NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2013 Daytona 500

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to all six race-day questions, otherwise known as the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Talk about making the most of an opportunity. For a driver like Jimmie Johnson, that’s not so big of a challenge. But for Michael McDowell, the chance just to finish a race doesn’t come around that often, as owner Phil Parsons chooses to start-and-park most weeks. This time, McDowell was given the chance to go the distance, in the sport’s biggest race and he responded with a top-10 finish. His ninth-place run is also his first career top-10 result in Sprint Cup competition, though he’s done admirably in a sometimes role with Joe Gibbs’s Nationwide team (two top fives and five top 10s in six 2012 races). McDowell deserves a shot at a better ride than what Parsons offers.

What… was THAT?

Fans complained about the tandem drafting at the plate tracks, so NASCAR did everything they could to get rid of it. With the new Gen-6 cars, that means restrictor-plate racing looks a lot like it did 15 years ago… and fans complained. What other solution is there? The problem isn’t the cars this time – after all, fans have griped about the last three styles on the plate tracks. The problem is the superspeedways. They’re too fast to race unrestricted (although why they can’t control the fuel-air mixture through EFI and slow them down that way, I don’t know). That means plate racing is nearly always going to be either a lot of laps without anyone making a move or a wreckfest. The last race I remember that wasn’t one, the other, or both was at Talladega in the fall of 2000, when Dale Earnhardt came from 18th to win in the last four laps in a race that never had a single caution for a multi-car wreck. Since then, mayhem or boredom is the nature of the beast. It might be time to find a way to slow the cars without a restrictor plate… or find someplace else to race.

However, way too many people are calling the sixth-generation racecars a flop. After one race, and a restrictor-plate version at that. The real test will be how the car performs on the intermediate tracks five or six months from now, after all the teams have a handle on it and have figured out how to make things work. Calling the car a failure, or the “Gen Sux” or anything else at this juncture just calls into question whether the people saying it really get what an undertaking a new car really is for teams.

Where… did the defending race winner wind up?

Matt Kenseth looked like he might be the first driver to go back-to-back in the Great American Race since Sterling Marlin did it in 1994-’95. Kenseth led four times for a total of 86 laps and ran in the top group all day, until a drivetrain failure ended his race 51 laps early in 37th place. (Editor’s Note: The official cause listed on the results sheet was “engine;” Joe Gibbs Racing officials are still determining the ultimate culprit). Kenseth did nab the bonus point for leading the most laps, impressive for his debut with a new team but left Daytona 33rd in points. Realistically, that won’t hurt his title hopes, but it had to be deflating for a driver in his first race with brand-new sponsors and crewmen.

When… will I be loved?

There is a time and a place for everything, and perhaps lap 34 of the Daytona 500 isn’t the time or place to lose your cool. But Kyle Busch isn’t a driver known for his infinite patience, and he got just a little too anxious while running inside the top 10 early on, getting into the back of Kasey Kahne. In the Gen-6 chassis, a little nudge from behind is all it takes, and Kahne went spinning down the track, into the bottom line of traffic. Busch continued unscathed (though the teams whose cars were destroyed might have smiled just a bit when his engine expired on lap 151). However, seven cars were damaged to one degree or another, including those of Kahne, defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Sprint Unlimited winner Kevin Harvick and perennial Daytona favorite Tony Stewart. Also involved were Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Casey Mears and Kurt Busch.

For teams like Furniture Row or Germain, the plate tracks mark their best shot at a top finish, so the sting was a little deeper for those teams. That’s especially since Germain, in particular, doesn’t have the bottomless budget that the rivals they were running against do. Bottom line? It was too early to be overaggressive, and Busch should have been a bit more careful, considering the field as a whole is still learning what these cars are capable of.

Why… worry now?

There are two conflicting realities looking at points after the Daytona 500. One is that the winner of this race rarely goes on to win the title. That hasn’t happened since 2006, ironically when Johnson captured NASCAR’s Super Bowl. But on the other hand, the points from this race count just as much as the ones from every other this season, so if a driver misses the Chase on the number of points he lost at Daytona, it stings just as much as if those points were lost at Richmond.

That said, it’s way too early to engrave Johnson’s name on the Sprint Cup. While Johnson, defending champ Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have an early advantage, they can’t sit on their laurels. That means it’s also too early to give any less of a chance to Stewart, Kenseth or Kyle Busch. While getting through Daytona unscathed gives a team a leg up on their season, it by no means spells dominance or disaster down the long and winding road.

How… did the little guys do?

Phoenix Racing (No. 51 Guy Roofing Chevy): Many of the smaller teams probably have the four restrictor-plate races circled in red on their calendars, because the plate tracks are the great equalizer, the places where these teams have a real chance to shine as brightly as their richer competition. Well, Regan Smith shone on Sunday, running a patient, calculated race en route to a seventh-place finish. From 2008 until today, car owner James Finch has seven top 10s, four of which have come on plate ovals.

Phil Parsons Racing (No. 98 K-Love/Curb Records Ford): Here’s one organization that you won’t see mentioned much in this column this year (in general, I don’t include teams who make it a practice to start-and-park as a business model). But to give credit where it’s due, McDowell did this group proud on Sunday with his ninth-place run. He drives for this car in hopes that someone will see him and offer a better deal — and he deserves one. Start-and-park should be a last-ditch effort to keep a team on the track, not a business model in itself.

Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 7 Florida Lottery Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): TBR is a team who does park early some weeks — but they aren’t doing it because it’s a good way to pocket some money. JJ Yeley did, however, put a lot of money in Tommy Baldwin’s pockets with his 10th-place finish, funding that might pay for some tires down the road. Dave Blaney couldn’t quite get to the front at the end, but finished a respectable 17th, on the lead lap.

JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47 KROGER Toyota): Bobby Labonte looked like he might be a darkhorse contender for much of the day. He ran inside the top 10 for a good chunk of the afternoon, steadily building momentum in the draft with his Camry before getting shuffled back late to finish 15th. Labonte was highest in the final points standings amongst all the small-team drivers in 2012, and his best-in-class rating could continue this year.

BK Racing (No. 83 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyota): David Reutimann, a new addition to this team for 2013, finished 16th, on the lead lap, in his BK debut. Returning driver Travis Kvapil was also looking for a top-20 run, but was involved in a last-lap crash and couldn’t limp to the finish, winding up a lap shy of 200 in 25th. If it’s any consolation, Kvapil was the first driver a lap behind.

Swan Racing (No. 26 Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota): Michael Waltrip also looked like he might have a shot to put Sandy Hook Elementary School in the headlines for a good reason — like a top-five performance at Daytona. But Waltrip suffered engine issues, dropping a cylinder around the race’s three-quarter mark and ended up finishing 22nd. David Stremme, after that so-so start will take over driving duties at Swan for the remainder of 2013.

Leavine Family Racing (No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford): Scott Speed squeezed into the Daytona 500 on the last transfer spot in his qualifying race; from there, Speed held his own. He finished on the lead lap, in 23rd place, even leading a couple of laps along the way. LFR runs a limited schedule in the series, and with the sport’s new provisional system they know every position gained is important; the team intentionally hung back, after the final restart to miss any “wrecks” and earn as many points as possible.

FAS Lane Racing (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Terry Labonte took some flak for keeping his car pristine by parking early in the Sprint Unlimited. He wouldn’t quite be so lucky on Sunday, finishing a lap down in 26th after getting involved in a mid-race accident.

Wood Brothers Racing (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford): Trevor Bayne had a rough week, leading most of his qualifying race before getting turned and forced to go to his backup car for Sunday. After getting some damage in a lap 139 crash, the 2011 Daytona 500 champion came home two laps down in 27th spot. However, like his qualifying race, he ultimately ran better than the finish suggests.

Furniture Row Racing (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): The next family dinner in the Busch household might be interesting as Kurt Busch sustained damage in the lap 34 incident triggered by brother Kyle. It wasn’t too severe, and Busch would return, but finished five laps down in 28th place. Whether or not FRR can still be considered a true small team is up for debate; they’re a satellite of Richard Childress Racing and Busch said earlier in the week that they’re basically a fourth RCR car.

Germain Racing (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears was also a victim of the early crash, and the No. 13 suffered heavy damage to the right side and nose. The team did get Mears back on track, 19 laps down, where he stayed out of trouble and gained some spots, winding up 29th. Sponsor GEICO also announced earlier this week that they will sponsor Mears for all 36 races this year, making this team a success story — they were forced to park several races the last few years but will go the distance every week in 2013.

Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, No. 34 Detail Doctor Ford & No. 35 Blockbuster Ford): David Gilliland had some engine issues early in the race, but the real blow was delivered at lap 139, when Gilliland, David Ragan and Josh Wise were all collected in a multi-car crash. All three would pack it in after extensive damage, with Ragan running 35th, Gilliland 38th, and Wise 40th. The trio had planned to go the distance, but that might not be the case these next few weeks with so much Gen-6 equipment torn up.

NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks.com Toyota): Joe Nemechek doesn’t often run the distance in the Cup Series, using the winnings to fund his Nationwide Series effort instead. However, Nemechek didn’t have the chance to make a rare, full-length effort on Sunday, losing his engine after just 42 laps and finishing in last place.

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