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?
A few years ago, Mark Martin praised Regan Smith, then an up-and-coming youngster, for his talent behind the wheel. Fast forward to October 2012, and Smith is showing people what Martin saw in him years before–and what we all caught a glimpse of in his win at Darlington last year for underfunded Furniture Row Racing. Filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Charlotte and Kansas, Smith has made the most of the opportunity. He was running in the top 10 at Charlotte before the motor let go in the No. 88. This week, after a scare in qualifying that meant a 39th-place start, Smith drove the car unscathed into the top five on lap 225 before fading just a little to finish seventh.
If Earnhardt returns at Martinsville, Smith may be on the sidelines. Or, he may be in the No. 51 for Phoenix Racing, a ride for which he’s reported to be a candidate to drive in 2013 if the team can secure funding. Another opportunity for Smith could exist within the Hendrick Motorsports fold: Rick Hendrick confirmed that there have been talks with Smith about driving for JR Motorsports for the Nationwide Series title next year. If he can make himself a NNS champion, doors could open for Smith, and he’s shown that he’s ready to step through them.
This week, I’m also giving an honorable mention to Jimmie Johnson‘s pit crew, who basically had to clean up their driver’s mess after Johnson backed the No. 48 into the wall on lap 136. Despite damages that looked as though they would send Johnson to the garage for many laps and end his title hopes, the team was able to fix Johnson’s car on pit road—without costing the driver a single lap. Because of their efforts, Johnson finished the day in the top 10 and didn’t lose a single point to leader Brad Keselowski. Hopefully, there’s a nice steak dinner in this for them, because they deserve the lion’s share of credit for Johnson’s finish.
What… was THAT?
What a mess. That’s what several teams were left thinking after the wreckfest that was the Hollywood Casino 400. A track-record and season-high 14 cautions marred the racing over the course of the 400-mile event, caused by everything from a rash of blown tires, a couple of driver errors at the wrong time, a move made in anger, and a very slick repaved racetrack. “If people are wondering where all the cautions went, they moved to Kansas,” Keselowski said at one point during the day, referencing complaints about a lack of yellow flags during several events this season.
The crashes started early, when the No. 13 Ford, driven by Casey Mears, suffered a tire failure and slammed the wall. After a tire test last month in which Earnhardt slammed the wall and suffered a concussion, Goodyear pledged to bring a harder tire compound for the race weekend. But, it wasn’t hard enough; Mears, AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kurt Busch were among those whose cars suffered considerable damage from tire failures. Almirola’s first crash of the day, from the lead, trapped several drivers deep in the field.
That brought on another crash when Johnson found his car didn’t handle nearly as well in the pack as it had in the clean air up front, and went around on Johnson. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart took wild rides through the infield grass. Busch, after suffering the same fate as Johnson, lost his car in traffic. Stewart sent Jeff Burton on a wild ride up the track and into the wall. Ryan Newman ran into the back of Kyle Busch and sent him for a second wild ride. In other words, the hits just kept on coming. All in all, eight teams had early exits due to crashes, and others were damaged but able to finish. Although that’s nothing in comparison with Talladega, having more cautions than Bristol isn’t exactly something for Kansas Speedway to brag about. Remind me again why this track needs two races? Oh, that’s right: the title sponsor of the race is the on-site casino. Apparently having other attractions besides good racing makes a track worthy of a race date. Quick! Someone build a casino at Darlington…
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
It was a bit of an up and down day for Kasey Kahne. Kahne ran in the top 10 for most of the race, but was never quite able to make a move to the front after losing the lead early. Kahne dropped to 15th on lap 90. His team was able to make his car as fast as any, but Kahne could not quite capitalize and had to settle for finishing fourth.
For Kahne, who entered the season as one of the favorites to win this year’s title but struggled for the first two months before steadily improving to make the Chase as a wild card, a fourth-place finish is certainly better than those days in February and March. But Kahne’s chances to win the Cup are slipping away, and that leaves some unfinished business on his plate. But he’s shown his hand enough this year that nobody should be surprised if he puts it all together for 2014.
When… will I be loved?
Although mistakes and troubles were plentiful during the race at Kansas, it wasn’t like a short track where tempers flare and retaliation is on everyone’s mind. Well, retaliation was on one mind. After Landon Cassill got into the side of Danica Patrick while racing her for position (and, to be fair, Cassill’s move wasn’t accidental; frustrated that Patrick was holding him up by running in the high lane without making a pass, Cassill got into the side of Patrick to send a message, but didn’t spin her out), Patrick got to Cassill’s car on lap 155 and used the nose of her Chevy to send the No. 83 spinning… and there was no doubt of her intent to wreck Cassill. She admitted it on national television afterward, saying she needed to stand up for herself.
But in the end, it was Cassill who had the last laugh. Although his Toyota spun around when Patrick punted it, he was able to save it without hitting anything and went on to finish 18th… 14 spots ahead of Patrick, who spun her own car into the wall while trying to take out Cassill. Patrick was unable to keep her machine out of the wall and was forced to the garage for an early exit. Cassill took the opportunity to remind everybody about something: “Rule number one in stock car racing is to learn how to wreck someone without wrecking yourself” Cassill said on his radio after the incident. That’s a lesson Patrick will need to learn the hard way.
Why… worry now?
At times during the race, Keselowski looked as though he might lose the points lead. At others, it looked as though he might extend it to 20 points or more heading into Martinsville (where his average finish is seven spots lower than Denny Hamlin‘s and almost eight spots shy of Johnson’s, which would have given him a bit of breathing room). But when the smoke cleared and Sunday’s carnage was over, Keselowski’s lead over Johnson (seven points) was exactly the same as it was before the race.
The difference now is that this is much closer to being a two-horse race than it was a week ago. Hamlin gained a little ground in Charlotte and lost some of that this week. 20 points may not seem like much, but it is a lot of ground to make up in four weeks. Averaging five spots better than a driver as consistent as Keselowski has been and at the same time beating Johnson by more than three positions is certainly possible… but it isn’t likely. Both Hamlin and Clint Bowyer are in the position where they need Keselowski and Johnson to make either several small mistakes or one big one. That’s not a great position to be in to win a title, because at the end of the day, a driver can only control his own destiny.
Although Hamlin and Bowyer both hang on by a thread this week, it’s likely that everyone else is out of the hunt. Seventh-place Stewart is now a full race’s worth of points behind Keselowski. Greg Biffle, who led the points all year until the Chase reset, now sits in 11th, 62 markers behind in 11th place, last among the drivers who have run all six Chase races so far.
How… did the little guys do?
BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): The best of the small teams this week, BK again showed that while they may not have the equipment to win, they don’t play favorites. Travis Kvapil finished 17th. Despite an attempted takeout by Patrick, Cassill finished 18th, making BK Racing one of just two smaller teams inside the top 20 on Sunday. Cassill tied his season-best finish on Sunday.
Front Row Motorsports (Client One Securities, LLC Ford & Long John Silver’s Ford): David Ragan finished 20th, his best finish on a non-restrictor plate track in 2012. David Gilliland got a little TV airtime for the team, but unfortunately, it was for getting into the back of Stewart and sending him for a ride. Gilliland finished 23rd, his best intermediate track result since Michigan in August.
Wood Brothers Racing (Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Ford): Trevor Bayne actually finished better than he started the day on Sunday. Even after tangling with Marcos Ambrose, Bayne was able to match his car number to his finishing position, coming home 21st, his fourth finish of 20th or worse in his last four races.
FAS Lane Racing (Southern Pride Trucking/U.S. Chrome Ford): Timmy Hill had a quiet day, getting little notice from the voices in the booth on Sunday, but when the checkers fell, the 19-year-old had his best Cup finish in four races by 14 positions, and can lay claim to the best finish the No. 32 has posted at a track other than Daytona or Talladega.
Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Kurt Busch was involved in two incidents on Sunday, the first as part of a chain reaction when Newman got into Kyle Busch, and the second when he slammed the wall with two laps remaining in the race. Busch’s 25th-place finish was the worst since Chicago for the No. 78 team.
Tommy Baldwin Racing (GoDaddy.com Chevy & Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevys): Besides Patrick’s No. 10, which was damaged in her payback move and subsequently wound up with a 32nd-place finish (Baldwin is the owner of record on the No. 10, even though Stewart-Haas Racing fields Patrick in her limited Cup schedule), the TBR cars didn’t have sponsorship to go the distance. JJ Yeley bowed out after just 11 laps and Dave Blaney made it only to lap 25 before calling it quits.
JTG Daugherty Racing (Kingsford Toyota): Kansas certainly hasn’t been kind to Labonte this year; his 33rd-place finish was his worst since he finished 35th there in June… his two worst results of 2012. As tough as the year has been for Labonte, one stat stands out: his two finishes of 30th or worse beats both Keselowski and Johnson in that department; Keselowski has finished 30th or lower three times and Johnson four.
Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Allmendinger started 13th, and by lap 45 he was inside the top five. Allmendinger’s day was cut short when a blown tire sent the No. 51 hard into the wall and relegated the team to a 35th-place result. The team has not said if Allmendinger will be in the car at Martinsville, or if they will replace him, most likely with Smith if Earnhardt returns to the No. 88. With his strong run on Sunday, Allmendinger might be a leading contender for the ride in 2013, though, if the team can secure funding to stay on track.
Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): If not for GEICO stepping up at the last minute to sponsor Mears and the No. 13 team, the team would have been forced to park early. As is was, a tire failure on lap 32 meant pretty much the same thing after Mears slammed the wall. The damage to the car was too great to repair, and Mears recorded a 37th-place finish.