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?
They say it takes a combination of luck and skill to be successful in racing, and nobody took that to heart in the Unlimited more than Kyle Busch. After getting together with Brad Keselowski in the final segment, Busch looked to be toast—but somehow managed to hang on to his racecar and contend for the win. He had an almost identical wild ride in the 2012 version of the Unlimited and won that one. He didn’t quite get there this time, finishing third to teammate Denny Hamlin, but Busch again treated fans to his amazing car control. The luck factor also worked in Busch’s favor as the rest of the field avoided his spinning Toyota. But Busch was both lucky and good in this one.
What… was THAT?
There it was on the screen: a smoking car pulling onto the apron. Uh, oh, somebody’s blowing up…wait a second, is that the pace car? Yes, it really happened on Saturday night. Under a full winter moon, not only were there some bizarre incidents, including a nine-car pileup in which Danica Patrick spun herself out and then got run into by her boyfriend; a single-car spin in which the six-time and defending series champion ended his own night; and Dale Earnhardt Jr. showing a little fire after he got together with Marcos Ambrose. But even Brett Bodine, long since retired from racing, got a piece of the spotlight when the Chevrolet SS he was driving appeared to spontaneously combust. Bodine and Buster Auton were shown making a hasty exit from the vehicle, which had a cockpit full of smoke and flames shooting out of the trunk area. That might not have been the best advertisement for Chevy’s newest model, but it turned out that the cause of the fire was a battery pack used to power the external lights on the vehicle.
Where… did the defending race winner wind up?
After being the sole survivor of the multi-car crash triggered when Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano had an argument over real estate and the field lost, Kevin Harvick didn’t look like his team should have bothered to fix his No. 4 Chevrolet, but when the final restart came, he emerged a contender. Driving a beaten Jimmy John’s car to the front, Harvick showed why his sponsors followed him to Stewart-Haas Racing, despite Austin Dillon and a certain No. 3 taking over his former ride at Richard Childress Racing. Harvick came in fifth on Saturday night, but if the exhibition race provided a glimpse into what the season ahead might hold, the scrappy driver might just be scrapping for a title in nine months.
When… will I be loved?
Most of the night’s incidents were simply a product of restrictor plate racing, although Jimmie Johnson might want to reconsider skipping drafting practice next time. It’s hard to pick a villain when nobody can get away from trouble when it arises. Sure, you could possibly blame a couple of spotters for being a little slow with information, maybe a situation when someone might have been driving a bit over his head. But in the end, at least this week, we saw what we should have expected to see: some decent racing, a hell of a save, and a bunch of wrecks. Standard fare for an exhibition race on a plate track.
Why… not spice the event up by adding a last-chance race?
Sure, it’s already done in the All-Star Race, but so is much of what’s done in this event, so that’s neither here nor there. So, why not allow the teams who didn’t make the field a single practice session and a 20-lap race to add one more driver to the field for the race? There are a couple of reasons that such a move makes sense. First off, it might make more fans show up or tune in if they knew they would see their favorite driver even if he didn’t make the field with a pole last year. It also gives fans who bought tickets a little more bang for their buck. It might even be a decent show. As the sport has struggled to fill seats, why not do something relatively simple to encourage fans to attend or tune in?
Also, most of the drivers in this race admit the real reason they want to be in it isn’t pride, it’s practice… as in extra sessions before the Daytona 500. In that light, it would be more fair to the teams that don’t get an automatic entry to have the extra practice and race time. It’s those teams who need it more anyway—the Unlimited entries are the big money teams with all the latest gadgetry. If teams are using the Unlimited for practice, then all teams should have the same opportunity.
How… important is this race in preparation for the Daytona 500?
In one way (as a test session) it gives drivers valuable seat time before the big race, though that factor is reduced by the Unlimited running at night (which does make it a bit more fair to the teams who don’t make it, though as said above, they should have a shot to make the field). The race does allows teams to try adjustments they might not be willing to risk next week, as well as giving them a chance to make live pit stops.
But does the Unlimited really give the winner a leg up in the Great American Race? Not really. Only four drivers have visited victory lane in this exhibition event and made the return trip the following weekend (with Dale Jarrett doing so twice). Drivers don’t race the same when points are on the line, especially in the sport’s most prestigious race. Plus, while trying setups and changes to see if they work, strategy is different. So while the race gives teams some extra test time, and that is worth something, winning isn’t a punched ticket back to victory lane.
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