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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 AAA 400 at Dover

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?

Sometimes those who have nothing to lose are the most dangerous of all. For most of the day on Sunday, it looked as though Kyle Busch, who failed to make the Chase this year, had the field covered at Dover. If the race hadn’t come down to fuel mileage, Busch would most likely have been the driver in Victory Lane. True to his take-no-prisoners style, Busch took the race lead from teammate Denny Hamlin and from there, cut nobody a break — not even Hamlin, who is very much in the title hunt. Leading 302 of 400 circuits, the only thing stopping Busch was that extra stop for gas, slipping him to a seventh-place finish when winner Brad Keselowski and others could go the distance.

As a non-Chaser, Busch shouldn’t have cut Hamlin and those around him some slack, at least this week. But next week at Talladega, it will be interesting to see how things go for Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. In the past, Busch has commandeered Joey Logano to push him around the restrictor-plate tracks, leaving Hamlin to fend for himself. Will JGR allow that to happen this year? Or will it be Busch left out of the loop for Hamlin’s title run? Busch needs redemption; Hamlin needs a championship. With so much on the line for two drivers, it could cause a bit of dissension… one to watch?

What… was THAT?

This week’s double take didn’t come at the expense of NASCAR, but rather from something I noticed on social media while the race was going on. A lot of viewers were complaining about the small number of cars on the lead lap in the race, and then talking about how much better the racing was “back in the day.” Um, can someone please define “back in the day” for me? Because if you look at the race results from the mid-1980s and earlier, it was common for there to be five or fewer cars on the lead lap at the end of a race. Even after that, there were a lot of races with lean counts when it came to lead-lap cars.

So, does that mean NASCAR’s “good old days” were the late 1980s and 1990s? Or are people looking at the sport’s old days with rose-colored glasses? A handful of cars on the lead lap is a product of racing. Not of bad racing… of racing, period. Sometimes the best cars are just that good. Sometimes, like we saw this week, a bunch of cars get caught in a cycle of pit stops when the caution flies. Whatever the cause, it’s not new, and it doesn’t mean the race is terrible. It’s part of the game, and has been for more than 60 years.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Whether or not Hamlin is in love with Dover is relative. On the one hand, he did a whole lot better there than he usually does. His average finish at the Monster Mile is 19.6, and he hadn’t scored a top-10 result at the track since 2010. So by that measure, finishing in eighth place was a small victory, along with leading 39 laps.

But when all is said and done in the title chase, will it be enough? Should Hamlin be second-guessing the decision of his team not to pit under what would be the final caution? After all, Jeff Gordon did and finished second. If the championship battle is as close as it was in 2011, will Hamlin (and Jimmie Johnson, for that matter) look at Dover as the reason why he didn’t hoist the one trophy he really wants? Time will tell… but another mistake like today’s could cost dearly.

When… will I be loved?

If you’re one of the people who didn’t like the small lead-lap count for much of the race, you can blame JJ Yeley‘s right-front tire for that. Yeley’s tire let go in the middle of a cycle of green-flag pit stops, tearing the fender of his No. 36 Chevy and trapping several drivers so deep that, even after the wave-around, they were still a lap down to the leaders. Many of those teams couldn’t recover (though for several, like Greg Biffle and his team, it was at least in part their own doing) and some will rue this day as the one where the championship was lost.

Meanwhile, for Yeley, the hit was also costly. Tommy Baldwin Racing doesn’t exactly have a huge budget, and a torn-up racecar can really hurt. All in all, that Goodyear had a hand in a lot of things, from one small team’s wallet to championship implications.

Why… worry now?

Dover changed a lot in terms of the championship picture. Fuel gambles caused the lead to change hands, and other pit road and on-track problems caused some teams’ title hopes to all but evaporate on Sunday. So, who’s in it to win it after three weeks — and whose goose is cooked? Keselowski and Johnson are sitting pretty. Keselowski grabbed the points lead away from Johnson on fuel mileage, but Johnson is just five markers back. Hamlin tied his second-best finish ever at Dover, but lost ground. Still, at 14 back and heading to Talladega, where you might as well just pick the finishing order out of a hat, Hamlin is in pretty good shape. His biggest worry could be his own insecurities; we saw a similar story unfold in 2010.

Dover threw a loop at the rest of the field, though. Clint Bowyer, although gaining two places in the standings, is 25 points behind Keselowski. Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart are now 32 back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 39 behind, and everyone else is 42 points or more out of the picture — almost a full race. Generally, my rule of thumb is simple: anyone 20 points back or more by now is out of it unless they get within that mark the next week. But this week’s race is the wild card of the Chase, Talladega, where a driver can be having a career day and still wind up the victim of someone else’s mistake. That considered, it could be a great day (and perhaps a final one) for any of the drivers seemingly out of the running to get back in it. All it will take is one wrong move by anyone on the track to make it a whole new ballgame.

How… did the little teams do on Sunday?

JTG Daugherty Racing (Kingsford Toyota): Bobby Labonte was racy on Sunday. Trapped a lap down early, he ran laps with the leaders for much of the day and outran four of the championship contenders. Even more importantly, Labonte got his team a few mentions on the broadcast… something that doesn’t happen very often these days for the 2000 Cup champion. He wound up 14th.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Despite knowing he will be kicked to the curb after next week’s race at Talladega, Regan Smith didn’t roll over at Dover. The driver scored a 17th-place result, his best since finishing 14th at Atlanta a month ago.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Kurt Busch was once again outrun by the driver he’s replacing at Furniture Row Racing, finishing 23rd, five laps down. Whether or not he’s making a lateral move remains to be seen, but for Busch, Charlotte probably can’t come soon enough.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (GoDaddy.com Chevy & Drive Sober Drive Alive DE Chevy): The learning curve remains tall for Danica Patrick, for whom Baldwin is the owner of record. Still Patrick had a respectable, if not spectacular, finish to the day in 28th place, keeping the No. 10 in one piece and finishing the race — in short, about what should be expected of a raw rookie with very few Cup races under her belt.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Dover was a day that both Travis Kvapil and Landon Cassill probably won’t be writing home about. Kvapil’s 29th-place run was better than his 31st the last two weeks, but that’s about it. Cassill suffered his worst day since Pocono in June, when a crash relegated him to 43rd place, bringing the No. 83 home in 36th position after mechanical troubles.

Front Row Motorsports (Long John Silver’s Ford & Taco Bell Ford): David Ragan‘s 30th-place result was a full lap ahead of teammate David Gilliland. However, Ragan still ended his day eight laps in arrears, marking the 25th time in 29 races that he hasn’t finished on the lead lap. For Gilliland, his stats aren’t too much better; he has just seven lead lap finishes in 2012.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears finished the race for just the third time in the last seven races, though it was nine laps down in 31st place. Sponsor GEICO has re-upped for two more years, but it hasn’t stopped the bleeding this team has suffered in recent weeks.

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