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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2014 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’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… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Some drivers just sneak up on you, and so far in 2014, Brian Vickers has been one of those drivers. He’s quietly put together some strong runs, including his fourth-place finish in Talladega this week. Vickers wasn’t totally stealthy on Sunday; he did lead three times during the race. The No. 55 team does still have some holes to patch (they’re not yet consistent enough to be a title threat), but Vickers sits 10th in points. That’s ahead of race winners Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, as well as three-time champion Tony Stewart and teammate Clint Bowyer. Vickers still needs to win to lock down a Chase spot, but he’s making a case for that happening.

What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?

Perhaps nothing in racing provokes feelings as strong as the “temporary” measure taken nearly 30 years ago to slow the cars down for safety after speeds exceeded 213 mph at Daytona and Talladega. Far from being phased out for better methods of pacing the cars, restrictor plates have shaped the racing at Daytona and Talladega for years.

Fans either love plate racing or hate it, with little room for middle ground. The plates, which restrict the airflow to the engine and reduce horsepower, are an equalizer of sorts. Any driver who’s good at this type of racing has a shot at winning, despite the size of his team’s budget. It also bunches up the field and reduces throttle response in the cars, which is why crashes that might collect only handful of cars at other tracks may often collect a dozen or more. Some plate-race crashes have resulted in more than 20 cars involved. Because of both factors, plates make these races a bit of a crapshoot in that good drivers get taken out in other people’s mistakes on a regular basis, and others somehow avoid the trouble and get improbable finishes.

Surely with over two decades of improved technology, NASCAR could find a way to slow the cars without taking away throttle response and reducing the likelihood of a 20-car pileup in the process. But for many fans, that’s the draw, and NASCAR isn’t going to stop milking the cash cow anytime soon.

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

Brian Scott started the day with high hopes after taking the pole in a car fielded by Richard Childress Racing, whose teams and satellites took the top six starting spots in a display of horsepower. Scott faded some as the race went on, but was still contending for a solid finish when he was collected in a crash triggered by Keselowski’s spin on lap 137. Scott’s day was over 50 laps shy of the checkered flag, leaving him in 42nd place.

David Ragan had a storybook finish a year ago, winning the race for his underfunded Front Row Motorsports team. This year, though, the story didn’t have a happy ending for Ragan, who was strong enough to race inside the top 10 on and off. He got collected in a lap 175 incident that sent him to the garage and left him in 35th place.Still a year after his win, you can’t count Ragan out on a plate track, and he gets some television time, invaluable to a team searching for the funding to make the next step.

When… did it all go sideways?

It was three of the sport’s biggest stars, drivers with seven titles between two of them and a runner-up in that category, who triggered the trouble on Sunday. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson had problems on laps 183 and 175, respectively, both of which resulted in multi-car crashes that featured a total of 11 other cars. Still, both Johnson and Edwards were in the hunt for the win at the time of their issues, and both were driving smart, clean races. Their accidents hurt some teams, but they weren’t doing anything untoward at the time, so it’s hard to lay blame on either.

On the other hand, Keselowski was six laps down and racing among the leaders when he lost control of the No. 2, triggering a crash that collected 13 other cars, including both the polesitter and the point leader. Many other drivers openly questioned Keselowski’s decision to mix it up with the frontrunners in a damaged car, while Keselowski maintained that he’d been trying to get into position to get his laps back (a questionable reasoning given that Jamie McMurray was ahead of him in line for the free pass all day long). While it’s certainly Keselowski’s responsibility to try and get the best possible finish for his team after he spun himself off the nose of Danica Patrick earlier in the day, he also should have considered the teams who were racing for the win and not overdriven his car,something that would have resulted in a better finish for his own team as well as the others whose days were ended.

Why… did Hamlin win the race?

In a nutshell, he was in the right place at the right time. That’s both a compliment—any driver has to put himself in position to win before he can contend—and a product of restrictor-plate racing, where anyone can win if he’s in the right spot at the end. That’s nothing against Hamlin, who had one of the strongest cars of the day, running inside the top 10 for much of the race. He deserved the win.

Hamlin was leading on the final lap as the field headed down the backstretch, which is often the kiss of death in restrictor plate races, when the caution flew for a sizeable chunk of debris on the frontstretch, eliminating any chance that someone other than Hamlin would take the checkers, and some fans felt cheated out of the finish they expected. Many on social media called for a rule change that would result in every race finishing under green. That’s unrealistic—at some tracks, it could take attempt after attempt, creating a fuel-mileage race where there wasn’t one or producing a winner by attrition rather than one who outdrove the competition, neither of which are any more likely to be popular with fans at the end of the day.

How… did the little guys do?

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Chevy): Another stellar run for this team, culminating in a top-five finish (fifth) and a two-spot gain to 15th in points. We’ll give them until the All-Star Race, but it looks like this team will be earning its way off this list very shortly since they’re running with the sport’s elite on a weekly basis.

Circle Sport; Scott & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Shore Lodge Chevy & No. 40 Chevy): It might have been Scott leading the way with a pole, but it was Cassill who was truly impressive on Sunday, racing his way to an improbable 11th-place finish. Cassill has done an outstanding job for this team, one of the smallest even among the small teams. You have to wonder why he hasn’t gotten a better chance in the sport, because he’s clearly got the talent in the driver’s seat. Scott faded as the race went on after starting from the pole, but the day ended early in 42nd after Scott was collected in a crash triggered when Keselowski got loose and spun in traffic on lap 137.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): This team is still a step behind the No. 47, despite having the same technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. Mears started in fourth, his best qualifying effort of the year, fell back for much of the day to conserve his engine and avoid trouble, and got back into the top 10 in the closing laps. On the final restart, though, Mears jumped from the faster bottom line into the middle, and lost several positions as a result. What should have been a top-10 result turned into a 14th place. This team needs to pick it up a notch to reach its potential.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): Both TBR drivers had strong runs in Talladega, and Annett turned into his career-best Cup finish (16th). Sorenson was also strong for most of the afternoon, running inside the top 20 and even cracking the top 10 at one point. He looked to be headed for a top 20 as well until he was collected in a lap 175 melee, which ended his day early due to damage.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Dogecoin/Reddit.com Ford): Wise will be remembered as the driver who jumped in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a late run in hopes of picking up a push and holding Earnhardt up in the process, but that’s a bit unfair. After all, in order to move up in front of Earnhardt, he had to be running better than the No. 88 in the first place. What Wise’s run should be remembered for is being his best finish of the year; a top-20 run for a one-time start-and-park team trying to do right is a step in the right direction.

BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. Scorpyd Toyota & No. 83 VooDoo Barbeque and Grill Toyota): The finishing positions of these drivers certainly don’t tell the story of their day. Whitt was the top finisher in 21st, surviving three separate crashes to grab a decent finish in just his second run under the BK banner. Bowman was also having a strong race, at one point racing inside the top 10 before being collected in a multi-car crash on lap 137 that left him a lap down with a 28th-place result, still three spots better than he started the day. Truex ran in the top 20 on and off, but damage from a late-race crash after Edwards’s flat tire relegated him to 31st place.

GoFAS Racing; Terry Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Late in the race, Labonte was inside the top 10, and at one point ran as high as second, but in the end, he just didn’t have the horsepower to contend, and came home 24th. Still, he brought the car home in one piece, something that’s important for these teams because of the cost of repairing a torn-up car.

HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier was looking for a strong finish, working his way into the top 10 late in the race before falling back into the top 15 with fewer than 10 laps remaining, still very respectable for this young team. Unfortunately for Allgaier, he went spinning just as the white flag flew, and while he was able to finish the final lap, the accident sent him sliding to 27th.

Front Row Motorsports; Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 KFC Go Cup Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): A year after their improbable one-two finish, Ragan and Gilliland looked strong early, but neither would see the checkers this time around. Ragan, the team’s top finisher, was collected in a multi-car incident triggered by Johnson’s spin on lap 175, and the damage left him unable to continue in 35th place. Gilliland had an even shorter day, suffering an engine failure after 150 laps and finishing 40th as a result.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 Jordan Truck Sales Ford): McDowell was yet another small-team driver whose luck belied his day. McDowell qualified 14th and ran as high as eighth during the race. Unfortunately, he was collected in the lap 175 crash, and as a result, his day was halted in 36th place.

Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne is always a threat on restrictor-plate tracks, and this week was no exception—Bayne led six laps and ran in the top 10 for many laps. Unfortunately, he was collected in the lap 137 incident and wound up 42nd after a stellar start to his day.

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