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?
His run wasn’t perfect, and an ill-timed move late may have ended Jimmie Johnson’s title bid once and for all. But forgive Landon Cassill if he’s not used to running in the midst of late-race competition. For his tiny, underfunded team, a lead lap finish is a great day, and Sunday was a career day for Cassill, who scored his and his team’s first Cup top 10. They got some quality TV time, and the icing on the cake was that Travis Kvapil, driving the No. 33 team car, finished sixth… a storybook ending for a team who rarely has their story told.
What… does the Chase look like after the Talladega eliminations?
Well, almost like it did before the race, except that Kyle Busch found himself fall out of title contention just as talk about his title hopes was heating up. Brad Keselowski pulled a win out of his hat to advance, knocking Busch out of the top eight, along with Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The points reset makes it an eight-way tie at the top, so anything can happen at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.
The aftermath of the latest elimination will be worth following. With four popular drivers out of the hunt, will this Chase format generate more excitement, or will it drive fans away as their favorites are eliminated from contention and therefore from much coverage on race broadcasts? Some fans of the eliminated Chasers have said via social media that they won’t watch the rest of the season with their favorites out, so having others tune in to replace them is important for NASCAR as they begin a new television deal next year. But the bottom line is that making Talladega an elimination race late in the Chase was a terrible idea from the start.
The cut was also an unkind one to Hendrick Motorsports, which saw three of its four teams cut on Sunday, leaving just Jeff Gordon to fight for the title. HMS has been behind in recent weeks, and Kahne barely got into the Chase to start. Johnson’s elimination is probably the hardest for the organization to swallow because it came because of a questionable move by a competitor with a teammate in the Chase and nothing to lose, but whether his team could have pulled it together for back-to-back titles is doubtful as they just aren’t close to the team they were earlier this year.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Brian Vickers had high hopes for the weekend at the scene of his first career Cup win, but this weekend didn’t go the way he hoped. He was caught in a 10-car incident just past the 100-lap marker, and while he got back on track, he finished 20th. Vickers has struggled this year, as has his Michael Waltrip Racing team as a whole. Some off-season changes may be in order to right the ship for Vickers and teammate Clint Bowyer.
Jamie McMurray played Chase spoiler in this race a year ago and was strong early Sunday, though an oil leak from the No. 1 gave the competition fits, and NASCAR ordered his team to fix it. All seemed well after the first round of pit stops, but McMurray got loose and spun in traffic on lap 60, collecting five others. Whether it was his own oil that caused McMurray to spin or not, it left McMurray in 35th at the end of the day, and some others not so happy with him.
When… did it all go sideways?
Honestly, it could have been a lot worse. Remember the demolition derby disguised as the July race at Daytona. This edition of plate racing was much tamer, though it was not drama free.
Things went wrong for a lot of drivers; a total of 20 cars were involved in incidents to some degree, but perhaps no other driver felt the sting as much as Busch, whose title bid ended Sunday after a vicious crash just past the 100-mile mark. To his team’s credit, the No. 18 got back on track, but Busch couldn’t salvage enough points to save himself from elimination after Keselowski took the checkers to rebound. That’s the problem with this race in the Chase and especially as an elimination. It didn’t improve the racing, and because the chance of a driver suffering Busch’s fate through no fault of his own is so much higher, it’s not a great assessment of whether a team is championship worthy.
Why… did Keselowski win the race?
In a race that anyone could have won, what it came down to was Keselowski wanting it more than anyone else and not being afraid to do what it took to get the win. Keselowski didn’t hesitate to make some bold moves, moving rivals out of his way (and sometimes out of line) and breaking others’ momentum with aggressive, well-timed blocking. Even after sustaining damage in an early crash, Keselowski was able to move through traffic, and his aggressive style paid huge dividends. The driver of the No. 2 would have been eliminated from title contention without the win, but his title hopes are alive and well.
How… did the little guys do?
Circle Sport; Kvapil & Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos & No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): Cassill showed what he’s made of on Sunday, running at the front for enough of the race to get some attention from the broadcast, and while he didn’t quite have a winning car, he made the most of the day, finishing fourth. Kvapil also ran in the top five at one point and finished sixth. It’s revealing to see what drivers can do when everything else is closer to equal.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears is another driver whose prowess on restrictor plate tracks can put a team in a great position. Mears ran in the top five after a scare when he felt a bad vibration after the first round of pit stops and looked to be in position to at least replicate his fourth-place finish from Daytona this summer. He slipped a bit on late pit stops but raced his way back to finish 10th.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Golden Corral Chevy & No. 36 Zing Zang Chevy): Sorenson had a strong restrictor-plate race, and his 14th-place finish was his best of 2014. Annett was equally strong for much of the day, but damage from a lap 188 incident left him with little to show for it but a 37th-place result.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dustless Blasting Toyota & No. 26 Bad Boy Mowers Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whitt has been surprisingly strong for most of this season and was again his team’s best finisher in 15th. Yeley got hit from behind by Aric Almirola on lap 103, triggering a crash that involved 10 cars, including Bowman’s machine. Yeley finished 42nd and Bowman 43rd.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Allmendinger qualified third to start his weekend but received damage in the lap 103 Almirola/Yeley crash. His team was able to make repairs and get him back on track on the lead lap, but he wasn’t a contender. He finished 23rd, his worst this month.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Dogecoin / Reddit.com Ford): Wise kept his car in one piece and finished 28th, his worst result on a plate track this year.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Ragan raced his way into the top 10 on a few occasions, while Gilliland struggled a bit this time out. However, the results were much closer; Gilliland edged Ragan by one spot to finish 29th and 30th, respectively. Gilliland’s day was perhaps most notable for his involvement in a late-race crash that ended Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s title hopes.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): There were times that Bayne looked like he could race up front on Sunday, and he did crack the top 10 twice and the top five with less than 10 laps remaining in the scheduled distance. He got shuffled on the late restarts, though, and wound up 32nd, last on the lead lap.
GoFAS Racing; Terry Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Labonte’s last ride began with too little fanfare from media and ended with the two-time Cup champion in 33rd place after damage from a lap 103 incident.
Jay Robinson Racing; Mike Wallace (No. 49 Royal Teak Collection Toyota): The team’s usual No. 66 ride was in use by Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend with Michael Waltrip at the wheel, so the No. 49 took its place with veteran Wallace, one of the best restrictor-plate racers this side of Dale Earnhardt, in the seat. The team battled handling issues early on and never got up to speed; Wallace finished 38th.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 Jordan Truck Sales Ford): McDowell has has some success on the plate tracks, and this week looked to be a chance for a great finish, with McDowell inside the top 10 and top 15 early. Unfortunately, he was involved in a lap 60 incident that left the No. 95 with significant damage and dropped out of the race after completing just 127 laps. He finished 41st.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): After a change in qualifying procedure for restrictor-plate tracks, this team found themselves left out of the show and headed home early after failing to make the cut.