NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega

Looking for the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How behind Sunday’s NASCAR event? 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?

There are very few races in which a small team can run equal with the big ones. But Casey Mears in his Germain Racing No. 13 ran with the top teams, and often ahead of many of them, all day. Mears powered his way to the front for the first time at lap 50, then led a total of four times for 10 laps with a single-car program that start-and-parks in some events without funding. Late in the race, Mears was even a legitimate threat to win. After being forced to pit on the final caution, he was storming toward the front with Michael Waltrip when Tony Stewart threw a block on the charging pair, triggering the 25-car pileup that would end Mears’s day within sight of the finish line and a potential top-five finish… if not his first win since 2007.

For Mears and his underfunded single-car team, the disappointment of that late-race crash, a Talladega staple, had to be at least as great as that of every Chase driver involved. Germain Racing put everything they had into their Sprint Cup effort, closing down a championship Camping World Truck Series team to field Mears. It looked as though that effort would pay off in spades for the team and driver this week before the Big One snatched it away. The silver lining is that Mears has been in the mix every time out on the restrictor-plate tracks this year, and that has to give them some confidence heading into 2013 and its four plate events.

What… was THAT?

I understand being frustrated with getting wrecked, especially when that wreck was somewhat caused by something going wrong with your own car. But what on earth was Kurt Busch thinking when he drove away after safety crews had surrounded his Chevy and were working to help him out? The move Busch made in anger was a dangerous one; not only could he have seriously hurt a rescue crew member doing his or her job, but the rules that require a helmet and a secured window net are in place for a reason. Had Busch been hit or blown a tire and spun out, he could have been badly injured as well. Busch’s excuse for not stopping when ordered to do so by NASCAR only strengthens the reason why he was wrong; he couldn’t hear any communication because he had taken off his helmet and ear pieces.

There is speculation that NASCAR may heavily penalize Busch for failing to follow their directive and for putting the safety workers’ own safety in jeopardy. (The potential penalty remains to be seen, since they’re typically handed out on Tuesdays.) Busch was parked for the day after the incident, but he is also on NASCAR probation stemming from a problem at Dover in which he was suspended for one week after verbally abusing a reporter, an issue that also occurred while Busch was on probation. The initial probation was the result of Busch doing a burnout through Ryan Newman‘s pit box at Darlington while crewmen were over the wall and then running into the back of Newman’s racecar on pit road after the race. So, it remains to be seen whether NASCAR will consider the parking punishment enough or if Furniture Row Racing will be looking for a driver this week in Charlotte.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Although qualifying doesn’t matter much at Talladega, you might think that winning the pole would make for a less stressful day. Not so for Kasey Kahne, who ran out of gas under green-flag conditions and got shuffled all over the place during the event. Then, things only went from bad to worse; he got a windshield full of Stewart’s undercarriage in the last-lap mayhem as Stewart landed on top of his car. Just like that, Kahne was relegated to a 13th-place finish.

But that could be a luckier 13th than it looks. Kahne actually gained two spots in the standings, though he lost a couple of points’ worth of ground to leader Brad Keselowski. Yet since everyone else got caught in the melee, and many fared worse than Kahne did, it could have been far more disastrous. The end result is that Kahne is 37 points out, now headed to his best track and with the confidence of knowing how well his team performs on intermediates. Kahne needs to get a whole lot closer to the top this week, but if he can do it anywhere, Charlotte is the place.

When… will I be loved?

It would be easy to place the blame for that nasty last-lap wreck on a blocking Stewart or a rusty Waltrip, but in reality, that’s too easy and it’s not all of the story. The fact is that teams are so shackled by NASCAR’s rules that no matter which drivers set it off, the wreck (commonly referred to as the Big One) is virtually inevitable. Teams are so shackled by NASCAR: gear rules, the pop-off valve pressure set so ridiculously low, restrictor plates, the yellow-line rule… the list goes on and on.

The rules that NASCAR established to curb two-car drafts not only put the cars in the position they were in, it also accounts for the size of the crash, which might have involved far fewer cars. If Waltrip hadn’t been hampered by the yellow line, could he have made a bigger move inside Stewart and avoided the block Stewart threw? It’s a definite possibility. And finally, why are there restrictor plates on the cars at all when the fuel mixture and thereby the horsepower can be controlled via electronic fuel injection? Matt Kenseth‘s early save came as the result of the pop-off valve being set so low; Greg Biffle moved down because he needed to get air to his engine and sent Kenseth sliding.

NASCAR has said they want to break up the big packs, but the bottom line is, that’s lip service. Too many people seem to like this breed of pseudo-racing for the sanctioning body to actually do anything to eliminate it. In reality, NASCAR does need to eliminate the restrictor plates, which would give drivers throttle response and then let the teams work on their cars and race the way they choose, pairs or not. When Dale Earnhardt Jr., a driver who once ruled the big tracks, says that this type of competition isn’t racing, that he wishes he didn’t have to even go to Daytona or Talladega next year, there’s something not right. The rules could be changed to spread out the field and put the races in the drivers’ hands. But the reality is that deep down, it seems as though this carnage is exactly what the sanctioning body wants to see at these racetracks.

Why… worry now?

When the dust cleared, little had really changed at the top of the Chase after Talladega. Keselowski gained a little breathing room over Jimmie Johnson, while Denny Hamlin is teetering at the 20-point mark. Kahne got in the position where he has one more shot to get back in it, because the series is heading to his best track this week. Clint Bowyer, tied with Kahne 37 markers off the lead, has a thread of hope to cling to for one more week as well. From sixth on back, though, a lot of championship hopes went up in the cloud of smoke that was the last lap of the race.

Jeff Gordon gained four spots, but he’s still 42 points behind Keselowski, nearly an entire race worth. And that really tells the tale. For anyone from Gordon on back to Kenseth, who remains in the basement, 62 markers back despite his win on Sunday, it would take a minor miracle to win a title now. Those teams may be better off turning one eye ahead to 2013 and any advantage to be gained over the teams who still have to concentrate on the here and now.

How… did the little guys do?

Front Row Motorsports (MHP 8-Hour Alert Ford & Peanut Patch Boiled Peanuts Ford): The late-race wreck proved a boon for FRM driver David Ragan, whose only career win came in a restrictor-plate race. Ragan netted a season-best fourth-place finish, his only top five of 2012. David Gilliland, while further behind scored his second-best result of the year with his 15th-place run.

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Regan Smith should have a win at Talladega (he had one stripped when NASCAR determined that he went below the yellow line unforced to win) and although he didn’t quite match that finish, Smith ended his tenure at Furniture Row Racing in a respectable fifth — 34 spots above his replacement. Smith will drive the No. 51 for Phoenix Racing next week in Charlotte.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Both Travis Kvapil and Landon Cassill have had excellent runs at Talladega before, and this time Kvapil sealed the deal with an eighth-place finish, the highest ever for a BK Racing driver. Landon Cassill didn’t have as much luck getting through the last-lap carnage, though and wound up 30th.

FAS Lane Racing (C&J Energy Services Ford): Terry Labonte showed that he still knows his way around Talladega. The two-time series champion was in the thick of things, charging late and his 16th-place result is his best since running 15th in the 2011 Daytona 500.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Scott/Kingsford/Bush’s Beans Toyota): The other half of the only brother pair of Cup champs, Bobby Labonte, couldn’t quite match his big brother’s finish this week. But he was close, coming home 16th. It was Labonte’s third top 20 in the last three races, perhaps a sign that his team is finally taking some baby steps in the right direction.

Wood Brothers Racing (Motorcraft/Quick Lane/Warriors In Pink Ford): 2011 Daytona 500 champ Trevor Bayne was back in action this week, and showed that he and the No. 21 are still fast together. Bayne was caught in the late-race wreck and finished 21st after leading five laps earlier in the day.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): For Mears, who saw a top five and possible race win slip away, the last-lap crash and the 26th-place finish it brought were particularly cruel.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Golden Corral Chevy & CVP@TMone.com Chevy): Dave Blaney showed that he can run with the best of them on a plate track, running as high as third before ending up 29th. David Reutimann, however suffered an engine failure just 26 laps from the scheduled end of the race and finished 37th.

Phil Parsons Racing (K-Love/Curb Records Ford): Talladega is one of the few races where the small teams can run with the money teams, and Michael McDowell made a rare full-race run, completing the distance for just the fourth time this year. He finished 31st, one lap down.

Inception Motorsports (SwanEnergyInc.com Toyota): Another driver making a rare all-day appearance, David Stremme, was racing in memory of Natalie Krohn, the nine-year-old daughter of well-known short-track racer Jason Krohn, who passed away on September 29th. Stremme’s worthy cause netted him a 33rd-place finish, his best since a 24th-place run at Indianapolis.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Reported fuel-pressure problems in front of the pack saw Busch get sent spinning into the inside wall in his final race for Phoenix Racing. Busch’s actions afterward leave him waiting on word from NASCAR on possible penalties that could potentially delay his scheduled Charlotte debut with Furniture Row Racing.

R3 Motorsports (North Texas Pipe Chevy): Robert Richardson finished 35th in just his second start of 2012.

Circle Sport (LittleJoesAuto.com Chevy): Cole Whitt‘s day ended early when he got loose on the high side and Mears couldn’t avoid his bumper, sending the Nationwide Series regular on a wild ride for an early exit after just 16 laps. Whitt finished 40th.

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