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?
Several drivers had noteworthy nights in Atlanta, but one surprisingly quiet run was that of Danica Patrick, whose sixth-place finish was a career best for the second-year driver. Patrick’s top 10 was not given a ridiculous amount of airtime on ESPN, surprisingly enough. But she deserves credit for putting together a very good finish at a place that wasn’t kind to anyone Sunday night. A solid top-15 contender throughout, she navigated the final series of restarts well and has momentum to build on coinciding with her co-owner Tony Stewart’s return to the racetrack.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
A rash of track repaving in recent years has affected the competition at several venues in NASCAR. Atlanta Motor Speedway, however, was not among the tracks with new surfaces, and that old asphalt played a definite role on Sunday night. Tires wore out quickly, seams in the pavement upset cars, and changes in temperature made a difference in handling. Those are all good things when it comes to the quality of racing, creating differences in speed that allowed cars to pass late in a run. While some drivers paid the price for worn tires and the slick surface, it’s a part of the game that’s been missing at many venues where the asphalt is new, ultra fast, and easy on teams and setups.
It’s inevitable that tracks will need to repave their surfaces at some point, and competition will improve as time wears them out again. But the tracks that are worn have by and large given fans the best shows, a running theme that their owners should take notice of going forward.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick almost made lightning strike twice. Harvick took the pole at Atlanta and handily won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night. Late in the evening, he was second and closing on Kasey Kahne, but a pair of cautions and a restart backup left Harvick with a damaged car after a brush with the wall. He finished 19th, but had a much better car than that, leading a race-high 195 of 325 laps.
Kyle Busch won this race last year, but this time, he made the highlight reel for an entirely different reason. After turning Martin Truex Jr. into the wall in the closing laps, Busch’s wreck set up a green-white-checkered finish and nearly delivered a win to his teammate Matt Kenseth. Truex was waiting at Busch’s car to discuss the incident, after the race, and several other drivers were unhappy with the driver of the No. 18 as well. Busch finished 16th.
When… did it all go sideways?
It was already frustrating for Harvick, who had been the class of the field most of the night. Kahne was leading in the closing laps in a last-ditch effort to make the Chase, using lapped traffic to his advantage, hitting his marks and essentially doing all he needed to turn a season-long run of bad luck around as Harvick did his best to reel Kahne back in. Then, with the laps ticking down, Busch decided to put Truex Jr. into the wall and then come back for more, running into the No. 78 a second time. (Truex was as perplexed as anyone over the incident, wondering aloud on his radio, “What the hell was that for?”) Busch’s actions turned the tide for Harvick, who got into the wall on the subsequent restart when Paul Menard could not get going in front of him.
Busch’s move was clearly intentional, but was there more to it than a driver being angry late in the race? After the incident, Kenseth — Busch’s teammate and the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver without a win in 2014 — came off of pit road with the race lead. After a team orders scandal a year ago, there was certainly no overt one during the race. But was it more than a simple late-race incident? It certainly looked like it could have been as Kenseth almost took the win.
Meanwhile, what started as the biggest story of the weekend did not have a happy ending as Stewart, back at the track for the first time since his involvement in a fatal accident three weeks ago, saw his night end early after a tire failure. Stewart, who received a huge ovation from the fans in attendance when he was introduced for the race, was moving forward early, showing speed to contend with the leaders. But contact with Busch put his No. 14 in the wall, hurting the aero and then Stewart’s right front tire let go on lap 172, finishing his night off in 41st place.
For Stewart, being at the track may have been the best medicine as he works through grief that comes from the sprint car incident that left Kevin Ward Jr. dead and Stewart at the center of a firestorm of questions and accusations. Drivers and crew members welcomed Stewart back to his extended racing family, and though the driver was visibly emotional, he also looked relieved to be back to the place where he feels most at home. Stewart’s return was a feel-good story; it just didn’t have the fairy-tale ending many fans were hoping for.
Why… did Kahne win the race?
Kahne knew his Chase hopes were fading, and he had to win to secure himself a spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Kahne’s team improved the handling of his car all night long, and he found himself leading the race with 22 laps to go. When the caution flew just before the white flag, Kahne found himself restarting in fifth for the green-white-checkered. He avoided a melee on the restart and on the final green flag of the night, the driver simply muscled his way past Kenseth to take the win, the giant toothbrush, and the Chase berth.
Kahne has sat at the center of the rumor mill with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings at Hendrick Motorsports, creating some speculation that Elliott would replace him in the No. 5 next year if he couldn’t win or make the Chase. Kahne has, at least, bought himself a little time, but he has a long way to go if he wants to stay in the No. 5 after 2015.
How… did the little guys do?
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 St. Jude’s Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Annett was top of the class for the small teams this week, pulling in a 21st-place result, his best since Daytona and just two laps off winner Kahne’s pace. Sorenson ran 29th after fighting handling issues all evening, while Mike Bliss drove a third entry for the team and start-and-parked.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears was caught on pit road by the caution flag early and rebounded from a 40th-place restart, winding up 22nd. His result showed that this team’s most difficult tracks are still the 1.5-milers that dominate the series.
Circle Sport; Ty Dillon & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Realtree Chevy & No. 40 Newtown Building Supplies Chevy): Dillon was running Richard Childress Racing equipment and had RCR crew members as well, so it’s hard to classify him as a true small-team driver. But Dillon had a respectable top-25 run in his Cup debut, finishing just one spot behind brother Austin. Cassill, who is having a surprisingly strong season in his No. 01 Nationwide ride, finished 31st in the No. 40 this week.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Auto Owners Insurance Chevy): Allgaier had a fair run, finishing 26th. It’s not as strong as he’s been in recent weeks, but this team is making some gains since the beginning of the season. Will the firestorm over the Turner Scott demise, involving owner Harry Scott in both the Nationwide and Truck series serve as a distraction here?
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Farm Rich Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): The teammates ran together on Sunday night, and though they finished 27th and 28th, respectively, it shows they’re on the same page, giving them a starting point for improvement.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Rinnai Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): It’s no surprise that Whitt was the best of the BKR teammates again this week, finishing 30th. Bowman and Truex ran 35th and 36th, respectively, with Bowman two laps ahead of Truex, who spun on lap 117 but did go on to finish the race.
GoFAS Racing; JJ Yeley (No. 32 Southern Pride Trucking Ford): Yeley finished 32nd, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Yeley managed to gain nine spots throughout the race after starting 41st.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Wise suffered some damage after a dustup with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski after Hamlin’s badly-timed move toward pit road. Running seven laps back, in 33rd Wise did go on to finish the event.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 Royal Teak Toyota): Moffitt finished 34th in his fourth career Cup start, a respectable day running for one of the smallest teams on the circuit.
Randy Humphrey Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 77 Fochler Veterans Law Ford): Nemechek and Co. struggled all night, losing multiple laps early and winding up 37th, three spots worse than they started. 11 laps off the pace was the best this team could do as they continue to run a limited schedule on the Cup circuit.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Hungry Jack Chevy): Allmendinger was one of the drivers who had tire issues early in the race, as a flat right-front brought out a caution for debris. Allmendinger would get back on track, but a vibration later in the race finished him off once and for all in 40th.