NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2013 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited? Amy Henderson has you covered with 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?

Playing it smart during a restrictor plate event might mean you don’t get noticed, for most of the night at least but it can definitely put you in good position at the end. Aric Almirola might not have turned many heads during the first couple of segments Saturday night, but he was there when it counted, finishing sixth. With just 12 cars running for the win, the race didn’t play out the way a full-field race might, and it could be that Almirola was taking care of his equipment more than some others with deeper pockets. But with Roush Fenway Racing horsepower, beware; Almirola could be a bigger threat than people think on Sunday afternoon. Remember, the underdog Wood Brothers went to Daytona Victory Lane two years ago with Trevor Bayne. Could 2013 be Richard Petty’s turn to return to glory in the Great American Race?

What… was THAT?

The first shocker of the night happened before the green flag fell: the fans didn’t vote for the starting lineup that would have given Dale Earnhardt Jr. the highest starting position. Of the three choices (when the drivers won their first pole in 2012, 2012 points position or career wins), career wins would have given Earnhardt the best starting spot (ninth). 2012 points would have put Earnhardt 10th at the start. Under the selected format, Earnhardt started 16th of 19 drivers. You have to wonder if fans were voting against other drivers rather than for Earnhardt; had they voted by 2012 points, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne would have been on the front row, and had wins set the field, Jeff Gordon and Johnson would have held the top two spots.

I was also slightly surprised that fans voted for the 30-25-20 lap choice for the length of the race segments. I thought they’d have gone with the format with the shortest final segment (10 laps) because that would have made for the craziest ending.

Continuing the surprises for the night, fans also chose to make cars pit for four tires under the yellow flag between the first two segments. I would have thought they would have opted for no stop, forcing the drivers to pit under green, where a single mistake was much more costly, making the pit stop much more of a game changer. Sure, yellow flag stops are important, but they don’t create anywhere near the drama that green flag ones do.

Making it a clean sweep, fans again surprised me by not voting to eliminate any cars before the third segment. Eliminations would have forced the field to race for all they were worth and not allowed anyone to hang back, which a handful of drivers, including Marcos Ambrose, Almirola and Earnhardt were clearly doing at the end of segment one. By fans not voting to eliminate anyone, drivers didn’t have to race as hard in the second segment, and again, a few cars opted to run at the back rather than risk damage.

Where… did the defending race winner wind up?

Last year, we looked at the polesitter’s finish each week, but for 2013, we’re going to take a look at where the driver who won the race a year ago ended up 12 months later, and what that means in the bigger picture. This week, that’s Kyle Busch, who was caught in the first segment wreck and finished 16th, completing just 14 laps. Like Busch or loathe him, he had a good car and it’s unlikely he’d have wound up so far back in the running order if he had an undamaged car at the end. Then again, Busch had a subpar season in 2012 after winning the non-points season opener, so maybe he’s better off saving his best racing for when it counts.

When… will I be loved?

You never want to be that guy, but if you’re that guy in the first segment, you’re going to earn my Villain of the Race award. So, this one’s for you, Tony Stewart!

Early in the race (lap 16), Stewart tried to cut from the top into the faster bottom line, but he wasn’t clear of Ambrose. Ambrose slid up the track in front of Johnson and it was game on. By the time all was said and done, Denny Hamlin, Busch, Gordon, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. all got a piece of it. Truex and Ambrose were able to continue, but six cars went to the garage, their night over and their cars in pieces. Stewart admitted afterward that his spotter hadn’t cleared him, causing the trouble that reduced the competitors on the track by one-third. This incident marks the second time in the last two restrictor-plate races that Stewart has triggered a multi-car crash, making him singlehandedly responsible for more than 20 totaled racecars.

Still, part of the blame has to go to the nature of restrictor-plate racing. When the cars run in huge packs, fans should expect this kind of destruction at every plate track. You didn’t see that with the two-car drafts of a year ago, where an accident might take out only four or five cars. But people wanted the pack racing, and NASCAR did everything they could to oblige. If this is the kind of style people like, well, they’ll get their money’s worth in the next seven days.

Why… worry now?

The good news is that nobody had to worry about points on Saturday night. The bad news is that many teams come to Daytona with three cars: their Sprint Unlimited car, Daytona 500 car and Daytona 500 backup. After a practice wreck, some teams could be left scrambling. Carl Edwards‘s team already loaded his Unlimited car on a hauler bound for Charlotte after his practice wreck; they’ll fix it, hang new sheetmetal, and bring it back to serve as the Daytona 500 backup as Edwards was forced to pull his original second car out for Saturday’s race.

Both Kurt Busch and Martin lost their second car in two days by no fault of their own, which almost certainly puts some pressure on their teams to get an additional car ready as well in case they should lose their primary Daytona 500 one in practice or Thursday’s Duels at Daytona. Busch’s team, which is located in Denver, will get some help from Richard Childress Racing, with whom they have a technical alliance and who will provide them with another Chevrolet. But that goodwill gesture in turn stretches RCR a little thin; if any of their four cars gets torn up in practice or a race, they’re then strapped also. It’s all a part of the downside of Daytona; wrecked sheetmetal can get both expensive and stressful.

How… did the little guy do?

The only small team in the race was FAS Lane Racing with driver Terry Labonte, by virtue of Labonte’s Busch Clash win in 1985. (All past winners of the renamed race are eligible). Labonte pulled into the garage after just two laps, finishing 19th.

But before you malign Labonte and his team for pulling in early, consider that there was a shortage of parts for the Gen-6 cars all winter, and FAS Lane, being near the bottom of the NASCAR food chain, may not have had a car to risk. If that’s the case, then the No. 32 would be Labonte’s backup car for the Daytona 500, and not one that the team could afford to lose if Labonte had been caught in a wreck. For some teams, losing cars means an extra trip to Charlotte to pick up another one, an expensive inconvenience, but for FAS Lane, there might not be another car to go get. And this week’s purse might help pay next week’s tire bill; FAS Lane was not a start-and-park operation in 2012 and I don’t expect them to be one in 2013.

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