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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Auto Club 400

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 W’s and even the H… the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

There’s no doubt that Furniture Row Racing has come a long way from the days when they once failed to qualify for a Sprint Cup race because someone put a brake rotor on the car backwards before their run (yes, that really happened). With a fifth-place finish for Kurt Busch on Sunday, the Denver-based team, which hasn’t had a win since 2011 and has five top-5 finishes since its start in 2005, cemented itself as the best of the single-car teams (though it does have a strong enough satellite relationship with Richard Childress Racing to be considered a de facto fourth car) in the sport for the first time in its existence.

Busch’s finish was his second top 5 in the last two races, and Busch accounts for nearly half of the team’s total top-5 results.in its history. He’s a talented driver who may have found the perfect match in FRR; because team owner Barney Visser also owns the Furniture Row chain of stores, there is no outside sponsor for the notoriously volatile Busch to answer to if his temper gets the best of him. Busch had a shot at the win this week, and could take home a trophy or two yet. It’s too early to say if this team is yet a Chase threat, but they sure have proven themselves amongst their peers.

What… was THAT?

Really? Tony Stewart is complaining about Joey Logano throwing a block on the final restart? Considering that the last time Stewart threw a block to defend his position in the closing laps, he wrecked more than a dozen cars at Talladega, it seems that he should be the last guy to complain about a driver making his back bumper a little wide in the closing laps. If NASCAR decides to penalize Stewart for going after Logano, that should be his punishment: watching the replay of his role in the finish of last Fall’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 a hundred times.

Seriously, there is nothing wrong with a well-timed block that doesn’t wreck anyone. Logano didn’t do anything wrong by defending his own position. He didn’t crash Stewart or anyone else. Does anyone want NASCAR to become like IndyCar, where a driver is penalized if he doesn’t hold his line in front of others? My guess is if NASCAR did make such a rule, Stewart himself would be one of the most vocal against it. Blocking is all in the timing — if it’s done right, nothing but feelings are ruffled…and tossing one when the moment has passed is a costly mistake. Perhaps Stewart needs a refresher course on the difference.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

The short answer is that Tony Stewart ended the race mad at Joey Logano, the longer struggle, symptomatic of the season is that Stewart finished 22nd in Fontana. Although Stewart did lead twice, for a total of 18 laps, the ending was more indicative of how 2013 has ben. The three-time champ has just one top-10 finish in five races to date.

A year ago, Stewart’s hauler was parked in the first spot in the garage – a badge of honor bestowed upon the defending series champion. This week, not only was Stewart no longer in the champion’s spot, he was on the backside of the garage. Haulers are parked by points, with the top teams lining one side of the garage and the teams lower in points on the back side. While there’s no real advantage to parking on the front, it has to be a blow to Stewart’s ego to be on the back. Stewart still has a shot at redemption via the Chase, but he needs to turn things around in a hurry to find it.

When…will I be loved?

It’s not often that words, not actions, will win a driver my call for the villain of the race, but this week, words are exactly why Joey Logano gets that call. There was nothing wrong with the way Logano raced Denny Hamlin on the final lap-they were racing for the win on the last lap and Logano pinched him. That was intentional; the ensuing crash wasn’t. It wasn’t really even payback for the Bristol incident where Hamlin turned Logano. It was a racing incident.

But when another driver is taken away on a stretcher in an ambulance because he collapsed on the track after the crash, saying “That’s what he gets” is, at best, uncalled for. If Logano really didn’t know about Hamlin (he says he didn’t learn of Hamlin’s injury until later), shame on his team for not informing him before he gave an interview and had the chance to say something stupid. Even if he wasn’t informed of Hamlin’s condition, Logano’s comment came across as insensitive and classless given the circumstances—you just don’t say something like that until you know the other driver is unhurt.

But Logano wasn’t the only villain to come to light in the incident; I know attendance has been miserable for Auto Club Speedway, but surely that could have afforded to line that inside wall with a SAFER barrier. When cars are hitting speeds of over 200 miles per hour getting into the turn, there should not be vast expanses of exposed concrete anywhere, because no matter how remote you think the possibility of someone hitting it is. Bruton Smith learned that the hard way a few years back at Las Vegas when Jeff Gordon slammed an unexposed inner wall, and that ISC didn’t learn the same lesson from that incident is just pathetic.

Why…worry now?

It’s easy to say that it’s still too early to worry too much about points, and to some extent, teams do still have time to turn things around…but suddenly we’re nearly 20% of the way through the first 26 races that determine who makes the Chase and how they will be seeded. So while it’s still a bit early to predict exactly who will make the Chase this year, we can look at who’s off to a good start and where they were a year ago and make a few guesses based on that.

At the top of that list is a driver who is off to the best start of his career. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leads the points after Fontana, the only driver to finish in the top 10 every week in 2103. He was third in points at this point last year and did go on to lead in the summertime before a concussion sidelined him for two weeks during the Chase.

Still think Brad Keselowski isn’t more dangerous this year than he was in 2012? Even after finishing 23rd this weekend, he’s second in points. A year ago, Keselowski was 16th after the fifth race. Jimmie Johnson, who is also a serious title threat, sits third and is also ahead of where he was a year ago, when he sat ninth after Fontana.

And for those wondering if the Chase chances for Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, or Jeff Gordon, who are currently 22nd, 20th, and 18th respectively, are already dashed, remember that last year five races into the season, Gordon was 25th and Kasey Kahne 27th. Both made the Chase, and Kahne finished fourth in the final standings.

Want a look at the difference a year makes, both good and bad? Here are this year’s top ten in points after Fontana, and where they stood a year ago.

1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (3rd ) +2
2. Brad Keselowski (16th) +14
3. Jimmie Johnson (9th) +6
4. Carl Edwards (12th) +8
5. Greg Biffle (1st) -4
6. Kyle Busch (14th) +8
7. Kasey Kahne (27th) +20
8. Paul Menard (11th) +3
9. Joey Logano (13th) + 4
10. Denny Hamlin (7th) -3

Drivers in the top 10 at this time last year who aren’t there in 2013 include Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, and Ryan Newman. Definitely a different look so far in 2013, and it does illustrate the depth of talent in the series and just how competitive things are at the top.

How…did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing – Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row / Serta Chevy): Busch grabbed his second top-5 finish of the year at Fontana. The only thing keeping this team on the small team list in 2013 is its single-car status and remote location, because otherwise FRR isn’t running like a small team. The No. 78 is 15th in owner points so far in 2013, one of two single-car operations to make that cut.
Germain Racing – Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Think this team hasn’t improved? Mears finished 15th on Sunday, his third top-15 of 2013…and that’s triple the number he had all year in 2012. But perhaps most telling of the team’s optimism was Mears’ reaction to his finish on Twitter. He was disappointed by it. “Thought we would be a little better today but the @GEICORacing boys dug hard all day. 15th. Ready (to root) and gouge at Martinsville!” Mears tweeted. A year ago, this team would have been throlled to finish 15th on an intermediate track. Now, they want more. The Germain family is no stranger to winning (they have two Truck Series titles), and this year, they have full sponsorship. The top-15 finishes are a solid step in the right direction for this bunch.
Phoenix Racing – AJ Allmendinger (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Allmendinger was near the top of the charts in practice, but qualified 26th and the No. 51 team just missed the magig they had found earlier in the weekend, as Allmendinger rolled home in 16th. Still, the No. 51 is ninth in car owner points five races in to the season.—a huge accomplishment amid the big-money teams’ dominance.
Tommy Baldwin Racing – Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley(No 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): Blaney raced hard, stayed out of trouble, and rolled home a solid lead-lap 21st, while Yeley came in 27th, one lap down. This team has had its share of issues in 2013, and a solid day of racing and coming home in one piece gives them a little breathing room. Baldwin really wants to take this team to the next level, and sometimes it takes this type of solid, if not earth-shattering day to let the team see where they really are, and what they have to build on.
Front Row Motorsports – David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): It was a tough day for the Front Row group at Fontana. The bright spot was David Ragan’s 24th-place finish, the only lead-lap result of the day for FRM as both Gilliland and Wise fell victim to bad racing luck. Gilliland was collected in a rare Mark Martin spinout, and while he lost just two laps for repairs, he goes home with a 29th-place finish. Wise went to the garage for overheating after 103 laps…because he’s gone the distance so far, he gets the benefit of the doubt this, but if the team continues to struggle for funding, Wise could be forced to park early some weeks.
JTG-Daugherty Racing – Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Charter Toyota): Labonte didn’t have what you could call a good day, but it wasn’t terrible, either. He finished two laps down in 28th, but raced clean and, like the TBR racers, gives his team an idea of where they need to improve if they want to take that next step.
Circle Sport Racing – Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos / Precon Marine Chevy): Perhaps changing the payout sctructure at the back of the field is working to discourage some teams from packing it in early. The No. 33 went the distance again this week, though Cassill finished six laps down in 30th place. Still, they’re learning, and finishing races is a positive step. Cassill is a talented young driver, and this team is starting to take on the look of one like TBR, that wants to grow and compete but has to take their lumps, which sometimes making decisions they don’t like to get to the point where they can take the next small step.
Swan Racing – David Stremme (No. 30 Swan Racing / Lean1 Toyota): Hand it to Stremme, he’s a competitor. When an issue arose that forced Stremme off the track for repairs, it sounded on the radio at least that Stremme was arguing against calling it a day, reminding his team of the hit they would take in purse money. If parking had been the team’s intent, it seems that Stremme talked them out of it, because they went on to finish 31st, seven laps down…but they went on to finish.
NEMCO Motorsports – Joe Nemechek (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks Toyota): Nemechek is another driver who has attempted to go the distance more often in 2013. Nemechek is one of a handful of Cup winners whose plight in aun underfunded car illustrates just how wide the money chasm is; it’s not as if drivers forget how to race, but the battle to simply compete is a stark contrast to the battle to win races and take home top finishes. Nemechek finished 32nd, seven laps down, on Sunday. Like Kurt Busch, Mears, Labonte, Reutimann and Ragan, Nemechek is a Cup winner trying to make the best of circumstances.
BK Racing – David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): It was another rough day for the BK duo. Reutimann’s car sprung an oil leak late in the race, and he wound up just eight laps shy of finishing, in 33rd place. Kvapil finished the race, even leading a lap under caution, but struggled home in 34th.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXYwater Ford): A broken rear end gear and drive shaft on the No. 32 sent Hill home early. It wasn’t the result that the 20-year-old hoped for in his first race of 2013, but if the sponsorship proves solid, they will improve.