NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead

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?

For possibly the first time ever, Dale Earnhardt Jr. snuck up for a good finish. Usually, it’s impossible for Earnhardt to fly under the radar in a race. But this week, with the spotlight on his teammate and his former employee running for the Cup, Earnhardt did just that, finishing 10th after running mid-pack for most of the day.

Whatever Earnhardt and his team did to salvage a top-10 to end the year, this is a good way to cap off 2012 for the No. 88 crowd. It’s Earnhardt’s second top-10 run after returning to action following a two-week hiatus due to a concussion, and it will give the team some momentum to build on in the offseason. That’s important; the team wasn’t quite strong enough to make a real run at it this year and with each passing year, Earnhardt’s title chances wane. He’s got a few years left, but it’s time to make the most of every race.

What… was THAT?

There’s a big red circle around the Kentucky Speedway race date in Jeff Gordon‘s calendar–of that you can be certain. Why? With his win at Homestead on Sunday, Kentucky becomes the only track of 25 on which Gordon has ever run a Sprint Cup race without a victory. That includes victories at two tracks no longer on the Cup schedule (North Wilkesboro and Rockingham).

Like him or not (Gordon has been a polarizing figure throughout his NASCAR career), Gordon has put up some impressive numbers in his 20-year Cup career; his four titles (fourth-best all time) and 87 wins (third on the all-time list) among them. He also has five championships as a car owner (Gordon is the owner of record of the No. 48 team and hand-picked driver Jimmie Johnson as its driver). Gordon’s best track is Darlington, where he has seven wins, including five in the Southern 500 when it was still the sport’s longest-standing tradition. Gordon also has seven wins at Martinsville and six apiece at Daytona, Talladega and Pocono. He has five wins at four different tracks. Gordon also holds 41.7% of Hendrick Motorsports’s 209 wins. The remaining 58.4% are among 16 different drivers. Gordon’s numbers already make him a future hall of famer, and the defining driver of an era.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After a practice crash on Saturday, Joey Logano was forced to break out the backup car and give up the pole to start in the back of the pack. In his final race for Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano still had a solid day on Sunday, racing through the pack to finish a respectable 14th.

Logano will move on to Penske Racing’s No. 22 ride in 2013. It could be the year that defines Logano as either the driver that he was first touted to be when he earned his nickname, “Sliced Bread” (as in the best thing since), or as a driver who is good for some solid finishes and a win here and there but not the type of sustained success he’s had in the Nationwide Series this year. It truly could go either way for Logano, who is certainly a talented driver, but who seems to need equipment a notch above the competition’s to truly thrive. He’ll have equal stuff to the best teams next year, but he’ll have to do the rest on his own.

When… will I be loved?

Everyone was on their best behavior for the finale, not wanting to impact the championship battle. Unfortunately, that didn’t make for a very exciting race. In the end, the title was decided in the garage, not on the track, and there was no battle to the finish. Unfortunately, this type of a let-down in terms of racing is typical for Homestead-Miami Speedway. Though not exactly the same as the other 1.5-mile tracks, it’s close enough that the racing is fairly predictable, and coupled with the fact that nobody wants to be “that guy” and take out a title contender with an aggressive move, it leads to a pretty anticlimactic championship weekend.

Where should the season end? That’s a tough call. The ideal choice would be Martinsville, but winter is creeping into the Blue Ridge in mid-November, making it less than ideal for a weekend of camping or spectating. The same is true for Dover and New Hampshire (though Loudon did once host the season finale, in 2001) and for Bristol and Richmond, neither of which is currently in the Chase. Of the tracks currently in the Chase, that would make Phoenix the obvious choice. Talladega is too big of a crapshoot, and the rest of the venues are 1.5-milers. The other choice, to me, would be Darlington Raceway. It’s not currently a Chase track, but its tradition and treachery would make it a good choice. No matter to which track it might move, if NASCAR wants an exciting finale, it needs to hold the final race at a track shorter than 1.5 miles in order to have a truly compelling finish to each and every year.

Why… is Brad Keselowski your 2012 Sprint Cup Champion?

In the end, it came down to better race strategy over 10 races. That’s the area where the No. 48 team admitted they were behind for the last two seasons. In the end, it bit them. Fuel strategy at Dover, missing the setup at Phoenix, and driver errors all meant that the team that many fans and media called the favorite never should have been—becaue the No. 2 team, as a whole, was better all along. At one point, luck swung Johnson’s way at Homestead, but a missed lugnut and a broken drive train ultimately ended his day early. It marked the second year in a row that the title was never really in Johnson’s hands as a driver, but rather in the hands of his crew. In the end, though, it didn’t matter; Keselowski cruised to a 15th-place finish… exactly the spot he needed to finish to clinch the title, no matter what Johnson did.

And although Johnson and his team threw the title away, not only at Homestead, but every chance they had throughout much of the Chase (a format that they once knew how to dominate), Keselowski went out and took it. He was able to drive a typical conservative points leader’s race at Homestead, not needing to take any real risks on the track–and that was enough to deliver Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup title. Keselowski drove one of the most consistent Chase runs in the nine years that the format has been in existence. His crew made few mistakes, none of which were terribly costly in the end. This year, that was exactly what it took.

Keselowski is good for the sport. He’s engaging and outspoken–and that sets him apart from most others in an era where sponsors muzzle drivers until they’re afraid to do anything but toe the company line. Keselowski throws political correctness out the window, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s gracious with fans, taking time to sign autographs in the garage even as his team was preparing for the final race of the season. He races others with respect while racing aggressively… something we don’t always see these days.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row Chevy): Kurt Busch snapped a 10-year streak of at least one win in a season, but his ninth-place run was the third top-10 in three weeks for FRR, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Although I don’t forsee a Chase run in 2013, this could become a top 20 team next year.

Wood Brothers Racing (Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Ford): Trevor Bayne finished 20th and has not finished any worse than 24th since a crash at Daytona in July left him 27th. For a part-time team, Bayne and Co. have been solid and consistent, and a full-time Nationwide ride in 2013 will only help both driver and team.

JTG Daugherty Racing (Clorox Toyota): It’s not a second Cup title, but Bobby Labonte was best in class this year; his 23rd-place run was the best among all drivers for the small teams, beating out Regan Smith and Busch. Labonte finished 25th on Sunday and recently announced that he will remain with the No. 47 team in 2013.

BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Once again, this team showed what might be their biggest strength: equality. Travis Kvapil and Landon Cassill have run consistently close together in every race, often finishing as they did Sunday, with Kvapil in 26th and Cassill in 27th, each two laps down. If it’s due to teamwork and equal equipment within the team, that’s only going to serve the team well moving forward. The team has not announced its 2013 driver lineup.

Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears and Co. never hit on the setup on Sunday and came home to a 29th-place finish, three laps down to the leader. Mears is signed through 2014, but something to think about next year is whether teams like this one and Front Row Motorsports will suffer from being even further down the food chain with Roush Yates engines after Penske Racing joins the fold.

Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Smith finished 30th this week. But if Saturday’s Nationwide race was any indication, 2013 could be a tough year for his competition in that series. Smith won that race in his very first start with JR Motorsports, the team that he hopes to take to that series title next year.

Front Row Motorsports (CertainTeed/31-W Insulation Ford & Long John Silver’s Ford): The two Davids at FRM, Ragan and Gilliland, finished 31st and 33rd, respectively. Along with Germain Racing, this team was already at the bottom of the Roush Yates totem pole. With the two Penske teams to supply next year, will the engine program be spread too thin to give these teams a fair shake?

Tommy Baldwin Racing (Florida Lottery Chevy & TMone Chevy & C&C Audio Video & Appliance Chevy): Dave Blaney was the best of the TBR crowd this week with his 32nd-place run. David Reutimann finished 34th and JJ Yeley wound up 35th. For Yeley, it was just the second complete race since he joined the fold in July. There’s no official word on what this team will do in 2013… but perhaps cutting back to one car would be beneficial.

FAS Lane Racing (Federated Auto Parts Ford): Hand it to this team, they have gone out and tried to finish every race this year. Ken Schrader was unable to get to the end this week, though, as a mechanical failure sent him to the garage after 219 laps. This team has not announced its 2013 plans.

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