.

What… was THAT?

OK, so I get that there were yet more complaints about not enough cautions… but a yellow flag for Juan Pablo Montoya barely scraping the wall and keeping right on going? Really? That one was just as transparent as the fake debris cautions-and it cheated fans out of a race for the lead as Denny Hamlin had just erased a seven-second deficit to catch leader Kevin Harvick. But the real irony in the whole situation is that people often complain about fake debris cautions. But if there aren’t any, they complain that there aren’t enough cautions, and then indignantly say that they don’t want wrecking either. Just cautions.

What else is there? Yes, there are mechanical failures, but I have never heard a crowd cheer for some poor soul dripping oil on the racetrack or seen a media report with a glowing review of the excitement caused by someone stalling on the backstretch. So what do people truly want if they don’t want wrecking, caution free races or contrived cautions? And more importantly, how can NASCAR create it? I suspect that the answer lies in the schedule and the Chase. And if that’s the case, don’t expect any changes to the racing… or to the complaints.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Tony Stewart started on the pole for the first time in 2012, but things went rapidly downhill from there. It was Greg Biffle, not Stewart, who led the first lap, and though Stewart took the top spot back on lap 2, he led just eight laps, the only ones he’d lead all night. An ill-handling racecar took Stewart back through the field. By lap 60, he was out of the top 15 and would end the night in 22nd place.

The good news, if you can call it that, was that Kasey Kahne finished 24th, allowing Stewart to gain two points on him for an 18-point cushion over 11th place with one race to go before the Chase field is set. Should Kahne squeeze past Stewart into the top 10, the implications for Stewart would be huge. If he finishes in the top 10 after Richmond, Stewart will start the Chase no worse than a tie for third. If he drops out, he’ll start 11th.

When… will I be loved?

Although there is a really good argument for naming Jimmie Johnson as this week’s villain after he completely ignored his spotter telling him he wasn’t clear of Sam Hornish Jr. when he moved into Hornish’s lane, what NASCAR is poised to do is much worse than flaking on a radio call in the long run. What is the sanctioning body up to this time? Well, a week from now, they will have handed the points lead to a driver who is just seventh in points and struggled to even be in the top 10 for part of the summer. Meanwhile Biffle, who has led the points for most of the year by sheer tenacity and consistency, will start the Chase no better than second. And that’s if he wins at Richmond, where he has no wins and just two top fives in 20 starts. (Yes, I know I talked about this last week. It’s just that wrong.) If he doesn’t win next week, Biffle will start the Chase in fifth place despite the fact that right now, Biffle leads Hamlin by 57 points, more than an entire race’s worth. That’s right: Biffle could sit out next week and would still lead Hamlin strictly on points.

Hamlin, meanwhile, has four wins, but also has five finishes of 23rd or worse and three of 34th or worse; Biffle has just one finish worse than 23rd all season, and that was a 24th-place. Even with three wins, Hamlin’s average finish for the year is 12.4 while Biffle’s is 9.7. Plainly put, despite what the win column says, Biffle has been the better driver all season long. Whatever happened to may the best man win?

Why… wait so long to announce a move everyone knows about?

Joe Gibbs Racing is reportedly set to announce the addition of Matt Kenseth to the team’s 2013 driver lineup this week. Kenseth announced that he would be leaving Roush Fenway in early summer, and his imminent move to JGR has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport ever since. So why the long wait for an announcement that everyone has known was coming for weeks?

In reality, there could be a variety of reasons. JGR has said all along that they would like to keep Joey Logano, and although the team says they are still trying to firm things up with Logano, recent rumors have Elliott Sadler moving into a full-time Nationwide and part time Cup deal over there, making Logano sticking around dubious at best. It could also be that nobody could pull the trigger on an announcement until all signatures were in place on every sponsorship contract or that a sponsor asked the team to wait until now for some reason. Whatever the reason, though, it certainly seems silly that the announcement that’s expected on Tuesday should come a s a surprise to absolutely nobody.

How… did the little guys do?

Phoenix Racing (HendrickCars.com Chevy): Kurt Busch was in stealth mode in Atlanta, finishing 13th, his best finish since a third-place at Sonoma in June.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): After an eventful week at Bristol in which he was involved in four separate incidents, Regan Smith went back to quietly working inside the top 15. Smith ran in the top 10 in the second half of Sunday night’s race before dropping back in the waning laps to finish a solid 14th.

Wood Brothers Racing (Good Sam Club/Camping World Ford): Running on a partial schedule this year due to sponsorship woes, the No. 21 team was back this week and Trevor Bayne put forth a solid effort, working his way forward all night to finish 16th. Atlanta was just the 10th race of the year for Bayne, who has two top 10 finishes in 2012.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Kingsford Toyota): Bobby Labonte finished 19th in Atlanta, posting back-to-back top-20 finishes for the first time since Daytona and Phoenix to open the season.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): This week, it was Landon Cassill with the edge, finishing 20th to Travis Kvapil‘s 26th. The two have faced off in a total of 67 races (including 24 as teammates at BK). Kvapil has the overall edge, beating Cassill in 37 of those races as well as scoring the team’s top finish of 2012, a 15th place at Michigan last month.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy & GoDaddy.com Chevy): Despite driving a car with a blank hood, Dave Blaney had the team’s top finish this week, finishing 25th, his best finish since a 23rd place at Indianapolis. Danica Patrick, (who runs under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner though Baldwin is the owner of record) finished 29th, tying her career best in the Sprint Cup Series.

Front Row Motorsports (Glory Foods Ford & House/Autry Ford): David Ragan toned it down a week after a wild Bristol and finished 28th, four laps down in an uneventful run. David Gilliland had mechanical issues at lap 250 and wound up 31st, 29 laps down.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears started 19th but quickly fell backwards with an ill-handling car. The engine expired with less than 50 laps to go, relegating Mears to a 33rd place finish.

Leavine Family Racing (Jordan Truck Sales Ford): It didn’t look like Scott Speed intended to park early this week, since he completed more than half the race (196 laps) before mechanical woes forced an early exit. If the parking was intentional, the team made it further than usual, completing 119 more laps than the team who parked before them.

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