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 top-10 run might not have been noticed at all if it wasn’t for a late-race battle with Ryan Newman, but Marcos Ambrose was there at the end, finishing 10th after a door-to-door battle with Kyle Larson as the white flag flew. Ambrose has just one race left in his NASCAR career, after which he’ll return to Australian V8 Supercars next season. He’d like to go out with a win, but a finish like he had at Phoenix isn’t a bad note in his swan song.
What… does the championship picture look like with one race to go?
One thing is certain: NASCAR fans will see a first-time champion in 2014. It’s up to Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano Kevin Harvick and Newman to get the highest finish at Homestead to decide who gets bragging rights for the next year. It came down to a last-lap shove of Larson by Newman to set the final four, and there was plenty of drama on the way there in the final elimination race of the season. Logano has five wins and Harvick four. Hamlin has one at a restrictor-plate track, and Newman has zero. It’s an odd group of would-be champions, and probably not one on many people’s brackets.
The question remains, though, how the 2014 champ will be received. Looking at points earned by the drivers in 2014, there’s a real discrepancy with the way things shake out after NASCAR’s resets: the driver who earned the most points through 35 races was eliminated in Phoenix, while Hamlin is just 14th in that category. Newman hasn’t won a race, but perhaps more significantly, has just four top-five finishes all year. In fact, Newman hasn’t won a race since July of 2013, hasn’t even finished second in that time, and he knocked out a guy who finished second twice in the last three weeks. Would either of those drivers as champion be legitimate for most fans, casual or not? Of the four competing for the title, only Logano would be eligible under a full-season points tally, and he’d be a fairly distant second. The Chase format was created after the champion had only one win en route to a title (Matt Kenseth), but this format makes the winner seem less worthy to many fans. Is that a distinction NASCAR can afford to live with long term?
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Hamlin started first and, for a while, it looked as though he had the car to beat, but once he was caught in traffic after a round of pit stops, Hamlin became a mere mortal, falling a lap down at one point. He was despondent on the radio afterward, but was able to shake it off and move his way forward, back into fifth place at the checkers and more importantly for his team, into the final round of the Chase.
Harvick won at Phoenix last fall and again this spring, so it’s safe to say he’s got the place figured out. This time around, Harvick led three times for 264 laps, and his dominant performance brought him the win at the end of the day.
When… did it all go sideways?
As far as the race goes, several drivers had disappointing days, but perhaps none quite so much as Casey Mears, who played a bit of the spoiler in qualifying, knocking Carl Edwards out of the top 12. Mears was easily maintaining his position throughout the first quarter of the race and looked as though he could take a top 15 for his single-car operation, but a cut tire sent him spinning on lap 81 and though his team scrambled to make repairs, he lost a handful of laps. The No. 13 bunch stayed in it and gained a few spots back by the end, but it was a heartbreaker of a day for a small team with high hopes.
In the overall picture, though, the ugliest incident of the day was Newman’s last lap punt of Larson. On one hand, a chance at the title was on the line for Newman, who needed just one position – Larson’s – to make the cut into the final four at Homestead. On the other hand, intentionally ramming someone for 11th place just isn’t the same as a banzai move for a race win. Putting a guy in the wall for a good points day just seems a little cheap, and Newman’s move was a bit hard to swallow, because knowing why he made it doesn’t quite make up for the fact that he made it. It’s hard to put the blame entirely on Newman, though… this type of thing was what NASCAR paved the way for with the Chase format, and if it wanted more crashes, the sanctioning body got its money’s worth this fall.
Why…did Harvick win the race?
It might be safe to say that Harvick has Phoenix figured out. The win marks his third straight at the 1-mile oval. Sometimes a driver’s style fits a track perfectly, and that’s become the case for Harvick. His cars don’t hurt; Harvick has had some of the fastest in the field all year long, and when his luck matches his machines, watch out. Harvick was a title favorite from the moment he strapped into a Hendrick-built, SHR-prepared Chevy, and he’s 400 miles from making it happen.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 GLAD Trash Bags Chevy): Allmendinger was the best finisher among this group at Phoenix. Though he struggled with rear grip, he was able to finish 16th.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Ragan led a couple of laps, and the pair finished out the day in the top 25. That’s not a perfect weekend, but it is a solid one for Front Row. Moving from top 30s to top 25s might not seem like a big step, but for an underfunded team, it shows improvement, and this team has had some of that in 2014.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Accell Construction Chevy & No. 36 Flasr.com Chevy): TBR is another team that has made some improvements in 2014. This week, Annett finished a lap down in 26th and grabbed a bonus point for leading a lap. Sorenson finished 28th. There was a time when two top 30s was a stretch for this team, so they’re moving in the right direction.
Circle Sport; Ty Dillon & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Charter Communications Chevy & No. 40 Newtown Building Supply Chevy): Dillon borrowed the No. 33 this week, which is to say he was running a Richard Childress Racing-prepared car. He might have taken a little pride in beating brother Austin with his 27th-place run, though a tangle with Josh Wise meant Dillon didn’t have an uneventful day. Cassill was running his usual car, and as he often does, was having a fairly solid day. He was working his way into the top 30 when he had a tire go down in the closing laps. It didn’t cost Cassill too much; he only fell to 29th when the checkers flew.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dumb & Dumber To Toyota & No. 26 16T feulxx/Tapout Muscle Recovery Toyota & No. 83 Dumb & Dumber To Toyota): Yeley was the only BK driver to nab a top 30, finishing 30th. Bowman finished 32nd, while Whitt was caught up in a crash mid-race and relegated to 42nd, his worst finish since Watkins Glen.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 KLOVE Radio Ford): McDowell didn’t set he the world on fire, but he did have a drama-free day By the end, he gained a few spots over where he’d been running mid race. There’s not a lot to love about finishing 31st, but the LFR team battled all day and improved its position. That is a positive, whether the result is what the organization wanted or not.
GoFAS Racing; Joey Gase (No. 32 Zimmer.com Ford): While the No. 32 team doesn’t have the funding to take a young driver to the next level, it has given a few youngsters a stepping stone to learn the feel of a Cup car and gain experience on different tracks. Gase finished four laps down in 33rd, but he got some quality seat time and learned something for next time.
Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Sunday should have been a banner day for the No. 13 team after Mears qualified 12th and was running easily in the top dozen early on, but a right-rear tire missed the memo. Mears spun on lap 81 and though his team scrambled to make repairs, he finished 35th.
Jay Robinson Racing; Mike Wallace (No. 66 Toyota): Wallace brought the No. 66 home 36th on Sunday after a late-race spin to avoid Cassill after his tire blew in the closing laps.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier has had some strong runs this fall, but Phoenix wasn’t one of them. Contact with Jimmie Johnson under the first round of pit stops significantly damaged the No. 51, Allgaier spent several laps while his team made repairs to the left-rear quarterpanel and bumper cover that had been knocked loose. Struggling the rest of the day even fueling the car, he finished 10 laps down to the winner in 37th.
Phil Parsons Racing; Wise (No. 98 PPR98 Ford): Wise got together with Ty Dillon at lap 206, and that meant an early exit for the team. Considering that a year ago, that exit would have been a planned one, the No. 98 team has certainly come a long way in 2014.