NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2014 Duck Commander 500 at Texas

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Monday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H in her Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

While a youngster once billed as Sliced Bread showed he’s finally coming into his own Monday, admitting his ride to the top series came too fast, too soon another young gun is making a case that his own early call-up was right on time. Kyle Larson was strong at Texas, all day long and on the final restart, he battled some series veterans like he was one of them. Racing Kyle Busch hard but right, the rookie settled for fifth place while showcasing some growing maturity. Larson could possibly have made one more move on Busch, but risked causing a melee, and so backed out instead. Right now in his career and at a track like Texas, it was exactly the right thing to do for him. Busch (and other drivers) will remember that Larson raced them cleanly and hopefully will give the same consideration later on. That kind of respect will only help Larson grow in the series; when he is racing for a victory (and he will be in the near future) those competitors may remember that.

What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?

On a weekend when, once again, rain changed the game, in the end, the real game changer was Kurt Busch’s blown tire just before the white flag. At first, many questioned the caution as it appeared that Busch had gotten his slowing car onto the apron, but television replays showed that the left rear tire on the No. 41 came apart, shredding the car’s quarterpanel. Debris quickly spewed all over the asphalt, and some made its way onto the racing surface. The caution was a good call, and it set up a green-white-checkered run that a year or two ago would have been much different.

Because Goodyear brought a tire that wore out, though, the leaders came to pit road and strategy came into play. Jeff Gordon came out with the lead and Brian Vickers second after taking only two fresh tires. Brad Keselowski, who had been running second before the caution, got caught speeding on pit road and suddenly, the lineup was changed. In the end, Joey Logano’s four new tires was the better call and he quickly retook the lead. However, Gordon and Vickers both got top-five finishes they would not have seen otherwise, benefiting while several others got to jostle, side-by-side for position. The tires were not perfect — there were still some failures that perhaps should not be happening — but overall, they’ve proven to be the key to some of the better racing we’ve seen this year.

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

Tony Stewart had a slow start to 2014, leaving critics to wonder whether he’s truly recovered from the broken leg he suffered last summer. But don’t look now, because Stewart is putting that speculation to rest. He won the pole in Texas and led three times for 74 laps, the first laps he’s run up front in 2014. Stewart faded as the sun came out, finishing 10th, but it’s his third top 10 in four races, and he’s slowly creeping up the points standings as well, now sitting 14th. Stewart has always been a slow starter who heats up with the weather, so there’s no reason to think he won’t do that again this year. His three top 10s and two top fives are already a hotter start than he had a year ago, when after seven races, Stewart was 22nd in points with just one top-10 result.

Busch led eight times for a total of 171 laps en route to victory a year ago. This time around, Busch wasn’t as strong, though he did lead 10 circuits. He wasn’t bad by any means, moving through the field after starting 29th to maintain a top-five position for most of the race. Busch just didn’t have the car to challenge for the win, but he did come in third, improving his points position by a spot to fifth, a bit behind where he was a year ago. Busch has already claimed his Chase berth, based on the sport’s new format and the points will sort themselves if his car remains strong.

When… did it all go sideways?

After running a long 10 laps under yellow, ensuring the track was dry at the start of the race, the field finally roared to the green flag. It didn’t last long, though. After just two laps under green, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was looking to make a move on Aric Almirola on lap 13. He misjudged the amount of space he had and clipped the grass with his left-front tire. The car tore into the turf and then rocketed up across the racetrack into the outside wall, where the No. 88 burst into flame. Earnhardt climbed out, unhurt, but his day was over before it ever really got started.

To add insult to injury, Earnhardt’s mishap also made for a long day for his teammate, Jimmie Johnson. A piece of debris flew up and slammed into the windshield of the No. 48, causing the braces that hold it upright to bow and obscuring Johnson’s vision. The Lowe’s Chevy also suffered heavy front-end damage, causing extensive repairs. After that, the team had a tire go down, costing them two laps, but any chance for a top finish was likely gone after the lap 13 incident. The No. 13 of Casey Mears also appeared to get into Earnhardt’s debris, but Mears didn’t report any issues as a direct result.

Why… did Logano win the race?

In the end, it was because his team made the right call on the final pit stop, just before the green-white-checkered, taking four tires. But in the bigger picture, it was because the No. 22 team brought a great car to the track — and then they made that car better, all day long. Early on, it looked as though Logano’s teammate Keselowski had the race easily in hand. Keselowski led 85 laps in the middle of the race, but once Logano took over, it was all No. 22, all the way.

There was immediate reaction to the caution that caused the green-white-checkered run, wondering if the yellow was necessary, but in reality, Logano’s win on the restart took some ugly speculation out of the picture. Questions ran rampant on social media, including from respected media members, as well as from the booth during FOX’s broadcast about whether Keselowski, who was running second and closing on Logano, would have raced him hard for the win if he got to him or if he’d “let” Logano take the victory because Keselowski already had one (and the Chase berth that goes with it). Logano, his teammate at Team Penske, did not. After a cheating scandal that involved Michael Waltrip Racing and Penske last year at Richmond, the sport didn’t need another race where team orders were questioned. The caution erased those questions and handed Logano a “good” win instead — a result that’s better for everyone in the end.

How… did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne was the top qualifier in this group, starting the day seventh, and while the No. 21 faded a bit, he was still the top finisher among the small teams this week on a track that’s especially brutal to the underfunded. Bayne came home 19th, a lap down to winner Logano. How hard is Texas on these teams? Just three of them on this list finished one lap down — and the rest fell even further behind the leaders as they struggled to find the handling on their cars.

Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Reutimann & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Gilliland came out on top of this group for the third straight week, finishing a lap down in 22nd. Ragan, meanwhile had difficulty all weekend long, crashing early on in practice. While his team made repairs and avoided the backup car, Ragan never did find his groove, coming home 35th, six laps behind. Finally, in his second start of 2014, Reutimann made the show after failing to qualify last week in Martinsville. But the cagey veteran never was a factor, coming home 38th.

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Chevy): Allmendinger continues to race like he means it, earning some TV time this week with a nice crossover move on Edwards for the free pass at one point. His finish wasn’t really much to write home about, a lap down in 23rd, and Allmendinger dropped four spots to 20th in points. But he made his presence known, and had a decent day all told.

HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier reported a vibration around lap 100, but was able to get it fixed on a scheduled pit stop, and went on to finish 24th. This team has been making small gains in recent weeks, and this week, when no small team finished on the lead lap, coming in a lap down wasn’t a bad ending. The team is still having some growing pains, paired with new ownership, but that’s to be expected, especially with a rookie driver, and they’re slowly coming around. Allgaier sits third among the small team drivers in points, in 28th place — ahead of top-funded Danica Patrick.

Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Texas has been a thorn in this team’s side for a few years, and this week was no exception. Mears had minor damage from Earnhardt’s crash on lap 13. The team fought handling issues early, but by mid-race, Mears was running lap times equal to the top 10. That’s when the car lost front grip to the point where Mears said it felt like he was on skis. By the end, he finished two laps down in 28th, actually better than his result in either race last year, but slips to 23rd in points, which is not where this group should be performing considering the equipment they’re getting. Mears posted on Twitter after the race, summing up his day:

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Annett was TBR’s top driver this week, finishing three laps down in 29th. Sorenson’s team had trouble with their front end for much of the day, with the driver reporting that the steering wheel was moving around too much, making the car hard to drive. The issue showed in his 33rd-place result. The team has made some small gains this year, and it will be interesting to see what transpires on the tracks where the underdogs aren’t at as big a disadvantage.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 TWD Ford): This team is trying to do it the right way this year, running a limited schedule of races in which they hope to go the distance. They did that this week, but struggled on pit road en route to their 30th-place finish, five laps down. McDowell and Co. are keeping a good attitude, though. The driver tweeted after the race:

Swan Racing; Cole Whitt & Parker Kligerman (No. 26 Toyota & No. 30 SMS Audio Toyota): This team was one on the rise at the end of 2013, and it’s not hard to think they could still be (they’ve had some solid moments this year). The problem is, they can’t buy a race worth of good luck. This week, Whitt came home five laps down in 31st, while Kligerman was relegated to 40th place after the No. 30 overheated, ending his day despite several attempts to fix the issue.

BK Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota): Bowman was the lone BK entry this week after Ryan Truex failed to qualify, and his machine was never quite right from the get-go. The team battled, but the best Bowman could do was 32nd place. He did avoid trouble, and he did log laps, both important for a rookie, so the day was by no means a wash.

Circle Sport; Landon Cassill (No. 40 Gallery Furniture Chevy): Cassill was left to carry the team’s banner alone after David Stremme failed to qualify the No. 33. Cassill, as always, drove a smart race, avoiding trouble, and came home 34th. Avoiding trouble for some of these teams is a small victory in itself, because they don’t have an inventory of cars to choose from back at the shop. An undamaged car means they can get it turned around and ready for the next race that much faster, allowing them to work on finding a little speed.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Hand it to these guys — they went the distance again this week. In this group, it’s so much about small gains that it’s easy to overlook what is a pretty significant step for the No. 98 bunch. Wise finished 36th, but Wise finished. Other than a DNQ in Phoenix, the team has been there at the end of every race this year. A little perspective: they’ve finished six of the six races they’ve competed in. In 2013, they finished just seven races all year. Again, small gains…

GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 Ford): This team continues to struggle to find a foothold. This week, Kvapil fought his ill-handling equipment to a 37th-place finish, right where he started the day. This team has people who want to make it to the next level, but they haven’t quite been able to make it happen.

Randy Humphrey Racing; Dave Blaney (No. 77 Ford): The team withdrew from Fontana and Martinsville in an attempt to regroup after failing to qualify for the first four races. They did make the field this week, so that’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, their day ended early with steering issues, leaving Blaney in 41st place. But in order to race better, they must first race, so on that front, the team had a modest success.

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