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?
Most of Paul Menard‘s TV airtime came when he brushed the wall with his No. 27 car. It would have been easy to figure the incident ruined his day, and ESPN didn’t do much to change that impression. But when the checkers fell, Menard was in fourth place, his fifth top five of the season. Menard isn’t going to bring Richard Childress multiple titles or even a stack of trophies, but he can bring a car home in a decent spot and gather valuable information for the team. 2014 wasn’t a great year for Menard, who finished 21st in points, but he’s got some momentum now to take to 2015.
What… did it take to win the title?
In the end, it took what Kevin Harvick had all year: the fastest car and the driver with the most hunger to prove himself. From the moment he inked a contract with Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick was a 2014 title favorite and he delivered. Ryan Newman didn’t make it easy, but in the end, it boiled down to what Harvick knew all along: the Richard Childress Racing cars just didn’t quite have the speed it took to win a title. A late-race slip by Denny Hamlin and pit road troubles for Joey Logano left both drivers to wait until 2015 to try again.
The question still remains as to how fans will receive this championship. Even under the former Chase system, Harvick was short, and under a full-season title, he’d have been just fifth, eliminated a week before the finale. Sure he had a great Chase, for the most part, but he also had some hiccups during the season that were part of the story as well. Many fans’ main beef with the Chase is that the best driver all year could be too easily beaten in just a handful of races, and this format puts an exclamation point on that line of thinking. The Chase gave the sense of urgency NASCAR wanted, but did it give fans a champion they can believe in? The jury is still out.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Jeff Gordon took the pole and for much of the night, it looked as though he’d take the race as well, sort of a thumbing of the nose after being eliminated from title contention despite earning more points than any other driver in 2014. Gordon led eight times for 161 laps, but a late race pit call to stay out on old tires came back to bite him as the cautions piled up and he was forced to pit for new Goodyears. He fought back to 10th at the end, his series-leading 23rd top 10 of the season.
Hamlin won at Homestead a year ago, the last time he’s seen victory at a non-restrictor-plate track. Hamlin looked strong on Sunday, leading five times for 50 laps, and had the cautions not fallen the way they did at the end, a decision to stay out when most of the field came in for fresh tires with 15 to go might have paid off. Unfortunately for Hamlin, the race saw two more yellow flags, and new tires proved too much for Hamlin, who wound up seventh.
When… did it all go sideways?
If you’re thinking in Chase terms, then a pair of pit road mistakes for Logano cost the most. Logano had a car fast enough to compete for the title, but couldn’t overcome the track position he lost in the pits. The No. 22 team has had great stops all year, but perhaps the law of averages was the one thing Logano couldn’t overcome.
Another driver looking for a strong finish only to have mechanical gremlin snatch it away was Kyle Busch, who looked for a few weeks like he might finally take a run at the title, but a crash at Talladega not of his making ended his title hopes. Finishes of 34th and 39th in the final two weeks left the driver looking ahead to better days. It was a broken axle this time that finished Busch’s day.
Why… did Harvick win the race?
Remember Harvick’s nickname? Yeah, that nickname: The Closer. A late-race decision to pit for four tires almost took Harvick out of the running, but he worked his way up to sixth. Then a caution flag tightened the field, putting Harvick within striking distance. When it’s been in Harvick’s hands this season, he’s been dominant. He had what was often the fastest car in the field, and it was only mistakes not of his doing that kept him from winning a few more. Once Harvick was in shouting distance of the win and the title that went with it, he wasn’t going to be denied. He had the best car when it counted and he wanted it as much as anyone. That’s never a good combination for the competition.
How… did the little guys do?
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): A top 15 was a great note for this team to finish 2014 on. The organization has shown in the last few weeks that it will be in it to be the best of the small teams in 2015. Rookie driver, rookie owner… it took time, but the payoff is coming.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears finished out the season with a top 20, a decent end to a challenging season. A year ago, that would have been a great finish, but the No. 13 team could have been a tick better this year with RCR equipment. Mears finished a couple spots lower in points than he did a year ago, though his average finish was two spots better than 2013. With a little luck, it could have been a top 20 average.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 K-LOVE/Thrivent Financial Ford): The No. 95 team is trying to make the best of a partial schedule, and it finished out the year on a solid 21st-place run. The addition of McDowell was a positive one. This team is one that could probably improve steadily if it had funding to run a full season.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Feed the Children/Dei Fratelli Chevy): TBR definitely made a step in the right direction in 2014. Though there was the occasional start-and-park effort by the No. 37, the team completed races and found some solid results. This week, Sorenson come home 24th, while Annett struggled a bit and came home 35th after having to start from the rear and serve a penalty for too many men over the wall. The team needs to get both cars on the same page more often in 2015.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dip Your Car Toyota & No 26. Speed Stick Gear Toyota & No. 83 Dip Your Car Toyota): As he has for most of the year, Whitt led the team with his 26th-place run. Both Bowman and Yeley hit the wall during the race, leaving Bowman in 33rd and Yeley in 37th when the checkers flew.
Circle Sport; Brian Scott & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Shore Lodge Chevy & No. 40 Harvey Gulf Chevy): Scott was driving RCR equipment and put it to decent use, finishing 28th, with Cassill just a step behind in 29th in his usual equipment. Cassill has quietly put together a better year than many would have expected, with an average finish almost four spots better than a year ago (inside the top 30) and eight lead-lap finishes. That’s pretty impressive for a team with the resources it has.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 The Pete Store Ford & No. 38 MDS Transport Ford): Gilliland and Ragan are doing one thing right… they’re getting similar finishes most weeks. That’s a sign that the team is on the same page and maximizing their equipment each week, something a small team needs to do to get to the next level. Ragan and Gilliland finished 30th and 31st, respectively.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 PPR98.com Ford): 2014 was a big step for this team, the year where it committed to race every week instead of parking early. That’s a big financial gamble, and it paid off. The team got some publicity by winning the fan vote into the All-Star Race, which in turn got them a few races of sponsorship. Wise finished 32nd Sunday.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 X8 Energy GumToyota): Moffitt had a difficult day almost from the start. He caused a pair of cautions early but was able to finish running, though he was five laps down in 36th.
GoFAS Racing; Blake Koch (No. 32 LeafFilter.com Ford): The No. 32 team is one that would probably be better off with just one driver, at least for the majority of the races. It’s already behind on equipment and it’s harder to catch up when what works for one driver might not work for the rest. For Koch, it was about logging laps and learning, but a late tangle with Yeley sent him home early and in 38th.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Hungry Jack Chevy): A pair of issues for Allmendinger, both involving tires, conspired to drop him to 40th in the race and 13th in points. Allmendinger was disappointed to finish outside the top 10, but he should be proud of his 2014 season. He took a team that was stumbling and turned it into a winner. Anything else was just icing.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne was looking to bring the team that took him to Victory Lane in the 2011 Daytona 500 a great finish in his final race (Bayne moves to Roush Fenway Racing in 2015), but a late incident left him in the garage after completing 204 laps. Ryan Blaney will take over the No. 21 next year.