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?
Watkins Glen isn’t known for being easy to drive. Four-time Glen winner Jeff Gordon finished 31st in his first Cup race there. Jimmie Johnson‘s first race there, in a Nationwide car…well, you’ve seen it on every racing blooper reel ever made. But this week, Kyle Larson made it look easy as he drove to a fourth-place finish in his first ever visit to the upstate New York track. With the finish, Larson moves into 10th in points and is making a strong bid at making the Chase even without a win, which could very well come in the next four races. Larson’s talent is clear, and as he gains experience, he will be a formidable opponent for his peers.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
Ryan Newman was visibly upset as he spoke about the lack of updated safety features at Watkins Glen, and after a hard crash that destroyed both his No. 31 and the No. 95 of Michael McDowell and caused damage to several other cars, he had the right to be. While road courses present some unique difficulties because of their length and shape, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a way to replace the antiquated Armco barriers, at least in the areas where crashes are more likely to happen. The track did improve the area Newman’s crash came in after a similar (and similarly frightening) incident between Gordon and Sam Hornish Jr. in 2009.
While the Armco and tire barriers do one job well in absorbing impact, the problem is that the both act almost like a slingshot, catapulting cars back onto the racing surface. Part of the problem in that area is the entrance and exit of the “boot,” a section of track raced by other series but not NASCAR, which precludes any kind of permanent barrier. The obvious solution lies in using that section of track instead of the corner that currently exists. Some drivers have expressed that they’d like to see the boot as part of the course, so perhaps it’s time to run the full course and install better safety features where needed. It seems simple, but it would still be a massive undertaking.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Gordon started on pole at the Glen for the first time in more than a decade, and early on, it looked like he would be a player. Gordon had a fast car, his team was working a strategy they liked, and things were looking good for a shot at a fifth Glen win. Unfortunately, the car didn’t have the resolve that Gordon and his crew had, and the No. 24 suddenly shut off, losing all power, for reasons that the team could not diagnose. Gordon went to the garage and while he did return, his efforts all came to just a 31st-place finish.
Last year’s winner, Kyle Busch, was sitting pretty a year ago, but this time around it got ugly fast. First, he came to pit road for a stop – he would have come out on the lead lap but then faced a pass-through penalty for removing equipment from his box when the gas can hung in the filler. Trying to come back through the field, Busch got into the side of Martin Truex Jr. early on, causing extensive damage to the No. 18. Busch spent a lot of time in the garage for repairs, and while he came back out to finish the race, he ended up 21 laps down in 40th spot.
When… did it all go sideways?
Race day already felt wrong before the green flag even fell on the day our collective innocence was shattered. After Tony Stewart was involved in a fatal incident during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Speedway on Saturday night, shock and sadness replaced anticipation for Sunday’s race at the Glen. Regan Smith was awoken Sunday morning by a phone call asking him to return from North Carolina to upstate New York to fill in for Stewart, who made the decision not to race after he hit and killed a driver in the “A” Main at Canandaigua.
Stewart’s decision was, ultimately, the right one. Racing, which for Stewart has been a form of solace, would seem cold and callous to many who do not know the driver, but more importantly, even Stewart knew his limits. Driving under such emotional circumstances would have been at best futile, and at worst, dangerous to Stewart and his competitors. On a day of heavy hearts, it’s hard to think that any could be heavier than Stewart’s.
Why… did AJ Allmendinger win the race?
Allmendinger led the most laps on Sunday, and his chance to win came on what turned out to be excellent pit strategy. But in the end, Allmendinger simply wanted it more than anyone else, and he went out and took it in the final laps. Before Sunday, it was easy to crown Marcos Ambrose as the best driver at Watkins Glen, but that just might no longer be the case as Allmendinger took the field to school in the closing laps. Allmendinger and Ambrose waged a battle royal not once but twice on late restarts, with Allmendinger going door-to-door with Ambrose every step of the way. It was a brilliant ending to a tragic day and a reminder of what racing is and should be.
The win puts single-car JTG Daugherty Racing in the Chase, barring disaster, just the second time an independent team has made the postseason and the first time since Regan Smith won at Darlington in 2011 that a single-car team has made a trip to Victory Lane. For Allmendinger, the road to redemption after a 2012 suspension has been a long one, but he found it in a big way on Sunday, reminding everyone that second chances can sometimes change everything.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): This team took a gamble on Sunday and it paid off in a big way as Allmendinger drove the No. 47 straight to Victory Lane and straight to the redemption he’s sought for two long years. The Richard Childress Racing alliance paid off this week, as Allmendinger and Casey Mears had the highest finishes among all drivers in RCR equipment…including the RCR drivers.
Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears fought brake issues for most of the day, but used a combination of strategies to restart inside the top five after the first red flag. Mears fell back after he spun when his brakes caused a wheel-hop, but was able to hang in for his second straight top-15 finish.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier has made a habit lately of having quietly solid race days, and this week was no exception as he drove the No. 51 to his second top-20 finish in two weeks. Both team and driver have been slow to develop in the Cup Series, but they’re showing signs of improvement this summer.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): As they have in recent weeks, Ragan and Gilliland had similarly strong runs this weekend, finishing 19th and 22nd, respectively. Ragan had an up-close view of the scary crash of Newman and McDowell, but didn’t suffer damage and was able to continue.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Sorenson was the top TBR driver this week, but his day wasn’t without incident. Sorenson tangled with Kennedy with four laps to go in a chain reaction from a Denny Hamlin spin up ahead, but the No. 36 was able to continue on to its 23rd-place finish. Annett struggled, finishing two laps down in 31st.
GoFAS Racing; Boris Said (No. 32 Genny Light Ford): The best team you never heard about, Said and Co. had a solid if unspectacular day, finishing 25th, a decent mid-pack finish that was a boost for this team, which has struggled to be competitive.
Randy Humphrey Racing; Nelson Piquet Jr. (No. 77 WORX Ford): Piquet’s return to NASCAR was unheralded, but he gave his team a much-needed and surprisingly solid 26th-place finish. It was the team’s best result in five races this year.
Circle Sport; Kennedy & Landon Cassill (No. 33 MediaCAST Chevy & No. 40 Newtown Building Supplies Chevy): Kennedy was having a quiet enough day, holding his own, when he tangled with Sorenson with just four laps to go as the field stacked up in front of them for a Hamlin spin ahead. Kennedy ended up in the Armco barrier with a broken radiator and a 33rd-place finish. Cassill has a slightly less eventful day, finishing 29th.
Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Land Castle Title Toyota): Watkins Glen is by and large a veteran’s track, and Nemechek is a veteran racer. While it wasn’t a return to his youth or anything equally poetic, it was Nemechek’s best finish of the year with this struggling team and their only top-30 run, and that’s the kind of small success a fledgling team needs to have.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dustless Blasting Toyota & No. 26 Bully Hill Vineyards Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whitt was the first driver to exit the race after a hard crash in which his car ended up lodged under tire barrier lap on lap 10. Whitt had been running 19th at the time and was unhurt in the crash, even showing a sense of humor when he noted that “the last guy to do that has six championships,” referring to Johnson’s now-infamous crash in the same area. Bowman was collateral damage in the lap 55 incident between Greg Biffle, Newman and McDowell. Bowman was not hurt in the crash and was able to go on, but he finished five laps down in 36th. Truex had a better day than Whitt but a worse one than Bowman, as a suspension failure knocked him out of the race 21 laps too early in 39th.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Wise had a quiet day, running mostly in the mid-30s though he climbed as high as 25th. But he ran off the track late and brought out the caution with 12 to go, and that left Wise with his worst finish since Sonoma in June, 38th place.
Leavine Family Racing; McDowell (No 95 K-Love Ford): McDowell’s day ended early after he had a hard crash into the guardrail on lap 55. Newman got clipped by Biffle and turned into McDowell, who hit rear-end first, so hard that his rear end housing and a tire hung on the catchfence like a bizarre crucifix, and nearly flipped before coming to a stop. McDowell had the wind knocked out of him but was otherwise unhurt in the incident. He finished 42nd as a result.