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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix

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?

To the guys at the top of the points, a ninth top-10 finish might not seem like much. But for Paul Menard, it’s a career high. Menard staked his claim on his ninth-place run early, qualifying seventh and running in the top five for most of the first half of Sunday’s contest before fading a bit, then rallying back into the top 10.

Menard has quietly put together a solid, if unspectacular, 2013 season. He’ll likely wind up 16th in points, just one spot behind Carl Edwards and with just two fewer top-five runs. He’s having a better season than veteran teammate Jeff Burton. With Kevin Harvick a lame duck at Richard Childress Racing in 2013 and Burton on the hot seat, Menard could even be a darkhorse candidate for the Chase next year if he can make the top ten a bit more often.

What… was THAT?

Dale Jarrett said it best: as much as everyone wanted to see the race end, and as close as some teams were on fuel mileage, there needed to be a caution for Danica Patrick on the green-white-checkered attempt. NASCAR’s failure to throw the yellow was costly. As Harvick took the checkers, several cars sustained heavy damage as their drivers raced for position coming to the finish line, only to realize that there was fluid on the track from Patrick’s limping car. Menard slammed into the back end of Patrick’s slower car so hard that the No. 10 was thrown into the air. Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Menard and Brad Keselowski all suffered damage. Kurt Busch‘s car was destroyed and on fire.

The bottom line is that NASCAR sacrificed safety for a good finish, and they didn’t have to. Had the yellow flag flown as soon as Patrick crashed, Harvick wouldn’t have taken the white flag, and there would have been another attempt. Yes, some teams were close on fuel. But fuel strategy is up to the teams, and the outcome would have been on them. As it is, NASCAR is very lucky nobody was hurt in what could and should have easily been avoided

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Kyle Busch put up a thoroughly dominant performance at Phoenix, taking the pole and leading four times for a total of 237 laps. It looked as though Busch had finally cast off the bad luck that has plagued him for much of the season and was en route to an easy win. But it didn’t quite happen that way; Busch faded late and wound up finishing third to Harvick and Denny Hamlin on Sunday. Busch led 74% of the race’s 319 laps, including 67 circuits from lap 238 to lap 304.

Busch should have won on Sunday; he must know that, and it must sting. But although a win would have provided a welcome boost, Busch and the No. 18 team should be looking at some of big positives as they head into 2013. Busch has four top-five finishes in the last five weeks. That’s more top fives in that timespan than either Jimmie Johnson or Keselowski. The team does have momentum on their side to start next season, leaving them with two over-arching goals: first to make the Chase, and then to put together a Chase performance like Busch has had this year. That’s easier said than done, since Busch has never been able to put those two parts of a season together. But if he can do that, he could be staring down a championship in a year’s time.

When… will I be loved?

Clint Bowyer took the first shot, giving Jeff Gordon a bumper in the left-rear quarter and tire and sending Gordon into the wall. Had it ended there, Bowyer would have gotten my vote for villain of the day. Gordon took the next one, returning the favor when Bowyer came back around. It would have been nothing but turnabout if innocent bystander Joey Logano hadn’t been taken out; that alone made Gordon’s retaliation wrong. Had it ended there, Gordon would have gotten my vote for villain of the day instead. But it was Bowyer’s crew that took the last and cheapest shot, ambushing Gordon as he climbed from his car on pit road and shoving the driver to the ground before NASCAR officials and members of Gordon’s crew could pull them off.

Ricky Craven said it best after the race. Bowyer wrecked Gordon; Gordon retaliated. Had it ended there, whether right or not, it’s part of the game in the “Boys, Have at it” era. But the No. 15 crew changed that; what they did was a step too far. Heck, fighting is against the rules, but if Bowyer had wanted to duke it out with Gordon himself and accept the consequences, go for it. Two drivers taking it out on track is perhaps poor sportsmanship, and probably not the right thing to do. Bowyer was wrong, Gordon was more wrong. But what happened on pit road was inexcusable. An entire crew ambushing and jumping a driver is just dirty.

Why… worry now?

And then, as the sun set over the desert, there was one.

Bowyer saw his last chance go up in flames, but it really was over before it started. Bowyer couldn’t gain enough all day to have made any real difference. When it was over, Bowyer (and everyone from third place on back) was mathematically eliminated from contention. Johnson, the title favorite when the green flag fell, saw his chances melt away with the bead on his right front tire. The second that happened, before the No. 48 even impacted the turn 4 wall, the title race was all over but the shouting. Barring disaster next week in Homestead, Roger Penske will have his first Sprint Cup title as an owner, and Dodge will have its last as a manufacturer. Keselowski has clear sailing from here on out, with nothing but daylight between him and the silver Cup inscribed with the word “champion.”

For many fans, this was the way they wanted it to end, with Johnson in the wall. But you have to wonder if Keselowski feels that way. He and Johnson have the utmost respect for each other, and no true racer wants anything to be decided by anything but racing to the wire on the last lap of the last race. Nobody wants to win but be left forever wondering “what if,” a question that can never be answered. Keselowski knows there are no guarantees, but as long as he has just a mediocre day at Homestead, 2012 is on the books. Nobody should want it to end like this; a year ago, the only way Edwards or Tony Stewart could guarantee a title was to win, and they both raced like it. This time, all Keselowski has to do is finish 15th or better, and so he can take it easy and race for points. He doesn’t have to drive hard enough to risk a crash, a blown tire… or an exciting race. Really, is that what anyone wants to see?

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row Chevy): It certainly wasn’t boring for Kurt Busch. An extra pit stop during a cycle dropped him off the lead lap. He got that back and crossed the finish line skidding and on fire after getting caught in the last-lap melee. Busch finished eighth, his second consecutive top 10 with Furniture Row.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Vektor Vodka Toyota): Bobby Labonte‘s day wasn’t nearly as eventful as some, but in the end, Labonte finished 15th, his second top-15 finish in the last three weeks. Labonte contines to lead the small-team drivers in points, where he sits 23rd.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (GoDaddy.com Chevy & Accell Construction Chevy): Patrick got turned coming to the white flag and still managed to finish 17th, her best Sprint Cup result to date. Unfortunately, she’ll be sore on Monday as Menard plowed into her car after the checkers, throwing the No. 10 into the air and onto the hood of the No. 78. At least Baldwin doesn’t have to cover the damage, since Stewart provides Patrick’s Cup equipment. Dave Blaney quietly posted a 26th-place result, his best finish since he finished 25th at Atlanta in September, and the first race he’s finished since Richmond.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil finished 20th, his third top-20 in the last six races. Although it may not sound like much, it’s progress; it took Kvapil 17 races to get his first three top 20 runs of 2012. Landon Cassill‘s 25th-place run gives him a 22.8 average for the last five races—an improvement of five positions over his season average.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): After being plagued by bad luck for much of the summer and fall, Casey Mears and the No. 13 team are back on track. Mears finished 22nd at Phoenix. After his 21st-place run last week, he put up his best back-to-back finishes since finishing 15th, 18th and 18th at Sonoma, Kentucky, and Daytona, respectively, in early summer.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Regan Smith grabbed Phoenix Racing’s first top-10 starting spot with his eighth-place qualifying run. Smith finished 24th. Smith’s 2013 plans are set with a full-time Nationwide Series seat at JR Motorsports. But for Phoenix, next year is more uncertain; the team may not continue if sponsorship can’t be secured.

FAS Lane Racing (U.S. Chrome/TMone Ford): Last year’s Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year finished 29th on Sunday. Timmy Hill‘s 29th-place average with Frank Stoddard’s team may not seem like much to write home about, but his 22nd-place result at Kansas was the team’s best for the year at a non-restrictor-plate track.

Front Row Motorsports (CertainTeed/31-W Insulation Ford & Loan Mart Ford): Phoenix as not kind to David Ragan or David Gilliland. Both lost their right front tires in turn 4, slamming the wall, and both had early exits as a result. Ragan fared slightly better, making it to lap 280 before his wreck and finishing 33rd. Gilliland lasted just 50 laps and recorded a 36th-place result.

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