Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Saturday’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?
Many fans watched the race from Bristol Motor Speedway with anticipation. It’s a track where several drivers have a chance to shine, and there were just three more chances for another driver to win his way into the Chase. Could an unexpected winner take away the title hopes of a points warrior? As it turned out, we saw a repeat winner on Saturday, but that wasn’t due to lack of effort by Jamie McMurray. McMurray led three times for a total of 148 laps, the most of any driver, and looked as though he’d give car owner Chip Ganassi a Chase spot. McMurray ultimately finished eighth, but reminded viewers that he can be a threat to win at a track of just about any size and shape.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
Bristol was, well, almost Bristol on Saturday night as tempers flared, Kevin Harvick hit everybody but Brett Bodine in the pace car, and Kyle Busch was angrier at his own team than at the competition, leading to being told by crew chief Dave Rogers to “park it behind the truck and take your whiny little ass back to the bus.” It was a little like the Bristol that used to bring multi-car crashes, cage rattling, and retribution.
But if fans had hoped that having just three races left to win a Chase berth would light a fire under some teams and drive them to take risks and race harder, they were probably disappointed. The Bristol night race, once the hardest ticket in the spot to come by, is the poster child for what a flawed playoff system has done for the sport. Drivers were still racing like they valued points more than a win, or like the risk of payback later in the year just wasn’t worth the risk of being aggressive. There was no bump and run for position in the final laps, no taking out of pent-up frustrations from earlier in the season, just a milder version of a sport that once thrived on short-track competition at its best. The Chase ruined that, just as it has ruined most of the summer racing as well as the championship. It hurts the sport on a weekly basis, and NASCAR’s refusal to admit there’s a problem sends fans the message that the sport doesn’t matter to its own sanctioning body.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick led three times for a respectable 75 laps Saturday night after starting in the top spot. He ran inside the top 10 and top five for most of the night before fading to 11th at the checkers. In some ways, it was a microcosm of Harvick’s season, where, at times, he’s had the fastest car on the track only to slip and struggle when he should have been the best on track.
Matt Kenseth‘s night was also a picture of 2014: he’s been fast enough to win, but just hasn’t been able to put it together. Kenseth had the lead twice Saturday night, including with just 45 laps to go, but his car just wasn’t quite fast enough to hold off Joey Logano. That’s happened to Kenseth more than once in 2014, and it puts him on shaky ground. While he’ll make the Chase on points, there’s no hint of the fierce title contender he was a year ago in this year’s version of Kenseth as Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled mightily to adjust to new rules.
When… did it all go sideways?
It’s been two weeks since the sprint car race that changed the lives of Kevin Ward Jr.‘s family and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart forever. Once Stewart hit and killed Ward, during a race in upstate New York when the young driver walked onto the racing surface under caution, it forever altered his future. Stewart hasn’t stepped into a racecar since the incident, and it’s unclear when – or if – he will again.
But that hasn’t stopped some fans from rallying. This week, with Stewart missing his third straight race a plan was formed for those in the stands at Bristol on Saturday. They would stand in silent salute, on laps 13 and 14 in support of both Ward’s family and of Stewart. (Ward drove the No. 13 and Stewart was in his customary No. 14 on the night of the accident.) Officials from Bristol and from NASCAR supported the move, one which fans hoped would help ease the pain that Ward’s family and Stewart are feeling. It should have been a shining moment for a sport that has long been a singular community.
Instead? The effects were limited to inside the racetrack, all because ESPN refused to show the moment of solidarity.
While play-by-play man Allen Bestwick acknowledged the tribute, about halfway through Bristol’s 500-lap race the point was not expanded upon, inside the booth and no video was shown. It was such a light brush of reporting on the incident some went to social media and accused the network of intentionally ignoring the “rally.”
It’s an omission that leaves me scratching my head. Why would ESPN not acknowledge a moment that exemplifies what the best of the racing community is about? Handling of the Stewart-Ward accident by most non-racing outlets has been irresponsible at best, and ESPN’s ignorance only highlights that running theme. If fans had been planning to stand for only one driver, it might be understandable, but that was not the case.
In a difficult time for everyone involved, maybe seeing that race fans care might have given both the Wards and Stewart a much-needed lift. Why ESPN skirted around the issue is a mystery, one that only serves to make the network look foolish.
Why… did Logano win the race?
Logano worked lapped traffic like a master in the closing laps to hold off a challenge from his teammate. Brad Keselowski couldn’t make a last-lap banzai move stick, and Logano drive under the checkers first for the third time in 2014, moving him into a tie at the top once the points are reset for the Chase in two weeks.
Logano has come into his own as a driver in 2014. His three wins double his previous career total, and more importantly, he’s learned that being careful and patient is just as important as being fast. When he came into Sprint Cup with the nickname of “Sliced Bread,” Logano drove like he had a chip on his shoulder and as though he had no dues to pay. The competition at this level set him straight, and as Logano has stopped trying to live up to a moniker he never asked for, he is showing that he doesn’t need a nickname to show he’s a championship caliber driver at this level.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Chevy): In the Chase, tops in points among the small team drivers, and brought home his eighth top-15 finish of 2014. Things are good for Allmendinger and the No. 47 team after Bristol, where they finished a solid 14th. They may still be a step behind in the Chase, but this team has met the mark for improvement this year at every turn.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Thrivent Financial Ford): Every once in a while you get a glimpse of what some of these drivers are really capable of, and this week, fans were treated to a very good showing by McDowell, who piloted the No. 95 to 18th place – its best non-restrictor plate finish since Watkins Glen and best showing ever on an oval smaller than 2.5 miles.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier, who has struggled somewhat as he adjusts to Sprint Cup and his team adjusts to new ownership, has quietly gotten stronger in recent weeks. This week, Allgaier finished 19th, his third top-20 finish in the last four weeks. This team is showing signs of life in the dog days.
Circle Sport; David Stremme & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 CRC 1-Tank Power Renew Chevy): Like McDowell, Cassill’s Bristol run served notice to a driver whose talent is much deeper than the pockets of his race team. Cassill ran inside the top 20 for much of the middle portion of the race and finished 22nd, beating several drivers with a much higher budget and showing once again that this team is held back not by talent but by dollars. Stremme struggled a bit more than his teammate, finishing 31st and showing that having two teams has its ups and downs. On one hand, there’s more prize money, but it’s still hard to have them both running where they might be able to on their own.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 38 MDS Ford): While this team didn’t thrive at Bristol the way some others did, they continue to be solid in the second half of 2014. Both drivers finished in the top 25, with new dad Ragan in 23rd besting Gilliland by two positions. This team has shown quiet improvement this summer. Ragan tweeted after the race that he felt they could have gotten an even better finish.
After a few adjustments had a solid car all night. Needed a few more cautions to fall our way, and we had a top 20 car. Fun night on to AMS!
— David Ragan (@DavidRagan) August 24, 2014
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Sorenson has shown some improvement in recent weeks, with his 24th-place run this week capping off four races with finishes no worse than 27th, four spots above his season average. Annett struggled all night at Bristol, even before tire issues sent him to pit road under the green flag, which left him with a speeding penalty to compound his woes. Annett finished 38th.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears’ Bristol weekend is probably one he’d like to forget. He finished 26th after starting last due to hitting the wall in qualifying. The weekend got only marginally better for Mears, whose run was his worst since Indianapolis. This team should be running neck-and-neck with the No. 47 bunch – they have the same equipment and drivers and crew chiefs who are fairly equally matched on the talent scale. At times, Mears has run with Allmendinger, but the No. 13 bunch seems to be a step or two behind.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Provident Metals Ford): All things considered, a top-30 result for Wise wasn’t terrible. The No. 98 got spun in heavy restart traffic, dropping Wise to 37th place before he rallied back to 29th at the end of the night.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Sped Stick Gear Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whitt was the best of the BK teammates at Bristol, but his 30th-place finish wasn’t what the team needed during a week where several of their peers had strong runs. Bowman got some TV time during his 32nd-place run, but unfortunately it was for getting into Danica Patrick and bringing out a caution. Bowman tweeted an apology after the race: “So definitely didn’t mean to get into @DanicaPatrick she checked up and her brakes were just better than mine. Did all I could to stop.” Truex, back in the driver’s seat after a concussion kept him out at Michigan, sustained some damage when he was collected in a lap 69 crash and finished 37th.
GoFAS Racing; JJ Yeley (No. 32 Corvetteparts.com/Red buck Cigars Ford): Yeley was in the seat of the No. 32 this week, and he was in for a long night after getting involved in an early crash. He bounced back as high as 31st, but slid to a 37th-place finish at the end of the night.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 Land Castle Title Toyota): Engine failure sent Moffitt packing after just 78 laps. They weren’t drama-free, either; Moffitt was also involved in a chain-reaction incident just 10 laps before his engine gave up.