Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? 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?
This is one of those weeks where this answer is a tough call. With four single-car teams inside the top 20, a great run by a midpack organization, and a solid day for a rookie, there were truly several drivers all worthy of a second look. But perhaps one of the hardest things to do in racing is to step into a race car on a limited basis and get the same finishes as a regular. That’s exactly what Brian Vickers did — again — on Sunday, finishing eighth in the No. 55 and that earns him the nod.
Vickers didn’t look like a driver who hasn’t raced the No. 55 Cup car since Martinsville last fall. Instead, he looked like a Chase contender as he recovered from being a lap down midrace to come home eighth. In eight races in the No. 55 last year, Vickers showed the same tenacity and skill, posting three top fives and five top 10s despite never racing the car for two weeks in a row. It’s been widely speculated that Vickers is the leading candidate to take over the ride on a full-time basis next year, when Mark Martin vacates the seat, and that 2013 is an extended audition. If Vickers can post numbers like he did a year ago, he’ll certainly make it hard for Michael Waltrip Racing to choose anyone but him for the ride in 2014.
What… was THAT?
You have to love Bristol, where not only is the racing fast and furious, but the track lets the drivers be themselves, and pick the music that they walk (or dance, as the case may be) across the stage to for driver introductions. It’s been a fan favorite at the bullring since 2009, and this week was no exception as drivers’ selections ranged from the cool to the ridiculous to the downright cheesy.
My pick for winner of driver intros this time around? Matt Kenseth, who came out to the iconic Star Wars theme song. That’s just damn cool. Runner-up in the cool selection category was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came out to a number called “Hard Charger” sung by none other than his daddy, Dale Earnhardt Sr. (the song was on a compilation album of songs recorded by NASCAR stars in the early 1980s and included other such “artists” as Ron Bouchard, Terry Labonte, Benny Parsons, and Cale Yarborough. Song titles include such classics as “A Crazy Racin’ Man,” “The Man, Geoff Bodine,” and “Thanks For The Ride, Harry Hyde.” Luckily, none of them quit their day jobs.)
Honorable mentions go to Denny Hamlin, who walked out with his new daughter to “Big Poppa,” JJ Yeley, whose entrance to “Harlem Shake” included not only daughter Faith but a dancing bunny plus banana, and Clint Bowyer, who chose “You Can Kiss My Country A**.”
Meanwhile, you have to wonder if Landon Cassill lost a bet to someone after he made his entrance to “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Also losing cool points were Ryan Newman’s sponsor plug (Little Big Town’s “Tornado”) and anyone who doubled up and chose the same song as someone else.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
While Brad Keselowski didn’t finish quite where he did one year ago, he did serve notice his 2012 series title will be staunchly defended. Keselowski led twice for 62 laps before coming home third for his fourth top-five finish in four weeks to kick off 2013.
The thing about Keselowski that makes him a threat every place on the circuit is that he doesn’t let any racetrack beat him. You can’t look at past finishes and think, “Hey, a rival could really have a great day, because Keselowski isn’t that good here.” No sooner will the thought be formed than Keselowski will go out and prove it to be wrong by posting a stronger finish than he’s ever had before. That, really, is what makes him scary good, and a threat to win every time out. Sure, he’ll have his bad luck, but that rarely indicates a trend. Prior to his back-to-back Bristol wins (fall ’11 and spring ’12), Keselowski hadn’t even cracked the top 10 in three Cup races there, posting a best finish of 13th. Now, he’s a top pick. And he can do that anywhere.
When… will I be loved?
It’s Bristol, baby, and that means that there will be heroes, villains and those that think other guys are villains. It’s all part of the short track game (and ain’t it great?) This week at Bristol, villains were a lot like potato chips — I couldn’t pick just one.
The first member of the BMS Bad Behavior Club is none other than the outlet who brought you the race at home. FOX even outdid themselves with a subpar broadcast. Not only did they, as usual, ignore most of the field (including two badly underfunded teams who finished solidly in the top 15… again), but they also were ridiculously behind the eight-ball when it came to the on-track action. At one point, the broadcast cut to the Hollywood Hotel to discuss how some drivers were doing, and during the segment, the caution came out – the drivers’ audio revealed it immediately. The ticker at the top also changed to yellow, and the caution was mentioned on-air, but the cameras didn’t cut to the track, nor were viewers even informed of the cause (Aric Almirola’s hard crash in turn 3) for several minutes. That’s just not good sports broadcasting. FOX seems to be able to get it right with other sports, but their NASCAR coverage is shameful.
Next on the list of villains is, depending on some behind-the-scenes things we’re not privy to, either NASCAR or Goodyear. Once again, their compound couldn’t stand up to the rigors of short-track racing, and several blown tires hurt the action on Sunday, most notably the one that took out both race leader Jeff Gordon and second-place Kenseth late in the race. This race, coupled with Phoenix should be a wake-up call. What the series needs is not even a more durable tire, but rather a less long-lasting compound. The tires need to wear out in such a way that it makes the handling on the cars fall off short of a fuel run, not one that lasts for many laps but then suddenly fails, or that only fails when the bead melts. A softer tire that took handling away partially through a fuel run would go a long way toward making the racing more exciting for fans, and fewer races would be decided by blowouts or fuel mileage. A softer tire is only more dangerous if teams make it so with their own pit strategy, something that happens now, anyway.
Finally, if you’re looking for at least one driver to wear a black hat at Bristol, how about the one for whom patience was clearly not a virtue he possessed? Yeah, it’s a short track, and yeah, sometimes you need to use the bumper to make a move. What you don’t need to do is use the bumper to put a car in the wall before the race is 100 laps old. That’s what David Gilliland did on just lap 54, getting impatient after being passed for 13th place by Casey Mears, and letting Mears know by giving him a shove. Mears was able to recover admirably, despite some damage, but not so lucky was Jeff Burton, who wasn’t even a part of the original battle and who was several cars behind Gilliland and Mears when it went down. Burton, who had a fast car and had been optimistic about the weekend, had his chances taken away for no good reason. Sometimes what’s acceptable on a short track at lap 475 is just not OK on lap 54.
Why… worry now?
Points are a funny thing. While we tend to shrug off early-season Chase woes, in reality, each race gives the same, and a bad race in March hurts as much as a bad race in August when it comes to making the postseason. As we saw last year, the difference is that teams have time now to make up for some poor runs, while in August, it’s a lot harder to gain multiple spots as long as the competition is running even moderately well. While you can never count on another team to have a bad day, just four races in, it’s a near certainty that sometime in the next 22 weeks, even the top teams will have their struggles, allowing those behind them to gain some ground.
There are really very few surprises in the top 10 after Bristol, save Paul Menard, but even that we’ve seen before — he gets off to a great start but is unable to sustain the consistency in the long run. I’m not looking for this year to be any different.
Outside the top 10, though, there are plenty of surprises, starting with Kenseth, whose 13th-place standing badly belies how good he has run (and supports the awful luck he’s had). But Gordon, Newman and Tony Stewart, whose runs are also based more on bad luck than anything else, are already in a deeper hole, sitting 21st, 23rd and 24th in points after Bristol. Yes, Gordon had a similar start last year and made the Chase, as did Kasey Kahne, but whether or not that can happen again, or for three teams, remains to be seen. Owner points make the picture even bleaker for the Stewart-Haas entries; Stewart’s, Newman’s and Danica Patrick’s entries are entrenched behind at least three single-car teams, two of which are rather underfunded (Patrick sits behind two additional underfunded operations on owner points).
On the flip side of that, there are three teams — Phoenix Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing — having a great start in owner points. Phoenix, in particular, is showing strength with the Gen-6 car, sitting inside the top 10 after the first four tests. That’s pretty impressive given that their No. 51, coupled with Germain’s No. 13 probably doesn’t have the budget of Gordon, Stewart or Newman. Will things stay that way? Probably not, because the big teams have a lot more resources to use in finding an advantage as they adapt to the new chassis. But it’s a sobering look at how hard this sport is — and how talented some of the drivers who run for the poorer teams really are.
How… did the little guys do?
Furniture Row Racing – Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row/Beautyrest Chevy): Busch reminded everyone watching why he’s a former champion this week, running near the front all day and even leading a lap before falling two laps down for an unscheduled pit stop to change a tire. It was after that Busch really showed his stuff, working his way back to finish fourth. Not only was Busch the best of the single-car bunch, he was the best of the ones driving Richard Childress Racing equipment, besting all of the RCR heavyweights on track where he has five of his 24 career wins. Busch is one of those who prove that the finishes you get with a small team can often belie the talent behind the wheel.
Phoenix Racing – AJ Allmendinger (No. 51 Guy Roofing Chevy): Phoenix Racing cracked the top 20 seven times in 2012, and their overall numbers weren’t bad for a team that was barely scraping by, even with talented drivers. But so far in 2013 they’ve done nothing but overachieve. In four races with three different wheelmen, the worst finish for the No. 51 is a 21st-place effort at Las Vegas. That’s right: just four races into this year and this team already has nearly half the top-20 finishes they had in all of last season. The team, thus far sits eighth in owner points. If you’re keeping track, they’re ahead of two Hendrick Motorsports cars, two Roush Fenway Racing Fords, three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, and three Richard Childress Racing Chevys. And while it’s doubtful that they’ll sit there, still within a few months, it’s certainly making a case for itself in its ongoing funding search… and a good sponsor could spell even more success.
Germain Racing – Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): The No. 13 is another team who has improved in leaps and bounds with the Gen-6 car. Mears finished in the top 15 just once in all of 2012; this year, he’s done it twice in four weeks. Mears was well on the way to a competitive race at Daytona, too before getting taken out early. This is a case of a team and driver believing in each other enough to ride out some tough times, and that loyalty is beginning to pay off. On the tracks where success is more about skill and strategy than horsepower, Mears is racing with the heavy hitters — and beating some of them.
Swan Racing – David Stremme (No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota): As competitive as the field is these days, a top-20 run is a solid performance for an underfunded team, and for Stremme to post a 20th-place finish in just his third race with a brand-new organization is a solid run. Stremme was one of four drivers for single-car teams to crack the top 20 at Bristol in his Swan Racing Toyota. So far, this team has shown that they are in it to go the distance every week and to be competitive among the teams in their economic class. That’s not easy to do in today’s NASCAR.
Front Row Motorsports – David Ragan, Josh Wise & Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford, No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 A&W All American Foods Ford): While Ragan’s 21st-place finish, two laps down is a solid if unspectacular result in itself, consider that Ragan finished ahead of both Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, among others. Sometimes solid and unspectacular isn’t a bad thing at all. Gilliland had his issues early, triggering a crash that damaged several drivers, and spinning on his own several laps later, but rebounded to end up 24th. Wise, still adjusting to running the distance in Cup races, finished a respectable 26th, four laps down (that’s ahead of Patrick and Stewart, if you’re keeping score).
FAS Lane Racing – Terry Labonte (No. 32 OXYwater Ford): FAS Lane was yet another single-car operation to post a decent finish Sunday, with Labonte finishing four laps down in 25th. Expect them to improve once they have time to put their newfound sponsor dollars to good use; owner Frank Stoddard has built this team the right way and it’s paying off now.
Tommy Baldwin Racing – Dave Blaney & JJ Yeley (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 United Mining Equipment Chevy): TBR is a decent small team who seems to have trouble cashing in at the luck bank. Yeley came home running, five laps down in 27th place, but Blaney once again got bitten by the bad luck bug. Blowing a tire, then hitting the wall on lap 321 ended his day early in 36th spot. Blaney is one of those drivers who has shown his skill, time and again only to have luck snatch better days away.
NEMCO Motorsports – Joe Nemechek (No. 87 MaddiesPLaceRocks.com Toyota): Nemechek spent most of 2012 starting and parking his Sprint Cup effort in order to fund his Nationwide Series team, which contended for a top-10 points finish last year. This year, only an engine failure at Daytona has kept Front Row Joe from still being in the running at the end every week so far in 2013. His 29th-place finish at Bristol was his best of the year, though NEMCO continues to lag far behind in both the money and equipment departments.
Circle Sport Racing – Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy): Several drivers and crewmen had a stomach virus this weekend, and it looked like some of them contributed to Cassill’s paint scheme, but it was a lap 237 accident that made the driver’s fans real sick. This team has shown a glimmer of hope so far this year, though. In 2012, a crash would surely have sent them packing for the day, but this week, Cassill was able to get back on track and gain a few positions, though he wound up 90 laps down in 33rd. Cassill is a driver you’d like to see in good equipment, consistently, just to see what he could really do, and he’s good for this team.
BK Racing – David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): It was just not a good day for the BK duo, as first Reutimann and then Kvapil saw their engines expire after just 184 and 234 laps, respectively. Though the Toyota engine woes that plagued the top teams seem to have improved, it looks as though the issues aren’t completely solved. This duo is one that must improve in 2013, and they can’t do that if their equipment doesn’t hold up.
JTG-Daugherty Racing – Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Toyota): Labonte’s was the second of four Toyota engines to give up the ghost early, and the first among teams planning to go the distance in the race. The 2000 series champ has quietly been the most solid among the small teams, for the last year but his engine left him 41st at Bristol.