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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

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 W’s and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It must really be no fun to be the points leader (or his sponsor) coming into Richmond. Think about it: Greg Biffle went into the race knowing that no matter what he did, the hard work he and his team put in all year was for naught. And to add insult to injury, Biffle was virtually ignored during the broadcast despite having his best Richmond race in half a dozen years.

Biffle, who was moved to fifth in points after Richmond, had his best finish at the track since 2006 with his ninth-place run (he finished sixth in the fall ’06 event). His finish wasn’t the result of pit strategy; he raced inside the top 10 for most of the day. His finish was nearly eight positions above his 16.7 average. Can Biffle put together a title run? That remains to be seen. He doesn’t carry the momentum that Denny Hamlin does, not is he the streaky type of racer who is likely to reel off a bunch of wins in a few weeks. Biffle is, however, fourth on the list of Chase wins with six (though not all of them have come while he was a Chase driver). And among this year’s field, only Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart have more wins in the Chase. Still, it would take a departure from the norm for Biffle to regain what the Chase has taken from him.

What… was THAT?

Yes, it was raining in Richmond, but how many race fans tuned in for the prerace on ABC and were greeted by a college football game? Now, sometimes sports run overtime, and fans get that. But the game in question wasn’t in overtime or even in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. In fact, the third quarter had a few minutes left on the clock! That’s not a sport lasting a little longer than expected, that’s a scheduling problem. And it wasn’t an NFL game and, therefore, the case of one major league sport trumping another for the sake of ratings; this was a college game.

Really, is it so hard to schedule programming with a little common sense? Football doesn’t generally have rain delays, so it isn’t like something totally unexpected happened. Did the network simply schedule the events too close together? And lest anyone think I’m anti-football, I’m not. If I turn on the TV in order to see the Patriots play, I don’t want to watch a sport that I wasn’t expecting. Race fans (and all sports fans) should be able to turn on the TV and find what they expected to be on, if not immediately, then within a few minutes. If there is a legitimate delay, there should be a ticker on the screen making it clear where the coverage they wanted was being broadcast. But fans should not turn on their TVs expecting one thing and find another event that isn’t even three-quarters over yet.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked strong in the early laps, when he led five times for a total of 67 laps. But unfortunately, for Earnhardt and his fans, when Hamlin got past him on lap 159, it was the last time Earnhardt would see the top spot in the race. His car didn’t seem to bounce back after the night’s rain delays, and botched pit strategy compounded his fading fortune when a late race pit stop for fuel relegated Earnhardt to 14th-place in the final tally.

Like Biffle, Earnhardt finds himself much further down the points chart than he’s been for most of the season (though in Earnhardt’s case, he actually gained four points on the lead, despite being docked five positions). Also like Biffle, Earnhardt has been a model of consistency, not hot streaks. Earnhardt has one advantage that Biffle doesn’t, though: a Chase champion teammate. Can Earnhardt follow the Johnson School of Chase Racing? It’s possible, but that type of racing doesn’t fit Earnhardt’s style. He’s more old-school… and that’s something that the new NASCAR simply doesn’t reward.

When… will I be loved?

It was a tough night for pit crews on Saturday. Several misjudged a rain forecast or the importance of fresh tires and left their drivers out under the last caution, while others pitted and hoped they could stretch their fuel to the end, which proved not to be the case for many. Chad Knaus did call his driver in, but unfortunately for Johnson, Knaus was on the wrong radio channel and he didn’t get the message in time to get to pit road. But no pit strategy stung more than a costly pit-stop error by Kyle Busch‘s team. A loose lugnut on a green-flag pit stop was most likely the deciding factor that kept Busch from the Chase as Jeff Gordon beat Busch by a slim three-point margin for the final Chase slot.

You have to give some credit to Busch’s handlers. In what was a touchy situation for Busch, they didn’t let him say or do anything he’d regret later, which is an important, if disappointing, lesson for the young driver to have to learn. Busch handled himself as well as could be expected under the circumstances. And sometimes it takes something Busch has rarely showed, grace under all kinds of pressure, to win a championship. Perhaps this small lesson will turn into a bigger one for Busch in the future… after all, they say you have to know how to lose a championship before you can know how to win one.

Why… not make winning really important?

Since the inception of the Chase system, NASCAR has given plenty of lip service to the importance of winning. When they added the wild card slots, they also changed the Chase seeding structure to reward winning. (Unfortunately, they now reward winning a few races over sustained excellence, but that’s another story.) And in some cases, that does work, I suppose. Stewart just got handed over 100 points by virtue of his three wins.

But if NASCAR really wanted winning to be the most important thing every week, all year long, they need to rethink their entire system. Right now, they reward 10 weeks of excellence, but the first 26 are virtually ignored. So how about this: keep the points system, even the Chase if you must, but take the entire season-end points fund, every last penny, and redistribute it into the purses for the individual races; then guarantee the winner of every race $1 million for the win. At the end of the year, the points champion gets that pretty silver Tiffany trophy and a trip to beautiful Las Vegas… and that’s all. No big check. By doing this, NASCAR would force teams to race for the win every week if they want to money to show for it and also make every week’s race the focus of that week, with the points a mere afterthought.

Think about your local short track racers. Rarely do you see drivers race cautiously every week to win the track points championship for their division, because it doesn’t pay enough to make it more important than winning as many races as possible. That is where NASCAR has gone wrong. The championship is worth too much, individual races too little. A revamped payout system would give everyone in the field incentive to race for the win every week. A small team could reap a huge benefit if they pull off an upset, and a big one can concentrate on bringing their best every week and collecting the most trophies… and the biggest payout.

How… did the little guys do?

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Landon Cassill‘s 19th-place finish is his third best of the season (he’s finished 18th twice) and his best since Michigan in June. Travis Kvapil came home 27th.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith started third, equaling his best start of 2012 (he also started third at Phoenix in March). Unfortunately, that was as close to the front as Smith would get in Richmond; he wound up finishing 24th. On the points chart, Smith is the best of the small-team drivers, holding 23rd place by nine points over Bobby Labonte.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Bush’s Baked Beans Toyota): Labonte was consistent at Richmond, running between 20th and 24th, where he finished, for most of the race. It’s his worst finish since a 27th at Watkins Glen.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Amid rumors that the team may shut its doors at the end of 2012, Kurt Busch‘s 28th-place run on Saturday probably didn’t turn any sponsors’ heads. Busch has now had eight finishes of 24th or worse in his last nine races.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): After showing drastic improvement earlier in the summer, Casey Mears has tailed off in recent weeks. Of course, that can be largely attributed to being forced to park in three of the last eight races due to lack of sponsorship and suffering an engine failure while running in the top 12 in another. That would kill anybody’s momentum. This week, Mears finished 29th, four laps down.

Front Row Motorsports (Mossy Oak/Pursuit Channel Ford & Taco Bell Ford): The David and David show certainly can’t accuse anyone on the team of favoritism. David Gilliland finished 31st at Richmond while David Ragan finished 32nd, both five laps down. They also sit 28th and 29th in driver points, respecticely, separated by just 14 markers. Although the numbers aren’t what they hope for, it is obvious that the two teams are at least on the same page.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy & Inc. 5000/T-Mone Chevy): Like Front Row, The TBR teams are close in both results and points. Dave Blaney finished 33rd, marking just the second time in the last five races he’s been able to go the distance. David Reutimann finished one position and two laps behind Blaney.

FAS Lane Racing (Federated Auto Parts Ford): Ken Schrader still tears up the dirt tracks between Cup races, but probably the best he could say after Richmond was that he didn’t tear up the no. 22. Schrader finished 35th in his 10th race of the season.

Circle Sport (Special Ops OPSEC Chevy): After failing to qualify last week in Atlanta, Stephen Leicht went the distance in Richmond, finishing 10 laps down in 36th place in his 12th start of 2012.