NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas

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?

The difference between the hype and the performance has been well-documented, but sometimes it’s also important to give credit where it’s due, and it’s due to Danica Patrick, who had the best race of her two-year Cup career on Saturday night.

Patrick qualified ninth, her second straight week starting in the top 10, and finished seventh, the best result she’s had in 57 career starts. She raced a smart race, didn’t drive over her head, and communicated her car’s handling constructively to crew chief Tony Gibson. A driver’s career best finish deserves recognition, and while some people went overboard with the praise, Patrick got the job done on the track on Saturday night, simple as that.

What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?

Even with changes in recent years to change things, the need for clean air is still apparent on intermediate tracks, and it really showed on Saturday. Even Kevin Harvick, who easily had the best car in the field when out front, struggled to make any headway when he was in traffic.

There’s a little irony here in the day where stock cars are anything but. Part of the solution to the aerodynamic dependence problem is the low front end of the car, right down to the track-hugging splitter. Most street cars have a lower front valence area as well, though not to the extreme of the Cup cars — but there it is. Remove that area below the front bumper and a lot of the aero issues would fade, but would anyone accept cars that looked like they drove out of the 1980s?

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

Harvick lived up to his sponsor’s “Freaky Fast” slogan all weekend, blistering the track record to take the pole on Friday and leading 119 laps during the race. If not for trying to stretch his last tank of fuel a single lap too far (Harvick ran out of gas coming to pit road for his final stop), Harvick would probably have found victory lane. Instead, he had to settle for second, but his performance still says “title favorite” when the night is over.

Matt Kenseth won this race a year ago, but he spent much of the night looking like anything but a winner, running in the low 20s for much of the night after pit strategy left him mired in the pack. He was able to run in the top 10 for a while in the middle of the run, but he led just a single lap and never was a serious contender, though he did pull a top 10 out of what could have been a dismal night, finishing 10th.

When… did it all go sideways?

The Kansas wreckfest started in Friday night’s CWTS race and it continued Saturday night. It wasn’t that the drivers were being overly aggressive or that there was a bad tire; after the truck race, Kyle Busch pointed out that those drivers were getting used to a new body style on intermediate tracks, but the Cup teams didn’t have such an excuse handy. Certainly aerodynamics played into the problem, as some of the night’s eight caution flags were triggered by someone getting loose in traffic and turning around.

All in all, the racing at Kansas didn’t jive with a track that has two race dates every year. The recent repave and racing under the lights didn’t do much to help. There was some action on Saturday night, to be fair, though the number of lead changes (25) is a bit misleading, because many of them came either under one of the numerous cautions or during green flag pit cycles. It wasn’t a bad race, but it won’t go down as an instant classic, either. In a time when ratings are falling every week, it’s time to reassess which tracks really deserve a second date; nothing that went down at Kansas this weekend suggested it belongs on that list.

Why… did Jeff Gordon win the race?

Gordon didn’t have the fastest car all night long, and he only led twice for a total of nine laps. Instead, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson employed solid strategy, making the No. 24 fast when it counted. Gordon had been a threat all night long before he claimed his 89th career Cup win, one of a handful of drivers who was able to run fast laps seemingly at will. But what may have tipped the scales in Gordon’s favor was when Harvick ran out of gas coming to pit road on his last stop of the night. That gave Gordon enough of an edge in the final laps to hold off a charging Harvick.

For Gordon, wins were a given in the late 1990s, and though those have dried up (along with the vitriol of many race fans) as Gordon has aged, he stands as the best of his era and among the sport’s greats. His 89 career wins stand third all-time, behind hall of fame drivers Richard Petty and David Pearson, and only three drivers have more Cup titles than Gordon. Still, it’s the win number that stands out; in an era where winning the championship has supplanted winning races in importance, Gordon’s total still towers above the competition, with more than 20 victories separating him from Jimmie Johnson, the next active driver on the list with 66. But as his career winds to a close, Gordon knows each win could be the last, and he appreciates them in the way only a veteran can.

How… did the little guys do?

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Accell Construction Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Sometimes, it’s not about having the fastest car, but rather about staying out of trouble, and Annett drove to the top of this class of drivers by having the least amount of it on Saturday night. Annett finished three laps down in 25th after being involved in a lap 60 incident, but on a night where almost everyone else in this group met with trouble as well, Annett made best in class. Sorenson suffered from mechanical woes and wound up 32nd, still ahead of several others.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears slid through the grass to avoid a bigger crash after AJ Allmendinger spun in front of him on lap 187. There was little visible damage to the No. 13, and Mears was able to continue, but he lost a couple of laps late in the race and finished 26th, one spot better than he started.

BK Racing; Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Iowa Chop House Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whill quietly had a decent day among his peers, though not the type of day for which his team or any of the other small teams had hoped. Whitt was a quiet third among these teams with his 28th-place finish. Bowman collected a speeding penalty on pit road on lap 42 and was forced to make a pass-through under green, and his night went downhill from there, ending 10 laps down in 35th. Truex ran into trouble (and into David Ragan) when Ragan got loose in front of him on lap 60 and was the first driver out of the race, finishing last.

JTG Daugherty Racing; Allmendinger (No. 47 Kingsford Chevy): Kansas wasn’t kind even to the best of the smaller teams, and Allmendinger ran in the mid-20s all night long, until he got loose on lap 187 and spun in traffic, collecting Mears, Justin Allgaier, David Gilliland, Ragan and Paul Menard in the process. Allmendinger’s car suffered heavy damage to the nose, forcing him to a 30th-place result.

Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Kansas Farm Bureau Toyota): For this team, 31st place isn’t actually a terrible finish. Yes, Nemechek was five laps behind, but it was the best finish of 2014 for the four-time Cup race winner.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Another week, another race still running at the end for this former start-and-park organization. Improvement will come with experience going the distance on tracks where the team never completed a whole race before.

GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 Mechanical Protection Plan Ford): Kvapil stayed out of major trouble on a night where many of his peers couldn’t avoid it, but in the end, wasn’t able to muster better than a 34th-place result.

HScott Motorsports; Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgiaer was looking to have the best finish of any small-team driver this week, running in the top 15 to top 10 for much of the night when other teams on this list couldn’t crack that group. However, Allgaier was caught in the aftermath of the Allmendinger spin on lap 187 and pounded the wall. “Holy crap was that a hit,” said Allgaier on his radio after the accident, which left him done for the night in 36th spot, but fortunately unhurt.

Front Row Motorsports; Ragan & Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): It was a bad night to for teams sponsored by fast-food chains, and Ragan and Gilliland were no exceptions. Ragan got loose in front of Ryan Truex just 60 laps into the race, suffereing heavy damage to the No, 34. He was able to continue, only to get collected along with Gilliland in Allmendinger’s spin. Gilliland suffered the worst damage from that wreck as he was collected by Allgaier and slammed into the outside wall. Gilliland had the wind knocked out of him, but limped away under his own power with his car destroyed. Adding insult to injury, Ragan, along with his crew chef and spotter, was called into the NASCAR hauler after the race for failing to obey a NASCAR directive after the crash.

Circle Sport; Timmy Hill & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): A week after this team forced everyone to take notice with a stellar run at Talladega, this team fell back to earth in a big way. Cassill was collected in the lap 60 Ragan/Truex incident and wound up in 42nd spot, his car too damaged to continue. Hill didn’t get much further before his engine expired, leaving him 40th.

Xxxtreme Motorsports; JJ Yeley (No. 44 Phoenix Warehouse Chevy): This team may have been planning to pack it in early anyway, but an engine failure on lap 136 made sure of it, leaving Yeley to finish 41st.

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