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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2014 The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix

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?

It shouldn’t have been unexpected. Anyone who didn’t think Dale Earnhardt Jr. could back up his Daytona run this week hasn’t been paying attention to the driver of the No. 88 and his recent results at Phoenix. Earnhardt scored his third straight top five at the 1-mile track, with an average finish just over third in that span, equal to Jimmie Johnson’s average in that time (Johnson leads all active drivers in career average at PIR).

It’s been questioned as to whether the media blitz that the Daytona 500 champion faces hurts his performance the following week, but Earnhardt, who’s still clearly riding that Daytona high, dispelled that talk in a big way on Sunday, coming home second on a day where nobody had anything for the race winner. He’s looking like he’s going to run the season like he ran in Daytona, going out and taking what he wants. If he can do that and remain consistent, it could be a year in which a driver considered by many not to have the chops to win a championship reinvents himself as a veteran with the chops to take it to the wire.

What… beyond teams’ control affected the action?

The day started out under blue skies, which made for handling issues early for some teams after practice sessions were held under mostly cloudy skies on Friday and Saturday. Others found speed in the sun.

Either way, the clouds moved back in for the second half, and that helped a few teams, most notably the Team Penske entries and Jeff Gordon, all of whom found speed as the sunshine disappeared. Kevin Harvick was even faster under the cloud cover. It may have hurt a few others, like Johnson and Jamie McMurray, who both appeared to fare better earlier in the race. Mother Nature plays a big role in many races, and this week was no exception. Yes, for the most part, the good cars were good throughout, but that’s because they came prepared for all circumstances and capitalized. That’s the key to success in the sport, and one we saw on display this weekend.

Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Brad Keselowski was the first pole winner under the new qualifying rules, and while his car was fast all day, it wasn’t quite good enough to finish where it started. Keselowski held off teammate Joey Logano to finish third after it looked like the Penske contingent could be dominant early. Keselowski’s run means that there has been no winner from pole at PIR since the fall race in 2010, showing how hard it is to sustain speed all weekend long at this track.

Carl Edwards found his way to Victory Lane a year ago, but it didn’t look as though a return trip would happen after he qualified 23rd. He was able to move through the field to capture a respectable eighth this time around. Worrisome for Edwards is the considerable lack of noise he’s made in the series since losing the 2011 title on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Ford invested a lot in keeping Edwards at Roush Fenway Racing through this year, but if his performance doesn’t improve, it could be that either Edwards or RFR will cut ties and look for greener pastures.

When… did it all go sideways?

The racing was decent for Phoenix, and drivers drove a smart race, not pressing their luck too far even with the “win and you’re in” Chase mentality. Part of the reason might have been because nobody had anything for Harvick and didn’t want to risk their equipment trying. Harvick was just that good.

But for a few teams, the day wasn’t as smooth, like the lap 172 crash that appeared to have been triggered by Justin Allgaier that wounded the cars of Allgaier, Danica Patrick and Travis Kvapil. Damage from the crash gave Patrick a tire rub, which in turn led to a second spin for the second-year driver. Patrick had some choice words for Allgaier in the garage afterwards, letting him know that she felt he had driven over his head. But the crash was far from intentional, and Allgaier isn’t a villain… as is often the case, racing doesn’t always need a villain for teams to find trouble.

Why… did Harvick win the race?

A year after Denny Hamlin was fined for saying that it was hard to pass with the Gen-6 car, Harvick made passing look easy, driving around the competition seemingly at will, making his No. 4 stick as he drove it around car after car. After missing the cut for the final round of qualifying by less than a hundredth of a second, Harvick stormed through the field from his 13th-place starting spot, taking the lead for the first time on lap 74 and dominating the day from there, leading 224 laps.

Late cloud cover helped rejuvenate the Team Penske cars, along with Earnhardt, but Harvick was clearly the class of the field all day long, and with his fifth Phoenix win, now leads active full-time Cup drivers in wins at the track.

How… did the little guys do?

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): First Mears fought a tight car, then he fought a loose one later in the race. He lost a lap early and got it back late. After starting 18th and running in the mid-to-low 20s all day, Mears was able to find a little magic (and having better equipment this year didn’t hurt) and bring it home 14th. That puts Mears 11th in points (though with the new Chase format, points are pretty meaningless other than comparing teams in this group). Yes it’s early, so can Mears finish the season at this level? Maybe; he finished 14th in points with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006, and if his equipment proves equal over the long haul, it’s not crazy. And if he does, he’ll earn his way off this list.

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Clorox Toyota): Allmendinger is another driver whose team is benefiting from better equipment this year, thanks to a similar alliance to Germain’s with Richard Childress Racing. Thanks to mechanical woes in Daytona and a car that never would come around in Phoenix, Allmendinger hasn’t been able to capitalize on that yet, though he was second among his small team peers this week with his 26th-place finish. Interesting to note that the top two among these teams are both open-wheel converts to NASCAR.

Swan Racing; Cole Whitt & Parker Kligerman (No. 26 GEAR Speedstick Toyota & No. 30 Toyota): The good news: Whitt was able to pick up for this team right where they left off in 2013—surprisingly strong, with a solid finish in the mid-20s (27th this week). It’s looking more and more like this team is the real deal, one that will survive and grow as far as their budget will allow. The bad news: Kligerman’s engine went south with just under 100 laps to go, relegating him to a 42nd-place result for the week, and for these teams, that’s a good-sized financial hit.

Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Blake Koch & David Gilliland (No. 34 Farm Rich Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Ragan was the best of this organization this week, though like most of the teams in this group, the No. 34 wasn’t able to run with the leaders (a penalty for pitting too early didn’t help matters). Ragan finished 28th and sits 31st in points. That’s about the same as he was in 2013, which isn’t bad, but if the team doesn’t improve, it’s unlikely they’ll advance much beyond where they are right now. Gilliland, meanwhile, led two laps (it was during a round of green-flag pit stops, but it gives Gilliland an extra point and he almost grabbed a better finish because of it), but a flat tire late brought out the seventh caution of the day and dropped Gilliland to 29th, a lap behind Ragan and three down to the leaders. Koch didn’t park early (though it’s likely that the No. 35 will do that at some point this season), but he wasn’t at the level of his teammates, either. Koch finished six laps down in 37th.

HScott Motorsports; Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier had a quietly strong run early, moving up through the field after starting last and working his way to a mid-pack race. Just past halfway, though, Allgaier tangled with Patrick, damaging the No. 51 and drawing the ire of Patrick, who confronted Allgaier in the garage after the race. Allgaier had a pair of pit road penalties as well. All in all, his 30th-place run was not a great indicator of his day—the team was capable of a better finish than they got, but Allgaier is a rookie, and the better finishes will come.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): This team has a new lineup but the equipment (and, more telling, the funding) are about what they had to work with in 2013. This is a team that has the people and the knowledge to improve among their peers, but without the money, talented people often take a backseat. Both Sorenson, who did a nice job of avoiding getting caught up in a lap 272 crash with Allgaier, Patrick and Kvapil to finish 31st, and Annett, who had a clean race, represent young talent who could take the team to the next step. But until there’s consistent funding in place, this team will likely run in the low 30s.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Ford): This team’s goal for 2014 is simple: to race the distance each week while running a partial schedule. That’s a positive step for a team who has had to park early in the past, and they held to that this week with McDowell, who ran the distance to finish five laps down in 33rd. For McDowell, being able to race all day must be a big sigh of relief after a stint with Phil Parsons’s organization, which parks early nearly every week. And it’s by running the distance that McDowell will help this team to take the next step. He’s an underrated driver who has proven that he can run near the front in competitive equipment. If he can help his team create that, they might attract some notice.

BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyota and No. 83 Borla Toyota): This team appears to have taken a step backward in 2014 so far, and Phoenix wasn’t an easy day for the organization. Truex, who failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, made his first start of the year and came home six laps down in 37th. Bowman went to the garage on lap 214 with mechanical issues, and was already four laps down when the gremlins got to his car. After running 2013 with two veterans who may have been past their primes, the team swung the opposite way this season… and it may have been a mistake; perhaps a veteran driver in one car would have been a better choice to bring along one promising youngster rather than having to go through rookie growing pains in stereo.

GoFAS Racing; Kvapil (No. 32 Ask More Get More Ford): Was grabbing Kvapil, one of the drivers BK Racing dropped, the right answer for this team? Maybe. While he had a rough road in 2013, in part because of bouncing around with other drivers, Timmy Hill showed some potential, and he deserved a shot to run this car on a more full-time basis. Kvapil had a rough start to his 2014 season, damaging his car in a lap 172 crash with Allgaier and Patrick, and he brought the No. 32 home 38th. For those keeping track at home, that’s four spots below Hill’s 2013 average.

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