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?
With the spotlight on his rookie teammate and rumors surrounding his job security swirling, Jamie McMurray put together a run that most of the Chase contenders would have happily taken to the bank Saturday night. McMurray, who holds a strong record at Charlotte Motor Speedway, started 18th but moved into the race lead by lap 100. From there on, he was in the conversation of potential winners. McMurray finished third, his third top-10 run in the last five races, and suddenly, his seat doesn’t look to be in immediate jeopardy. As Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole continues to gain strength, McMurray continues to show why Ganassi has hired him twice in his Cup career.
What… does the Chase picture look like at the halfway point?
It’s likely that not a lot of people’s Chase grids will survive the culling after next week’s race at Talladega. Several early favorites took big hits at Kansas and Charlotte was not any kinder. It’s likely that the Chase will be over for Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson next week at this time unless one of them finds a miracle win at Talladega. Matt Kenseth fell into the fourth elimination spot this week, giving Kasey Kahne a possible reprieve. Beyond the eliminations, points don’t matter much, as they’ll be reset to an eight-way tie next week.
As to why the bottom four are back there, the story varied. Keselowski and Kenseth couldn’t get away from each other; Kenseth’s car suffered damage when trying to make a run on the top and Keselowski blocked him all the way into the wall. Keselowski endured damage when Kenseth showed his displeasure under a later caution and sideswiped Keselowski while passing the field on a free pass.
As for Earnhardt and Johnson, it was problems from within that unraveled the pair. Earnhardt’s shifter lever broke early and he and his team struggled to get it fixed, losing a lap because of speeding penalties and repairs. Earnhardt had a car capable of a good finish, but a known problem that should have been corrected weeks ago undid him. Johnson was in position for a top-five finish when the final caution of the night flew with six laps to go, but a questionable call to take on tires while the other leaders stayed out left Johnson mired in traffic. Johnson was running fourth before the caution and finished 17th. There was palpable tension during Johnson’s radio transmissions for most of the night, and the team is clearly not firing on all cylinders.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kyle Busch started in the top spot, and while it became clear early that he didn’t have a winning car, he certainly had a good one. Busch led three times for 41 laps and finished fifth, giving him a solid cushion heading to the Talladega wild card. The Toyotas are still a step behind, but Busch is in his best position ever for a title. If he can keep it together, he could make a dark horse run.
Keselowski won this race a year ago, and looked like he could be a factor in the 2014 version, but damage to his car from a late tangle with Matt Kenseth and traffic on the final restart dropped the driver of the No. 2 Ford to 16th when the checkers came down. And that’s when the pressure got to Keselowski, a solid favorite when the Chase opened. His post-race actions put his fading title hopes even more in doubt.
When… did it all go sideways?
The race itself was pretty standard fare for a night race on a 1.5-mile track – lots of green-flag runs, clean air giving the leader a cushion, passing at a premium. And then it ended, and all hell broke loose. It’s almost funny, and it is ridiculous. In a nutshell, Keselowski threw a block at Kenseth that took his line away and left both drivers with damage. Kenseth retaliated by sideswiping Keselowski as he passed the field to take the free pass under caution. Keselowski gave Kenseth a slap on pit road as the field pulled in. That got Tony Stewart involved when Keselowski tapped his car in the process of getting to Kenseth, and Stewart followed up by putting his car in reverse and slamming into the front of Keselowski’s car as hard as he could.
Keselowski then followed Denny Hamlin into the garage area, smoking his tires and scattering people in the process. That stemmed from the pair battling for position on the track and then Hamlin brake-checking Keselowski on the cool-down to show his displeasure at how Keselowski raced him. Keseloski tried unsuccessfully to turn Hamlin’s car before they came to pit road, then continued to haze Hamlin afterward. It still wasn’t done after they climbed from the cars as Hamlin was restrained from confronting Keselowski, but Kenseth wasn’t. Kenseth went after Keselowski as he walked to his hauler and appeared to throw fists. Crewmen got involved as well, and it was an ugly end to the night.
The question still hanging after all of this is how NASCAR will react. In the past, they’ve handed down fairly minor penalties for tangling on pit road after the race – Kurt Busch was fined $50,000 and given probation for the remainder of the season after a pit road incident with Ryan Newman at darlington in 2012, so it’s likely that Stewart, and perhaps Hamlin for his part in the cool-down lap confrontations, will face something similar. Kenseth should be facing the same penalty that Marcos Ambrose was dealt for taking a swing at Casey Mears at Richmond earlier this year, which was a $25,000 fine and a month’s probation.
Which leaves Keselowski. Leaving aside his actions in the garage area after the race, the $50,000 fine an probation would have been enough; the real damage had been done for him anyway. But what went down in the garage raises Keselowski’s actions to a whole other level. Witnesses within the garage area said that several people had to scatter to avoid Keselowski’s racecar. Bystanders were put in serious danger by the driver’s actions, and for that, NASCAR needs to be proactive. A hefty points deduction isn’t going to do anything. Keselowski’s already likely to be eliminated if he doesn’t win at Talladega, and if he does, he’ll advance and be tied for the points lead no matter how many points NASCAR takes before the race. Really, the only acceptable solution here would be to park Keselowski next weekend, because it’s the only way to make a real impact.
Why… did Kevin Harvick win the race?
Harvick had the dominant car, but he’s had that several times this year and not closed the deal, often because of mistakes on the part of his team or other things beyond his control. This time, the law of averages caught up with Harvick, and having the fastest car paved the way to Victory Lane without major mishap.
The win has been a long time coming for Harvick. An early title favorite, he’s had speed all year, perhaps more than any other driver. But prior to Saturday, he hadn’t won since Darlington in April. Costly mistakes on pit road and being in the wrong place at the wrong time happened enough that it seemed like Harvick’s title hopes would be derailed.
During his post-race press conference, Harvick said he and the team knew the win would come if they persevered.
“There’s just no way that the bad luck could continue to haunt us like that, and I preach that to these guys and have been around this deal long enough to know that we’re very fortunate to be in the position that we’re in with fast cars and doing the things that we’re doing,” he said. “Sure, we might have to tweak on a few things and tonight we were able to capitalize on all those things we pulled the trigger on. But in the end if you have fast cars the results will come with it. You just have to wait it out.”
For Harvick, the wait is over.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Allmendinger continues to outshine his peers, and his 12th-place finish in Charlotte was no exception. This team has made the most of their technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and though they’re eliminated from the Chase, they continue to exceed expectations.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier is rapidly climbing the learning curve, and he’s getting better every week. He had a solid top-15 run, beating four Chase contenders in the process. He’s not in the same level of equipment as Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon, but he’s separated himself from the other rookies driving similar stuff.
Circle Sport; Timmy Hill & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Retroinfinity.com & No. 40 Chevy): Cassill showed some muscle at Charlotte, finishing a strong 23rd. Yes, he was three laps down, but he still beat a lot of cars to get there. Hill fought a car that was tight in the corners most of night. He finished 36th but brought the car home in one piece, something that is important to an organization that shares one backup car for two teams each week because they don’t have a fleet of cars.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No 7 Cypress HQ Chevy & No. 36 Zing Zang Chevy): Charlotte was a struggle for this improving young team, but they still managed to outperform many of their peers with Sorenson’s 27th-place finish. Annett had tire issues late in the race and fell to 33rd.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Rinnai Toyota & No. 83 Painter’s Ice Cream Toyota): The BK bunch continues to struggle for good finishes, with Whitt leading the way in 28th. Bowman also squeezed in with a top 30. Yeley finished 38th. Perhaps running three cars is spreading them too thin or maybe they need to make driver or crew changes. But whatever the reason, this team has not shown much improvement over the last three seasons.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Pieters Pals/KLOVE Ford): In contrast to BK Racing, this team has shown improvement, though the finishes are somewhat similar. McDowell finished 29th, a spot above his season average, but consider that that 30.6 average finish is up over five positions from the team’s 35.9 in 2013. That’s exactly the kind of improvement the small teams need to make. They’re not going to be top-15 or top-20 teams overnight, but steady improvement can make them, if not contenders for top finishes, viable teams who can race with their peers on a weekly basis.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): The team was searching for speed after a slow start to the weekend. Mears was making progress, moving forward from his 29th-place start, and looking for a top-20 run before contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. left the No. 13 with a severe tire rub. The team had to pit twice to fix the issue, and the chips never fell right to regain the laps they lost. Mears finished a disappointing 31st.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 38 MDS Transport Ford): Neither Ragan nor Gilliland found magic in Charlotte, as neither driver was able to climb out of the 30’s all night long. Gilliland finished 32nd, Ragan 34th, and you can be sure they’re looking forward to Talladega, where a top finish is within reach.
Randy Humphrey Racing; Corey Lajoie (No. 77 Essex Homes Ford): Considering this team was in danger of not making the race this week, any finish was better than going home. Lajoie finished the night in 35th, but for a rookie driver in lower-tier equipment, learning the ropes was an important goal in itself.
GoFAS Racing; Blake Koch (No. 32 Leaf Filter Ford): Like the Nos. 66 and 77, this team had an inexperienced driver at the Cup level, and for Koch, the learning experience was of value, though the team as a whole has been around long enough that finishing 39th isn’t satisfying no matter who’s driving.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 Royal Teak Collection Toyota): Also with a youngster on board this week, the No. 66 team was looking for a finish, and Moffitt did make it to the end, finishing 40th. They’re running outdated equipment from Joe Nemechek’s operation, which didn’t do much better with the veteran behind the wheel.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Provident Metals Chevy): The No. 98 suffered from transmission problems early and lost more than 30 laps fixing the car, got back on track and came home 41st. That alone is a statement for a team that a year ago was a start-and-park. Now, instead of finding reasons not to finish, they’re thrashing to get it done. The good finishes aren’t happening every week, but this team has come a long, long way in 2014.