Race Weekend Central

The Big Six: Questions Answered After The STP 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?

Aric Almirola’s recent improvement, at Richard Petty Motorsports came into clearer focus for millions Sunday with a strong eighth-place finish at Kansas.

Running for the team that has suffered the most from Penske Racing’s change to Ford this year, Aric Almirola posted his second top-10 finish in the last two races on Sunday, coming home eighth. Almirola is a driver who has shown that he can run well if given a stable environment, and he has done that at Richard Petty Motorsports, despite the team being underfunded in comparison to its closest competitors in points.

RPM has probably been the biggest victim of Dodge’s decision to leave the sport, as they have dropped from second on the Roush Yates totem pole to a distant third and their alliance with Roush Fenway Racing has slid a notch or two. Yet Almirola is just 18 points out of tenth in the standings, meaning RPM has two cars inside the top 20 in driver points. That’s impressive, considering they’re probably the least affluent team among the top half of the field.

What… was THAT?

This week, that was a good thing, as teams wore their hearts on their sleeves, or in this case, their race cars in support of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and a subsequent shootout with one of the suspects that resulted in the death of a police officer who was the brother of a Hendrick Motorsports machinist. Hendrick teams carried a special decal on their cars honoring the victims. The Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas had door numbers that resembled the bibs worn by runners in the Boston Marathon, in which Waltrip is a past competitor. Roush Fenway cars, which are co-owned by the majority owner of the Boston Red Sox had a “Boston Strong” decal, and Roush pledged to donate $100 to One Fund Boston for every lap led by RFR cars this week (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. led 26 laps Sunday and Carl Edwards led 19, for a total of $4,500). Swan Racing had a special “Prayers for Boston” paint scheme, too as owner Brandon Davis’ wife, Tara, is a Boston native.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

Last year’s winner was on the sidelines this week. Denny Hamlin is still nursing a broken vertebra in his lower back after a hard hit to the unprotected inside wall at Fontana. Brian Vickers is filling in and has performed admirably, but Kansas wasn’t kind to the North Carolina native. Vickers was running 22nd on lap 175 when he blew a tire and spun. In the end, the No. 11 came home 10 laps down in 31st place.

Hamlin did say this weekend that he hopes to return at Richmond Saturday night. He indicated he felt able to return, that the bone appears to be healing but does not yet have medical clearance. For that, he’ll need to have X-Rays that show the vertebra is knitting normally. While Hamlin must be itching to get back in the driver’s seat, coming back too soon could cause further harm, and he’ll have to wait patiently until the doctors feel he’s ready.

When…will I be loved?

It didn’t rain. It didn’t snow. There was no errant hail or tornado. Yet Mother Nature had her say on Sunday, this time with strong wind gusts that were powerful enough to affect the race. The gusts were at their most powerful in Turns 1 and 2, right where most of the trouble happened.

Could all of the day’s issues in that corner be attributed to the wind? Probably not. However, for drivers having to manhandle an ill-behaved, 3,300-pound racecar for 400 miles, anything that contributes to handling trouble or acts as a distraction is an unwelcome intrusion. This week the wind, at best, was an added distraction. At worst, it sent a few teams home with little more than a mangled race car for their efforts.

Why… worry now?

Is it time for Tony Stewart to start worrying about points yet.? In short, yes, because Stewart hasn’t shown signs that a turnaround is imminent. A driver can overcome a slow start (see Kasey Kahne, circa 2012) but Stewart’s case is starting to look drastically different from Kahne’s or Jeff Gordon’s a year ago. Why? While Kahne and Gordon’s stumbling out of the gate was due mostly to bad luck, Stewart’s season has been largely just poor performance. He has just one top-10 finish this year, and that came at Phoenix, seven races ago. He hasn’t finished better than 17th in the last five races, and his average finish of 21.5 is fewer than two spots better than an underfunded Casey Mears and just three and a half better than rookie Danica Patrick, who has struggled to learn the nuances of stock cars.

Consider this fact: less than two years ago, Stewart was winning his third career Cup championship with Darian Grubb calling the shots. Since Steve Addington came on board, Stewart has struggled. Yes, he won twice early, but consider this: the bigger Cup teams often prepare cars weeks in advance, so it’s entirely possible that Grubb had a hand in those early wins, as the team worked ahead. Stewart did win at Daytona midseason, but about 30 teams are capable of winning at restrictor plate tracks, so Stewart’s performance there was likely based more on his skill than a superior car. Perhaps Stewart was hasty in letting Grubb go. While he made it clear, with his hirings that he preferred the Joe Gibbs Racing way of doing things, the Hendrick background that Grubb came from was the one that produced results for Stewart.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing / Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevy): Busch, whose team has a full technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, putting them far ahead of their small-team brethren, was the only driver in this group to score a top 20 at Kansas, finishing 15th. His finish did move Busch into the top spot in driver points among the small teams as Casey Mears fell back after getting wrecked on Sunday. The finish, made more impressive by a lap-down comeback (Busch had a loose wheel, forcing an unscheduled stop) also ended a rough streak of two consecutive DNFs.
Phoenix Racing / Regan Smith (No. 51 HendrickCars.com Chevy): Smith didn’t have a bad day, just an invisible one as he came home 22nd, one lap down. Invisible isn’t what these teams need, though, while looking for sponsorship. This team needs to find a way to rekindle the magic they had in the first month of the season. If Phoenix can find some of that, they are a team that can get noticed, especially with Talladega up ahead.
Front Row Motorsports / David Ragan, Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): David Gilliland finished just one spot behind Smith, a lap down in 23rd, but he was not nearly so unnoticed. First, after a hard battle on-track, Danica Patrick accused Gilliland of trying to take her out and then added that she will retaliate if he does it again. Then, Gilliland ran into Casey Mears when Marcos Ambrose spun in front of them, turning Mears and ruining his day. Yet Gilliland was the best finish for FRM this week as he was able to avoid further damage in the crash. Josh Wise had a less eventful run, equaling his best finish of the year (Bristol) with 26th. David Ragan battled his car in comparison en route to finishing 30th, five laps behind.
JTG-Daugherty Racing / Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Pine Sol Toyota): This team seems to be maxed out as a 20th-to-25th-place effort right now. Labonte continues to be consistent, staying out of trouble whenever he can, but hasn’t been able to finish in the top 20 since Daytona. The team’s progress has been further hampered by a pair of engine failures in 2013. A year ago, it looked like this team was improving, but they seem to have stagnated since.
BK Racing / David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): It wasn’t Reutimann’s best day, but it wasn’t his worst, either. This team has made small gains in the last couple of races. Reutimann had his third-best finish of 2013 on Sunday, coming home four laps down in 28th. It’s rare for the two BK team cars not to have similar finishes, but this week, Kvapil’s engine gave up the ghost on lap 209, ending his day in 36th spot.
Circle Sport Racing / Landon Cassill (No. 33 KCI Chevy): For one of the smallest of the small teams, it’s still about small gains as they work to improve. This week, Cassill quietly took another step in the right direction with the team’s best finish of 2013. Cassill came home 29th—the best run for the No. 33 since Watkins Glen last year.
Swan Racing / David Stremme (No. 30 Prayers For Boston Toyota): This team isn’t doing too badly for an upstart. Stremme has an average finish of 29.7, but the team has been improving since Phoenix a month and a half ago. Their best run came at Bristol last month (20th), but Kansas wasn’t as kind, handing Stremme a 32nd-place finish this week after time spent fixing mechanical issues.
FAS Lane Racing / Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXY Water Ford): Rookie Timmy Hill didn’t have his best day. He had some damage from on-track contact and finished 33rd, last among the cars still running at the end of the day.
Germain Racing / Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears and Co. were making gains on a car that was tight in qualifying, had gained nine spots and were knocking on the door of another top-20 run. But then, Mears checked up to avoid Marcos Ambrose and Sam Hornish, Jr. spinning in front of him and David Gilliland punted the No. 13 from behind, ending all hope of avoiding the crash. A subsequent blown tire was the final nail in the coffin as Mears suffered his first DNF of 2013, coming home 34th and tumbling three spots in driver points. This team needs to stop the bleeding that started last week…
Tommy Baldwin Racing / Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): If it wasn’t for bad luck, the TBR teams would have had none at all this week. First, Dave Blaney tagged the wall on lap 38, making him the first casualty of the day and causing him to finish dead last. Then, transmission issues, combined with on-track wall contact forced J.J. Yeley in the garage early, giving him a DNF and 35th place.

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