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?
If you didn’t see this top-10 finish coming, you’re not alone. Kyle Larson was having a decent enough day, running in the mid-teens for most of the event, but he certainly didn’t look like he has at times this year, when he’s come tantalizingly close to Victory Lane. But Larson and his team played it smart during the rash of late cautions, had some solid pit stops and strategy, and came away with a seventh-place finish. It may not have been spectacular, but it’s the kind of run than wins championships. Is it a sign of what’s to come?
What… does the Chase picture look like with two races to go?
The standings are close enough that anything could happen in the final elimination next week in Phoenix, which could raise more questions about the legitimacy of the title format depending on who advances. This week provided some drama to keep it interesting. Joey Logano spun in the late going and looked like he might fall out of the top four, but he leaves Texas with the lead after Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth all had issues as well. Denny Hamlin turned a lackluster day into a top-10 finish and a second-place points spot. Newman and Gordon hang on in third and fourth, but by just a couple of markers over Kenseth.
After the smoke cleared, the two best of 2014 still stand within striking distance of the title. It got a little tougher for Gordon, who will need a stellar performance next week, but he’s by no means down and out. The rest of the top eight are a bit of a study in inconsistency with Hamlin the most notable beneficiary of the system: in a season-long points count, he’s just 17th. Will fans buy in if Hamlin wins it all? Behind the smoke and mirrors of the postrace drama, that’s a question NASCAR should be asking.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kenseth won the pole and was strong for most of the race, looking like he might be able to take himself out of the winless champion debate for this year. Kenseth led twice for a total of 59 laps, second most of any driver, ran inside the top 10 for most of the race, and was in the mix until a late restart where he was in the middle of a four-wide sandwich and bounced off Newman, causing a tire rub. Kenseth was able to make repairs under caution but fell to 25th at the end.
Jimmie Johnson won this race in both 2012 and 2013, and this year he made it a trifecta, winning on a wild green-white-checkered run, holding off title contenders Keselowski and Harvick to take the checkers by a half-second over Harvick.
When… did it all go sideways?
Things got a little crazy late in the race. Cautions bred cautions, and things came to a head on the first of two green-white-checkered attempts when Keselowski attempted to thread the needle between Johnson and Gordon, who were racing for the lead. Gordon tried to close the gap, and he and Keselowski touched, leaving Gordon with a flat tire that led to another caution when Gordon spun.
Things got heated on pit road after the race when Gordon confronted Keselowski. It looked as though the two might separate, but Harvick got in on the act by shoving Keselowski towards a sea of crewmen. Both Keselowski and Gordon were bleeding after the skirmish. If NASCAR wanted this points format to create drama, it’s certainly getting the desired result.
But NASCAR needs to tread carefully here. If neither Gordon nor Keselowski threw a punch, then the sanctioning body can probably let it go, because they let Kenseth off the hook a few weeks back in Charlotte for jumping on Keselowski from behind. However, if either driver did throw a punch, that driver needs to receive a fine and probation. That makes this mess a sticky wicket, though. because Keselowski was on probation already from a garage incident in Charlotte. The last guy who violated a NASCAR probation was suspended for one race. If Keselowski threw a punch, he should receive the same, but to do that would be to eliminate him from title contention. Is that a decision NASCAR is willing to make?
Why… did Johnson win the race?
It would be easy to credit Johnson’s dominant car (he led nine times for a total of 191 laps) or his pit crew, which came up big on the money stop, getting Johnson out of the pits first. But in the end, the driver of the No. 48 held off all comers on the final green-white-checkered run. Johnson outdrove the competition when it counted to take his 70th career victory, and that’s something we’ve not seen much of the second half of this season as setups and strategies haven’t worked out for him. This time, the race was in his hands and not the hands of his team, and Johnson came through.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Clorox Chevy): Allmendinger had a fair start to the weekend, starting 23rd, but by the end of the night, he was at the top of the charts among his peers, finishing 14th. He fell out of the top 10 in points, landing in 12th after Johnson moved up with his win.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): After starting 38th, Mears fought handling issues from the start and had a vibration before halfway. However, he was able to use solid strategy to gain some ground at the end and turn what could have been a terrible weekend into an 18th-place finish.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Dallas Convention & Visitors’ Bureau Chevy): Allgaier has been on a bit of a roll lately, and he kept right on rolling in Texas, posting his third straight top-20 run.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Cypress HQ Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): Annett was able to use some late-race strategy to bring home a 22nd-place finish. In the scheme of things, top 25s are exactly the building blocks for more improvement this team needs right now. Sorenson never did find the speed he needed, though, and had to settle for 33rd. Two teams inside the top 30 each week would be a great goal for this team looking to 2015.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Speed Stick Gear Toyota & No. 83 Zak Products Toyota): Whitt’s team showed the same surprising strength that’s become its trademark this year, pulling one out of the hat on pit strategy for 26th after starting 40th. Yeley came home 31st, still a little behind where this team should be this year but better than it has been a lot of weeks. Bowman’s engine went south after just 245 laps, leaving him in 42nd.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Tommy Williams Drywall Ford): McDowell’s weekend wasn’t anything to write home about with a 28th-place start and a 30th-place finish. Still, his team overall has had a decent season, running a partial schedule to maximize resources.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): It was a return to Earth this week as Ragan’s top 10 at Martinsville turned into a 32nd at Texas. Both Ragan and Gilliland struggled with handling Sunday, searching for grip. Gilliland came home 34th.
Circle Sport / Hillman Racing; Timmy Hill & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 Chevy): Hill had the better day for this pair, but it wasn’t a great one. He finished 35th, but as he usually does, he took good care of his equipment, which is always important for a team that has one backup car for two drivers. Cassill lost his engine at lap 134 and finished 43rd as a result.
GoFAS Racing; Joey Gase (No. 32 24/7 E-Cigs Ford): Gase started last and finished 37th, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the rookie stayed out of trouble and logged some laps to learn from. He’s no Larson, but he’s not in Larson’s equipment either.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne never had a great day going, running in the mid-20s to around 30th for most of it, but a tangle with Kasey Kahne on lap 320 knocked him out of the race in 39th spot.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 Vydox Toyota): Moffitt struggled all day long, but a crash at lap 296 put him in the garage for good in 40th.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Provident Metals Chevy): Wise also had a tough day. A brush with the wall ended his day early in 41st, but that was about where he’d been running for most of the race. It’s been a surprisingly good year for this group, but Sunday was one they’d like to forget.