NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Sylvania 300 at Loudon

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?

It’s a pleasant surprise for race fans to look at the results when the dust clears and see a driver in the top 10 whom they never suspected to find because the driver garnered so little attention all day long. Unfortunately for Ryan Newman, it’s not nearly as pleasant for sponsors when their driver runs in the top 15 all day and barely gets an offhand mention on the race broadcast. Newman had a solid run at the Magic Mile (he usually does, and he’s got three wins there) but, like Joey Logano, whose eighth-place run also went largely unnoticed, Newman and his fans were reminded that non-Chase drivers are all but invisible in the final 10 races.

For Newman, who is still searching for sponsorship for the majority of races in 2013, invisibility is particularly painful. At a critical time when companies are making advertising decisions for 2013, Newman is barely a blip on the television radar. The Chase has plenty of problems, not the least of which is the networks’ unabashed disregard of teams not in the top 12 after Richmond, no matter how well they run. Although the championship battle rages, many teams are waging their own uphill battle to find funding for next year. And when interested sponsors barely see the teams for whom they are considering forking out millions, it has a negative effect on the entire sport.

What… was THAT?

After a couple of the most difficult seasons of his life when he was sidelined by blood clots and heart surgery, followed by a year in which he saw himself slide to second fiddle to Kasey Kahne at Team Red Bull, Brian Vickers is making the most of his eight-race Cup schedule in 2012. In just seven starts this year, Vickers has three top-five and four top-10 finishes. A little perspective here: Vickers has finished in the top five more often than Carl Edwards this year. So how come Vickers doesn’t have a full-time Sprint Cup ride lined up?

Vickers isn’t a veteran whose age makes him a gamble for a team or a demographic nightmare for a sponsor. He’ll turn 29 in October. He’s got two career Cup wins, one of which came with the underfunded Red Bull team, for whom Vickers also made the Chase in 2009. Think Michael Waltrip Racing making the Chase this year was a surprise? Vickers’s berth was a bigger one.

The good news for Vickers is that he’s slated to drive one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide Series cars full-time next year. The No. 18 and 20 are probably the best cars in that series in terms of equipment, and Vickers should contend for that title. (If he wins it, it will come exactly 10 years after he won his first Nationwide championship in 2003 at barely 20 years of age.) This announcement gives pause for another reason. Micheal Waltrip Racing has made it clear that they’d like to keep Vickers. Without sponsorship, that’s not possible for 2013. But by keeping Vickers in the Toyota fold, is he being kept close at hand for 2014, when Mark Martin‘s contract will be up and MWR would be free to put Vickers in the No. 55 full time? Things that make you go hmm…

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It wasn’t a win for Jeff Gordon, and he still has a lot of ground to make up before he can even begin to think about that elusive fifth Cup title. But this week, Gordon certainly looked a lot more like… well, like Jeff Gordon. After starting on the pole, Gordon remained in the hunt throughout the race, running inside the top 10 all day long and ending the day in fourth place.

New Hampshire was the perfect site for Gordon to have a good run after a stuck throttle at Chicago ended his day. Only one driver (Jeff Burton) has more wins at Loudon than Gordon’s trio of them (though there are others with three NHMS trophies). Gordon’s 10.5 average finish ranks third among active drivers, and Gordon has had a lot more races at the Magic Mile to make mistakes and bring that average down. Gordon is also very strong at Dover, where the series heads next. His four wins are good for second among active, full-time drivers (part-timers Martin and Bill Elliott also have four wins at Dover). Gordon isn’t in serious title contention now, but at least he found a little redemption in the New Hampshire hills.

When… will I be loved?

We’ve all heard the old adage that sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. And whether or not you believe that teams make their own luck, it certainly seems as though Lady Luck has been out for blood for some teams this year. Look no further than Kyle Busch‘s engine gremlin—his fourth of the year. That, combined with some other rotten turns of events, is a large part of the reason that Busch didn’t make the cut for this year’s Chase. But the bad luck hasn’t been confined to only Busch. Gordon could easily have four or five wins this year if not for circumstances largely out of his control. The No. 22 at Penske Racing has had the rug snatched from under them with two different drivers this year.

One driver’s luck does not a season make, but it can make a championship battle exciting. One could even argue that luck did make Kurt Busch‘s season in 2004, when he won the title but came oh-so-close to losing it all when a loose wheel almost put him into the pit-wall barrier. This year, luck has had the opposite effect so far. It hasn’t handed a driver the title (at least not yet), but it has taken a couple out of contention. Is the lady satisfied, or is she just getting warmed up? The way things have gone this year, she might just be getting warmed up.

Why… worry now?

Two down, eight to go. Jimmie Johnson took over the point lead while Denny Hamlin won the race and gained a spot in the points; he sits six markers behind second-place Brad Keselowski. The Chase crowd accounted for seven of the top-10 finishers at Loudon. So, with eight weeks of racing between here and the title, should anyone be hitting the panic button yet?

The problem for Gordon, who sits 12th in points (45 behind his teammate at the top), is that he needs to beat all 11 Chase drivers every week to make enough headway to get back in it. At this point he’ll need a rash of accidents and mechanical failures for the others for that to happen. With Dover and Talladega coming up, it’s not out of the realm. Although you can’t stick the proverbial fork in him quite yet, you can give it a few test pokes. Also, the drivers in eighth through 11th places are on shaky ground. That’s Kevin Harvick, regular season points leader Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and lame-duck Matt Kenseth, for those keeping score. That group is 31, 33, 34 and 35 points out, respectively, and all need a massive rally in the next week or two to get back in it. Finally, at 26 back in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is teetering on the edge of contention. Like those behind him, Earnhardt may have his fate determined in the next two weeks or so.

The top six are all within 15 points of the lead. That means none of them are close to being out of it and it’s even too close to call a favorite just yet, though Hamlin and Keselowski both have one ace in the hole: a non-Chase, lame-duck teammate at whom, in a pinch, the team could throw an R&D package for the next few weeks. That’s not a luxury that guys like Johnson, Tony Stewart (Newman is signed for 2013 and needs a sponsor; not conducive to an R&D role), Kahne or Clint Bowyer have–and it could make a difference come Homestead.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): After stating earlier this week that he doesn’t expect to be with Furniture Row Racing in 2013, Regan Smith drove a solid, aggressive race at Loudon to finish 16th, on the lead lap and at the top of the small teams list. But the curious thing is the sudden change in Smith’s status. Just a couple of weeks ago, both Smith and FRR aid they were confident of a contract extension. But at that time, there was also the possibility of a second team with Kurt Busch at the wheel, which a team spokesman now says is unlikely. Does the team have an as-of-yet unannounced deal in the works with Busch, necessitating kicking Smith to the curb to make room? If you put the pieces together, they seem to fit…

JTG Daugherty Racing (Bush’s Baked Beans Toyota): After concerns of a fluid leak, the No. 47 team changed the rear-end housing before the race. Bobby Labonte had a solid if unspectacular day after the change, finishing 20th, the first car one lap down.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Another possible lame-duck driver, Kurt Busch, finished a disappointing 25th, two laps down. Busch is a three-time NHMS winner in the Cup Series and has a Truck Series win as well at the Magic Mile, and his finish this week ties the third-worst result of his career at NHMS and his worst since 2007.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Landon Cassill had a difficult day at a difficult track, finishing two laps down in 27th. Travis Kvapil finished 31st, four laps in arrears. How hard is the Magic Mile to drive? Cassill’s 27th-place run was his second best in five Cup races.

Front Row Motorsports (Shriners’ Hospital for Children Ford & Taco Bell Ford): David Ragan finished 39th, three laps down, but a lap ahead of 32nd-place teammate David Gilliland. This team has potential, but perhaps a shakeup is in order somewhere to make it happen.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevys): You know sponsorship is hard to come by if Baldwin couldn’t find something for his home track. David Reutimann came home 30th, four laps down. With Dave Blaney on loan to Penske Racing for the weekend, Tony Raines filled the seat in the No. 36 for the 68 laps it was on the track before retiring with a rear-gear issue… perhaps a planned early exit?

FAS Lane Racing (North Country Ford Ford): Many fans may not recognize the name Mike Olsen, but Olsen is a two-time champion of what was then the Busch North Series at a time when the series was highly competitive. Olsen is also the grandson of racing legend Stub Fadden, and he and owner Frankie Stoddard grew up in the same New Hampshire town. Olsen finished 33rd, 11 laps down, in his Sprint Cup debut.

Circle Sport (LittleJoesAutos.com Chevy): Stephen Leicht started 39th and finished 35th, bowing out just past halfway with brake issues. Another pre-determined parking?

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears was complaining of fuel-pressure issues for a while before his team brought the No. 13 to the garage for good after 100 laps, and because they run the GEICO colors even when the company isn’t paying for a full race, it’s hard to know if Mears and Co. parked due to the problem or to lack of funds to race. If the vibration that ended their day was legit, it would be their second engine failure in four weeks, begging the question if the team is getting engines at a discount in exchange for running R&D for Roush Fenway Racing, the way Phoenix Racing sometimes did with Hendrick Motorsports last year. The team had shown major improvement in the summer months but has stalled recently.

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