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?
He didn’t quite have what it took to get by Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the trifecta, but Denny Hamlin was stellar throughout Speedweeks, winning the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel before coming home second in the 500. Hamlin, who also finished 2013 with a win at Homestead, is trying to bounce back from a back injury suffered in a crash at Auto Club Speedway last season. Hamlin made the decision not to have surgery on his back after fracturing a vertebra in the incident, and many questioned his decision as he struggled for most of the season following a return to the seat.
Well, Hamlin left little doubt that he’s comfortable in the car this year, and he’s got a lot to prove. A title favorite in the past, Hamlin has flexed muscle early only to fall apart under pressure in the Chase. He needs to show the world once and for all that he’s a legit contender for a title, and if he can capitalize on this early momentum with a win in the next few weeks, that gives his team time to focus on preparing for the Chase come September. Hamlin knows this fact, and he’ll be bent on finding his way to Victory Lane.
With a strong showing during Speedweeks, Hamlin looks ready to get back into championship contention.
What… happened this week the year the race winner was born?
Technically, this week in 1974, NASCAR was racing its third race of the season in Richmond, with the Daytona 500 already in the rear-view from the previous week. Richard Petty led 74 laps at Daytona to win the 500 over Cale Yarborough with Ramo Stott, Coo Coo Marlin and AJ Foyt rounding out the top five. Only four cars finished on the lead lap in that race, run in the days before restrictor plates equalized the field.
Petty had finished second to Yarborough in the season-opening race at Riverside, and as it turned out, the pair was setting up the season points battle as well. Petty would beat Yarborough to the title, his fifth. Bobby Allison broke up their party in Richmond this week in 1974, but Petty was second and Yarborough third. Lennie Pond and Dave Marcis also grabbed top fives that day, now 40 years in the rear-view.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Winning the pole proved to be the highlight of Speedweeks for rookie Dillon, who finished ninth on Sunday. While Dillon’s finish was respectable, he left a lot of angry drivers (and fabricators) in his wake as he touched off two separate multi-car incidents, one on lap 162 which involved 10 cars, and another on lap 194 that involved seven more. Dillon’s teammates Ryan Newman and Brian Scott suffered damage in both incidents, Paul Menard got scraped up in the first, and Richard Childress Racing satellite driver Casey Mears had a brush with the wall in the second. Dillon’s finish was strong, but he might not be too popular in the team meeting this week.
Last year’s winner (and the driver many fans thought repeated thanks to a FOX miscue; see more below) fared a bit better, and since he was on his third car of Speedweeks, his No. 48 team breathed a sigh of relief. Jimmie Johnson crashed in the Sprint Unlimited, and then lost his primary car for the Daytona 500 in his Budweiser Duel. That left team members back in North Carolina scrambling to prepare another car to send to Daytona if Johnson were to lose the backup car in practice. Thankfully, it wasn’t needed, and Johnson was able to keep that backup up front all day long, eventually finishing fifth, just ahead of the crash that broke out coming to the finish.
When… did it all go sideways?
In one of the strangest sidebars to the Great American Race, a lot of people (no, I mean A LOT of people) thought Johnson won the Daytona 500 hours before they even hit the 100-mile mark in the race. When this year’s edition was delayed by weather for more than six hours, FOX made the (understandable) decision to show last year’s race to fill the time. What FOX didn’t do was put any kind of note on the screen that the race was not live, but a replay. That led to many fans thinking that Johnson had gone back-to-back when, in fact, he was sitting in his motorhome.
And it wasn’t just fans who were fooled; FOX News Tweeted a Johnson victory to the world after the social media world buzzed with the false result. The whole thing was reminiscent of Orson Welles’s “War Of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which incited mass panic when listeners mistook a fictional work about alien invasion for an actual news broadcast. While it’s a humorous footnote to the weekend, there’s really no excuse for FOX failing to inform fans constantly throughout the replay that what they were seeing was not live action.
Why… did Earnhardt Jr. win the race?
There are two reasons that Junior was able to take the No. 88 to Victory Lane and secure himself a Chase berth: a teammate behind him at the right time and knowing how to block. A piece of trash on his grille, which could have proven disastrous had it happened earlier, may also have contributed by making the car just a bit faster. But on the final restart, Earnhardt got a perfectly-timed shot from Jeff Gordon that propelled him to a big enough lead that he could protect both lanes. And Earnhardt reminded everyone of the plate racer he is, driving masterfully to protect his position and holding off both Speedweeks superstar Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to win the Great American Race.
Perhaps even more importantly for Junior Nation, though was the way Earnhardt raced late in the going—like the Dale Junior of the DEI days, he went out and took the race. He also secured a Chase berth, meaning his team can spend the next six months preparing for his title run. Earnhardt’s hungry, his crew chief is hungry… so can he ignite the spark that drove him to early success and add the maturity it takes to race to a championship at last?
How… did the little guys do?
Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears was strong, with a car easily capable of a top-five finish, but a pit-road speeding penalty cost the No. 13 a lap in the second half of the race. Mears did get his lost lap back and drove to the front, finding some of the luck that evaded him in recent plate races and avoiding the last three incidents to snag a top 10 to start out the season, finishing 10th. Mears had a car capable of winning, but got shuffled out when Reed Sorenson held up his lane on a late restart. He picks up where he left off in 2013, as the best of the small team drivers. If he keeps that up, you won’t see him in the small teams list for much longer as his team could leave the group behind thanks to a technical alliance with RCR. If they (and the No. 47 of JTG Daugherty Racing) show improvement the way Furniture Row Racing did last year with a similar deal, I’ll take them off this list.
Hillman Racing; Landon Cassill (No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): On the heels of announcing a new 18-race sponsorship deal with Fuhu Inc., Cassill quietly put together a stellar run, starting with an eighth place in his qualifying race on Thursday. He was inside the top 10 early, staying in striking distance all day. Cassill avoided trouble unfolding around him twice to finish 12th, hinting at a greater talent than he’s given credit for.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier & Bobby Labonte (No. 51 Brandt Chevy & No. 52 Phoenix Construction Chevy): Allgaier had a solid day to kick off his rookie season, leading a couple of laps early, but got tangled in a multi-car crash triggered by fellow rookie Dillon with just seven laps to go and came home 27th. Labonte made it through that incident and hung on to finish 15th, but his gig is a part-time one.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): For Annett, a damaged car from a crash meant a very long day and a 37th-place finish. Sorenson, though, had a stellar run right up until the penultimate restart, when he showed that his No. 36 just didn’t have the power to lead, and held up the outside line, nearly causing a pileup. Still, Sorenson was able to keep in it until the last lap when he was caught in the line of fire and limped home 16th. That’s a great start for a team that sorely needed a boost, and could attract interest from potential backers.
Go FAS Racing; Terry Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Labonte was hanging with the lead pack with under ten laps to go, but a multi-car incident triggered by Dillon ended any hopes of a top finish. Labonte came home 20th in what he announced earlier in the week will be his final Daytona 500.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Ryan Truex (Nos. 23 & 83 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Truex was the true victim of a late crash in his Budweiser Duel as he was knocked out of the Daytona 500, but Bowman raced his way in with respectable fashion. Bowman then held his own, running midpack for much of the race and avoided trouble (though he was penalized for speeding on pit road) to finish better than he started, coming home 23rd.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Curb Records Ford): The Daytona 500 is one of the few times this team will run the distance this year, and Wise made the most of the opportunity, racing his way to an 11th-place start and staying in it to grab a 24th-place result, though he was four laps down at the end.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kroger/USO Chevy): Allmendinger got off to a good start with a 15th-place spot on the grid, and he was strong early, leading a lap and running inside the top 10 at one point until brake problems took him behind the wall. Despite those issues, Allmendinger was running at the end… and got the added “bonus” of being caught up in a tangle of cars coming to the checkers. He finished six laps down in 26th spot.
Circle Sport; Scott (No. 33 Whitetail Chevy): Scott was involved in setting off a multi-car incident on lap 145, when he bounced off first Kevin Harvick and then Aric Almirola, triggering a melee that wounded a dozen cars, including his No. 33 (actually a RCR machine this week), which wound up four laps down in 25th. All in all, Scott was involved in three separate incidents on the day.
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt & Parker Kligerman (No. 26 Speedstick Gear Toyota & No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota): Whitt was strong early, fighting for a top-10 spot. He faded a bit in the middle, but was looking for a solid result for his newly-formed team. Unfortunately, he was swept up in a lap 194 crash and wound up 28th for his efforts. Kligerman was collected in an incident on lap 145 and was able to return to the track, only to have his night finished in the lap 194 wreck. Kligerman finished 33rd.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Running 16th with 15 laps to go, the No. 21 snapped around on Bayne. Nobody else was collected, but for Bayne, the damage was done. Bayne finished 33rd, unable to recapture that old Daytona Magic.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Eric McClure & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 35 Hefty Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): The week was over for a heartbroken Eric McClure after the Duels on Thursday. Ragan had to race his way through the field after a crash in his qualifier, but unfortunately, a broken transmission derailed his quest for another restrictor-plate win after the No. 34 was forced to go to the garage for repairs. He’d come back out to finish 34th. Gilliland was involved in a multi-car crash on lap 145 and was last seen being dragged out of the grass on the hook, though he did return to the track after the help, relegating him to a result of 36th on the day. This team has been one of the strongest in this group on the plate tracks recently, but it wasn’t meant to be this time.
Author’s Note: If you’re a longtime reader of this column, you might notice a few changes this year. Should they stay or should they go? Let me know how you like them in the comments!