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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 AAA Texas 500

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?

There was a time when racing hard with the title contenders would have brought out the worst in Kyle Busch. But this time around, Busch put on a clinic of how to do it right. Busch had a top-three car, and when late-race cautions bunched up the field, he had a shot to race Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for position — and he did it in the best possible way. He didn’t roll over and give either Chase driver a spot; instead, he raced them both with maximum effort, balancing that with controlled aggression. Busch didn’t race them checkers or wreckers; he raced them hard and clean.

Perhaps Busch has finally learned that when you race with respect, you are given respect in return. If he has, and continues to race like Sunday, he could erase a puzzling statistic: Busch hasn’t won in September, October or November in the last seven seasons. At times, it’s appeared that one of two things has gotten to Busch as the season closes: either he makes the Chase and then has a bit of a mental meltdown that ends his chances, or he doesn’t make the playoffs altogether, and that takes its toll on his late-season confidence. Until now, Busch has gotten a bad rap this year for toning down his volatile temper and overaggressive driving style. But if he can continue to race with an improved attitude, that may make the difference in whether he wins a championship at NASCAR’s highest level or not.

What… was THAT?

When it isn’t your year, it really isn’t your year. As 2011 came to a close, all signs pointed toward 2012 being a breakout year for Kevin Harvick. But instead, Harvick and the No. 29 team have struggled to find any kind of momentum at all. Gil Martin replaced Shane Wilson as Harvick’s crew chief in August, a past partnership the team hoped would gear them towards future success. Although that helped the team limp into the Chase, it hasn’t provided any needed momentum as of yet.

So it was simply insult upon injury on Sunday when the parachuter who was carrying in the Texas state flag landed in the infield… and the sandbag that weighted his flag took aim squarely at Harvick’s racecar, leaving a large dent in the driver’s side door in the top of the number 9. NASCAR did allow the team to repair the damage with no penalty, giving them a chance to take the green flag (mostly) unscathed. Although the incident didn’t have any bearing on the title chase — Harvick’s chances were over long before the sandbag fell on his car — it was a bizarre footnote on a season the driver wants behind him as quickly as possible.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It was a little bit of déjà vu for Johnson this week. A week ago at Martinsville, Johnson won from the pole; this week, for his encore, he did it again. Johnson won the race at a critical juncture in the Chase and maximized his points by leading the most laps to boot.

The win also boosted Johnson in one other area, one that proved critical in last year’s Chase: it swung the tiebreaker in his favor. Should the points end in a tie (and if that happens for a second year in a row, it would be like lightning striking twice —technically possible but less likely than say, Dale Earnhardt Jr. not winning the Most Popular Driver award again this year) the tie is broken by number of wins. But because Johnson and Keselowski now have five wins apiece, the deciding factor would then be second-place finishes if neither has one in the next two weeks. And in that category, Johnson has a 5-3 edge. Although it’s unlikely a tiebreaker would be needed, Johnson’s win proved to give him a second edge in his title hunt.

When… will I be loved?

The villain this week wasn’t wearing a driver’s suit or a helmet or sporting a NASCAR suit. Instead, it was the same cookie-cutter racing that has plagued the Sprint Cup Series for much of recent seasons. Though the finish was saved to a degree by a couple of late-race incidents, ones that allowed for some decent racing on restarts, there was simply no reason for anyone to take any risks whatsoever for the first 450 miles of the race. Without a sense of urgency, as I wrote last week, there is no reason for any team to take chances early that could hurt them later on.

Although this boredom is present to some degree, everywhere, it’s exceptionally evident on the 1.5-mile tracks. There’s always action on the short tracks, and at places like Talladega and Daytona, at least there are lead changes where drivers can run down the leader. On the intermediates, the leader often pulls away in clean air and when the urgency does strike, it’s often too late unless there’s help in the form of a yellow flag. It’s not exciting, and yet it’s repeated week after week because so many races are run on this type of track. Texas may have billed the race as a “Wild Asphalt Circus,” but most of this week’s show was more like a Tame Asphalt Parade.

Why… worry now?

If there was little doubt that this championship was down to two after Martinsville, that was hammered home this week. Barring a major incident for Johnson or Keselowski — and that could certainly happen in racing — nobody is going to catch them. Clint Bowyer, the closest challenger, is 36 points back in third. Kasey Kahne‘s late Texas troubles mean that both Johnson and Keselowski could sit out a race and still be ahead of him in points; Denny Hamlin‘s Martinsville woes seem to have completely taken the wind out of his sails as Hamlin finished 20th on Sunday. He hasn’t run worse on an intermediate track this year without a crash or mechanical issue, and tumbled to seventh in points as a result. The white flag has been waved.

Although Johnson did gain five precious points on Keselowski this week, it’s still about 900 miles too early to hand him the trophy. Johnson put on a textbook race this week… and it was barely enough. They both battled like champions in the closing laps. On the second-to-last restart, Keselowski crowded Johnson, getting into the No. 48 and pushing Johnson out of the groove. In return, Johnson didn’t give Keselowski nearly as much racing room on the final restart, pinching the No. 2 as low on the track as possible. Either driver could have wrecked the other in the name of winning and put the championship to bed… but neither one made that kind of move. If that kind of racing continues, it will be the last lap at Homestead before there’s a clear favorite, if then.

Does Johnson have an edge? Yes, but not a big one. Yes, he’s averaged much better at Phoenix. But with only three years on his stats, Keselowski’s averages don’t mean as much as Johnson’s. Head-to-head, the two have raced each other 123 times in the Cup Series. Johnson has finished ahead of Keselowski in 79 of them, with 15 race wins to Keselowski’s nine in that time… and that could be the more telling set of data. Still, it’s not enough to say that Johnson has this one anywhere close to the bag, let alone in it, as Keselowski has made a hobby of busting up trends this year.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Kurt Busch‘s eighth-place run was his best of the season on an intermediate track, and only his second top 10 on an oval this year. If nothing else illustrates the struggles of the small teams, this stat should, because it’s the intermediates where the inequality really shows.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears‘s 21st-place effort at Texas was his best since finishing in that spot at Bristol in August. Mears passed three cars on the final lap to nab the position.

Wood Brothers Racing (Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Trevor Bayne was once again strong in his part-time gig, finishing 22nd. Bayne has run 24th or better in 11 of 15 races this year. For a part-time, underfunded team, that’s not a bad number.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil‘s 23rd-place finish bested his Texas average by five positions. Landon Cassill came home 26th, two laps down, and tied his career-best result at Texas Motor Speedway.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (GoDaddy.com Chevy & Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy & MaxQ Chevy): If not for being the owner of record for Danica Patrick, who finished 24th, Baldwin would likely not have had a single car finish the race. This team, which started the year attempting to run every event the full distance, has struggled to find the funding down the stretch. How bad is it? Dave Blaney, who completed just 37 laps Sunday en route to a 39th-place finish, is behind AJ Allmendinger in driver points despite having 11 more starts than Allmendinger this year.

Front Row Motorsports (CertainTeed/31-W Insulation Ford & Long John Silver’s Ford): David Ragan has a pair of Texas top 10s, but he didn’t crack that number this weekend. In fact, he couldn’t even crack his 21.6 TMS average, finishing four laps down in 28th. David Gilliland blew his engine after just 225 laps and wound up 35th, his worst TMS result since the spring of 2011.

Leavine Family Racing (B&D Electrical/TWD Ford): This team isn’t always able to run the distance, but this week, they were able to make the attempt, and Scott Speed and Co. came home 30th. Yes, they were seven laps down, but running….

FAS Lane Racing (Federated Auto Parts Ford): Veteran Ken Schrader was behind the wheel this week and piloted Frank Stoddard’s machine to a 31st-place finish, seven laps in arrears. It’s a one-spot gain on Schrader’s 2012 average of 32.4.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Wounded Warrior Project Toyota): Bobby Labonte‘s day got punctured along with his radiator on lap 119, when someone didn’t get going on a restart and Labonte got into Bayne in the resulting accordion of cars. Labonte would get back on track, but finished 33rd, 51 laps behind the winner.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Allmendinger got loose coming off turn 4 on lap 108, and while he didn’t get into the wall, the front end of his car was torn off when he got into the grass and hit a Texas-sized divot, ripping away everything from the bumper down. The ‘Dinger wound up 36th in what’s supposed to be his last race with the Phoenix Racing Chevy, at least for now; Regan Smith will slide in next week.