NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 GEICO 400 at Chicagoland

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?

The Chase is on… and for 12 drivers that means the chance at standing at the pinnacle of NASCAR in November. For everyone else, unfortunately, it means toiling in relative anonymity for the next two months, especially when seven of the top-10 finishers in the race are in the Chase as was the case in Chicago. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was not among them; but both of his teammates were. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano finished fourth and seventh, respectively, though neither received much recognition during a television broadcast that was clearly more concerned with the Chase contenders.

Both Busch and Logano had strong runs on Sunday. For both of these drivers, pride is still on the line, even if the championship is not. Busch is currently 13th in points, the best of the drivers who didn’t receive Chase berths. For him, finishing the season in that position would be at least a small redemption. Logano, meanwhile, is trying to prove that he can still get it done despite his lame-duck status. To that end, Logano beat his 2013 replacement this week by 11 spots. Logano and Busch proved one thing Sunday: even if they don’t get the time on the airwaves that the Chase drivers do, the rest of the pack is still in it to win each and every week.

What… was THAT?

How’s this for a fantasy scenario: in a barnburner of an exciting race at Fontana, the season championship is decided on the last lap of the final race, all without a Chase, and the title goes to a driver for a second-tier team? Yeah, that could never happen. Oh, wait… it did happen in Saturday night’s IZOD IndyCar Series. In fact, the two best races of the weekend both happened on Saturday night. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, 18-year-old Ryan Blaney became the youngest driver ever to win in that series.

The real question here: is NASCAR paying attention? While the Cup Series draws complaints about boring racing and contrived excitement, there is better racing to be had, some of it within NASCAR. Why isn’t the sanctioning body paying more attention to the show that the trucks and Nationwide cars are putting on at tracks like Iowa, Montreal and Rockingham? And why isn’t the sanctioning body wondering why the heck they haven’t figured out how to get them on the Cup schedule as soon as possible? How come they aren’t looking at the IndyCar points system for an example of how to reward winning and discourage mediocrity to build an exciting championship battle, all without a Chase? Instead, it seems like the sanctioning body is continuing to do just the opposite by constantly having rule changes that keep teams from innovating or finding any advantage or even having to develop a strategy during races… all of which takes more of the race out of the drivers’ hands. There IS plenty of great racing going on, some of it within their own ranks. Yet NASCAR continues to keep their collective head in the sand. What a shame, because races like the ones we saw Saturday from the CWTS and IndyCar could be happening in the Cup Series too.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Chicago has not been kind to Jimmie Johnson, who has led in 10 of his 11 races at the track and leads all drivers in laps led with 547 and in poles with two. He also ranks in the top two in top fives (six), top 10s (nine), average start (5.8) among drivers with six or more starts, average finish (9.3), and lead-lap finishes (nine). Unfortunately, despite his stellar stats, Johnson has never won in the Windy City. He’s been bitten by fuel mileage, crashes, and, most recently, a questionable call by NASCAR. That call left Johnson with a second-place finish (his fifth top three at the track) and wondering what might have been… again.

The silver lining for Johnson is that the winner of the first Chase race has won the title just twice, and Johnson isn’t one of them despite his five championships. He’s just three points out of the lead and with 20 wins in 81 Chase races so far, is the best of the field at making the best of these ten tracks. It’s looking like, barring a meltdown, Johnson will have something to say about who wins this year’s title when it comes down to the final races.

When… will I be loved?

OK, I realize that there is a theme here. But really, NASCAR just keeps asking for it. This week, the sanctioning body actually wins villainhood for not just one, but two questionable calls. First, it certainly looked like Brad Keselowski did jump the blend line after his last pit stop. Drivers are told where they are allowed to blend onto the racetrack after a green-flag stop, and it’s at the exit of turn 2, after the corner. Looking at the replay, it certainly appeared as though Keselowski was still in the turn when he came onto the track.

NASCAR’s second mistake is most certainly a bigger one, with implications that go much further than the outcome of a single race. Apparently, the sanctioning body is considering adding a couple of short tracks to the Camping World Truck Series schedule… tracks that don’t have SAFER barriers installed. And that would be a giant step backwards in the safety improvements that NASCAR has made since a rash of driver deaths in the early 2000s, which included the loss of Dale Earnhardt. Think it’s okay to make an exception for short tracks? Think again. Out of 51 fatalities during practice, qualifying, or racing at NASCAR-sanctioned events, at least 14 have occurred at tracks of a mile or less. (Technically, New Hampshire is 1.058. Two other deaths occurred at West Memphis Speedway, for which I was unable to find specs.) That’s more than a quarter of all fatalities during that time. It’s just not worth that chance. It would be a great move for NASCAR to add more short tracks, so perhaps the better solution is for the sanctioning body to help do something about it, whether it’s a loan, a grant, or waiving the sanctioning fee for the first year in exchange for the SAFER barrier being installed before the trucks take to the track. That would be a win all around.

Why… worry now?

For the next 10 weeks, we’ll keep track of the Chasers and whether anybody needs to hit the panic button yet. This week, 11 of the top 12 drivers are within 26 points of the lead, and all are very much still in it. If it’s true that a team can have a mulligan and still win the title, then Jeff Gordon, 47 markers back in 12th after a blown tire blew his chances while he was running in fourth place on Sunday, is still in the hunt. But one more bad week and Gordon will be waiting another year for his fifth title.

Does Keselowski establish himself as a favorite with his win this week? Maybe. After all, Keselowski has finished outside the top 10 just once since Sonoma in June, with his 30th place at Bristol. His record this year at the eight tracks he will visit again in the Chase includes a win (Talladega) and three other top-five runs. The one thing that could hurt Keselowski, though, is the tendency his team has shown for having three or four mediocre races in a row once they have one. And in the Chase, that won’t get it done.

How… did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing (Good Sam Club / Camping World Ford): Trevor Bayne‘s 20th-place run was his fifth top-20 finish in 11 races. A little perspective: that’s more top-20 runs than Front Row Motorsports has despite having two drivers in all 27 races this year. Translation: Bayne is doing okay given the circumstances of an underfunded, part-time team.

Front Row Motorsports (Distraction.gov Ford Ford & 1-800-LOANMART Ford): Neither David Ragan nor David Gilliland was able to add to FRM’s total of four top-20 finishes this season. They finished 22nd and 28th, respectively. Ragan’s was the last car on the lead lap, marking his fourth lead-lap finish this year.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (GoDaddy.com Chevy & Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy): Danica Patrick continued her learning curve with an uneventful 25th place finish, her best Sprint Cup result to date (Baldwin is the owner of record on the No. 10, though Patrick runs under the Stewart-Haas banner). Dave Blaney was looking to go the distance this week as well, but lost his engine after 199 laps and finished 33rd. Blaney has 13 DNFs in 26 races this year, and while a few of them may have been planned exits, the whole season has been a struggle for the No. 36 team.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Miller Welders/Freightliner Toyota): Bobby Labonte finished 26th, three laps down. The former Cup champion driver has failed to lead a lap in the last seven races… and he has led just one circuit all year. In 2000, the year he won his title, Labonte led more than 400 laps; in 1999 he led 1,200.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Landon Cassill‘s 29th-place finish was his worst since Loudon in July. Travis Kvapil finished 31st, but did get some TV time when he was shown dragging his jack around the racetrack. Unfortunately, removing equipment from the pit box is a penalty.

FAS Lane Racing (U.S. Chrome Ford): TJ Bell was in the car this week and drove it to a 30th-place finish, six laps down. That’s the closest Bell has been to the lead lap in four races this year.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Kurt Busch had a career first on Sunday. Unfortunately for Busch, it was his first broken axle. Phoenix Racing is struggling just to be around in 2013, and unfortunately, the team just hasn’t performed to its potential this year… often through no fault of their own.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith‘s weekend started with a promising seventh-place starting spot, but Smith quickly faded to mid-pack. His engine expired on lap 197, relegating Smith to a 34th-place result, 27 spots worse than he started.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): The bad news? Casey Mears slammed the wall on lap 146, ending his day early in 36th place in his sponsor’s race, the second unplanned DNF for Mears in the last four weeks. The good news? Sponsor GEICO extended its relationship with the No. 13 team through 2014, though it’s unclear if they will sponsor a full schedule or a partial season as they have for the past three seasons. The gecko rode with Mears in a commercial this season… will the little piggy who goes “whee, whee, whee” all the way get a turn next year?

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