NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte

Looking for the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How behind Saturday night’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 wasn’t the win he has been searching for for more than a year and a half, but for Carl Edwards, a seventh-place finish was a welcome ending. For Edwards, who has just three top-five performances in 2012, this week’s result was only the second to fall inside the top 10 in the last eight weeks, just his 13th top-10 finish in 31 races. That’s half the number he had a year ago, when Edwards lost the Sprint Cup title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. The top-five stat is even more dismal. Edwards finished in that group 19 times in 2011, more than six times as often as 2012. No matter where his points finish is, it will be the worst of his career because he didn’t make the Chase cut and can finish no better than 13th.

Edwards didn’t lead a lap at Charlotte, but you can make a case that he didn’t need to. The No. 99 team needed to simply run well, and they did that with a solid performance across all aspects: crew chief, driver and pit stops. For a group that was clearly reeling this year after losing the 2011 title, consistency and solid top-10 runs need to be the first step toward regaining the step they lost. If the No. 99 bunch can finish the year like they did this week’s, they’ll be in better shape heading into 2013 to make another Chase bid. Instead of grasping at straws, they are better served by having races just like this one; the competition knew they were there, there were no mistakes, and it produced one of their better results in recent weeks. If they can end the year in this fashion, they can rebound when 2013 hands them a clean slate.

What… was THAT?

Three drivers found themselves in a different ride than they drove at Talladega last week. Even for Silly Season, that’s a lot. But it does give teams a chance to evaluate their programs and see where they stand for 2013. Kurt Busch got a head start on his 2013 ride, moving from the No. 51 of Phoenix Racing to Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78. Regan Smith, displaced from that car, was slated to drive the No. 51 this week but ended up subbing for an ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 (making this race the first one in 33 years not to have an Earnhardt in the field and the first since 1961 not to have a native North Carolinean). When Smith vacated the No. 51 car, that opened the door for AJ Allmendinger to race for the first time since being reinstated after suspension for a failed drug test. Neither Smith nor Allmendinger has a contract for next year, so the races they do run this fall have extra significance.

So, how did the trio do in brand-new seats? Smith was running in the top 10 when a sudden engine failure ended his night after just 61 laps. Busch finished 21st, two laps down, and Allmendinger came home 24th, four laps in arrears. But that’s not exactly the whole story. Compared with the teams’ results for 2012 through Talladega, it was Allmendinger, not Busch, who had a slightly better race. How? First, the average finish for the No. 78 this year is 21.7. Busch finished 21st, not quite beating by a full spot the team’s “mean” coming in. Allmendinger, in contrast bettered the 25th-place average for Busch’s former car by one position. That’s a slight advantage, and considering that Allmendinger hasn’t raced in four months, it’s a significant stat.

But, wait, you say… what about recent performance? Isn’t the last month more telling about where a team is now? If it is, Allmendinger still takes this one; his 24th place is the team’s second-best finish in the last four weeks. But Busch’s finish is the worst for the No. 78 in that span. One race doesn’t mean a ton in the scheme of things, but perhaps, the move that Busch didn’t think was a lateral one was more level than it first appeared.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Greg Biffle set a new track record with a blistering lap that even had the driver scared; his shouts of excitement and laughter on the cool-down circuit made the No. 16 sound like a one-man clown car. Early on, Biffle was strong, and his fourth-place finish is reflective of how good the regular season points champ was this weekend. Had fuel mileage not bitten him, Biffle could well have contended for the trophy.

But while Biffle beat Brad Keselowski by seven spots, it wasn’t enough in the big picture. Biffle will likely look back on this season in the way others have in the Chase era — as the one that slipped away with the points reset.

When… will I be loved?

The only real incident of the race took place on a restart – hardly a villainous act. Instead, the thing that has teams gnashing their teeth after Charlotte was fuel. The tiger that wasn’t in the tank bit the hardest under the lights on Saturday night. It was evident early on that teams suspected that fuel mileage would rear its head, beginning on lap 12, when the leaders pitted under the caution and crew chiefs were telling their drivers on the radio to save gas. Up and down pit road, teams were concerned with when or if (mostly when) their tanks would run dry and how they could stretch it out. Keselowski ran out of fuel while leading the race, and the stretch didn’t end up being enough, since Keselowski still couldn’t make it to the end of the event.

Fuel mileage races are frustrating for everyone. Fans see their drivers taken out of contention by something beyond their control. Teams see their hard work go down the drain as they are forced to settle for a position they could have bettered. Nobody likes them except the team getting the most laps out of a tank. I don’t think they’re as bad as some do; they are real nailbiters, though for a different reason than a close race where teams don’t have to worry about what’s in the fuel cell. Still, it definitely played a role in how the race turned out and, exciting or not, when the finish is taken out of the driver’s hands, it’s a disappointment.

Why… worry now?

Clint Bowyer won the race at Charlotte, but did he win his way back into title contention. Just don’t make him a favorite… yet. Bowyer, despite gaining a handful of points over leader Keselowski, is still 28 back. And with five races to make up, that means Bowyer has to beat Keselowski by an average of more than five spots every week—while beating Jimmie Johnson by just over four positions and Denny Hamlin by three spots. Broken down that way, it’s clear that Bowyer’s shot is an outside one at best.

Meanwhile, at the front of the points pack, Keselowski ran out of fuel while leading and while not a total disaster — he made it to pit road and still finished 11th — it did allow Johnson to cut his lead in half, to seven markers. Now, the series heads to Kansas, where Johnson has two wins and leads all drivers in average finish… with Johnson smelling blood in the water. If Five-Time is to make a move for his sixth title, now is the chance for him to make it. Hamlin, who was on life support after Talladega, got an infusion this week and now sits within striking distance, 15 behind Keselowski. There is now little doubt that this championship will be settled among these three.

Kasey Kahne probably saw his last, best chance at the 2012 Chase title slip away at his best track. He’s 35 back, nearly a whole race. To win, he’d have to put seven positions on Keselowski every week, and that’s an order almost too tall to consider. Biffle was strong at Charlotte, but fell short, and the man who led the points almost all year will almost certainly watch another man get the prize. Everyone else is running to beat each other. Martin Truex Jr., Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are all more than a full race’s worth of points behind and the wheels would have to fall off of the leaders’ cars for them to gain enough ground. Earnhardt is out for at least one more week with a concussion, meaning his title bid is officially over.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Perhaps it’s time for this team to look somewhere other than the man behind the wheel to find the root of their weaknesses. Kurt Busch‘s 21st-place run, while four spots better than his season average, was the worst for the team in a month.

Wood Brothers Racing (Good Sam Club/Camping World Ford): Being a satellite team of a powerhouse doesn’t always mean equal equipment. Trevor Bayne‘s Ford was never competitive with the other Roush Fenway-built machines, and Bayne wound up two laps down in 22nd, right on the team’s average for the year.

Front Row Motorsports (Glory Foods Fords): David Gilliland won the battle of the Davids, though he didn’t win the race and $1 million for Feeding America form sponsor Glory Foods. Gilliland came home 23rd, his best non-restrictor plate finish since Bristol in August, while David Ragan suffered damage in an early restart incident and was forced to come in for lengthy repairs. Ragan finished 34th.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): After graciously allowing Smith (who was slated to drive this week) to drive the No. 88, the team went to Allmendinger. The smile on Allmendinger’s face was beaten in size only by the giant smiley face on the hood of the car (word on the street has it that the smiley faces that adorned the car were a “good riddance” message to outgoing driver Busch) and everyone should be happy with the 24th-place finish as well. They weren’t competitive with the big teams, but they were right there in their class all night, and the car came home in one piece, smiles intact.

BK Racing (Burger King Toyota & Dr. Pepper Toyota): It’s usually the 1.5-mile tracks where the smaller teams’ struggles are most visible, and this week it showed that this team is still behind the curve on those tracks—but the good news is that the two cars are pretty close to each other. Travis Kvapil edged Landon Cassill this week by one position and one lap, finishing 25th and four laps down to Cassill’s 26th place, five laps in arrears.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Although this team has made significant improvement this year and could practically taste the Victory Lane champagne last week after a stellar run at Talladega, Charlotte showed where the equipment is still lacking. Casey Mears, a former Charlotte winner, came up laps short this week, finishing 29th, seven circuits behind the winner.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevys): David Reutimann had the only car in the stable to still be around at the end, finishing 30th. An unsponsored Dave Blaney called it a night after just 25 laps. This team, with inadequate funding is just not ready to be running two and sometimes three cars, with a series of disappointing finishes defining their second half of 2012. It’s clear that TBR got the short end of the stick in the deal with Stewart-Haas Racing to field the No. 10, keeping it in the field for Danica Patrick.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Scott Brand Toyota): Bobby Labonte scored his best starting spot of the year with a 15th-place qualifying effort. However, he had a mechanical issue early, falling off the pace, and wound up limping home in 34th place, ten laps behind the leaders.

FAS Lane Racing (U.S. Chrome Ford): Timmy Hill made his first Sprint Cup start at Charlotte and the third of his career. The 2011 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year was looking to gain experience and make laps, but wound up completing only 182 of the 334 scheduled after his engine expired.

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