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?
There’s been a question about the performance, or lack thereof, of substitute drivers this year, but Brett Moffitt paid no attention to that conversation. Moffitt, filling in for Brian Vickers in the No. 55 this week, used a late-race pit gamble to gain track position. Staying on track while most of the leaders elected to take fresh rubber, Moffitt was able to hang on to a top 10 finish, coming home eighth. Unlike some of the other subs in the discussion, Moffitt was only in the car for one race (Vickers returns to the seat next week following offseason open-heart surgery), and he certainly made the most of that opportunity.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
Scheduling a race in Atlanta in (very) early March didn’t seem like a great move in the first place, and this weekend’s Cup action put an exclamation point on that sentiment, as temperatures in the 40s and a rain delay were unkind to fans and difficult for teams. Tire wear was a problem for some, with an old surface and lack of rubber build-up thanks to the rain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. Tire management is a skill and all part of what race-day strategy should be about, but it definitely affected the racing and the outcome for some.
As usually demonstrated at the restrictor-plate tracks (of which Atlanta Motor Speedway is not), one spinning car can still pick up a few more before it comes to rest, and that happened when Denny Hamlin lost it on his own and spun in traffic, collecting Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon. Hamlin, McMurray and Gordon all suffered heavy damage, but worse was the momentary déjà vu when Gordon slammed into a section of inside wall that was not covered with a SAFER barrier. Gordon walked away from the crash, obviously upset about the unprotected concrete wall, but in one piece. Social media lit up with comments about how inexcusable it is not to have SAFER barriers on all exposed concrete, but perhaps the most poignant came from Kyle Busch, who broke his right leg and left foot last week in Daytona after hitting a concrete barrier.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) March 1, 2015
That wasn’t the biggest incident of the day, as Greg Biffle lost his car and triggered a multi-car incident that collected at least eight when all was said and done. But it will be the one that NASCAR remembers as the call to improve safety only grows louder.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Joey Logano kicked things off from the pole, and at the beginning of the day, his car was on rails, making it look as though Logano might go back-to-back to open the season, However, the handling went away as the laps wore on and other teams were able to adjust better than the No. 22 this week. Logano still finished fourth, and leads the points by one over Jimmie Johnson, so all was not lost. Considering just how far he’s come, it’s safe to say that Logano is going to be a threat for the title again this year.
Kasey Kahne looked like he’d be there at the end of the race, though he didn’t look quite strong enough to back up his race-winning performance from last fall. Still, a top 10 would have made a good weekend for the No. 5 team, who has struggled to find consistency for a couple of seasons. Unfortunately, a tire penalty late and the pass-through penalty that resulted left Kahne a lap down. He didn’t have time to get his lap back, finishing 14th, first among those a lap down to the leaders.
When… did it all go sideways?
It would have taken a spaceship landing on the backstretch and aliens joining the crown in the stands to have something go down that was a bigger debacle than Friday’s qualifying session. Several cars were held up in NASCAR’s laser inspection station, and as a result, 13 teams missed the first round of time trials. For some, like Gordon, Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, that meant taking a provisional starting spot and having to come from behind, which those teams were able to do. But for others, it meant being sent home without having the chance to prove themselves.
In the end, the responsibility for the whole thing lies with NASCAR. While it is on the teams to have their cars right, there were a couple of things that made the story about more than a few teams trying to push the envelope. First, the sheer number of teams who didn’t make it through the laser makes it look as though there may have been an issue with the inspection equipment. Cars weren’t having difficulty passing the template or other areas, just the lasers. Second, NASCAR should have done a better job of policing how teams were sent back through. If some had the opportunity to go through a third time while others didn’t get through twice, that is a problem. NASCAR’s job is to create a fair playing field, and that means all teams should have an equal opportunity. In other words, if one car is allowed to go through tech a second time, qualifying should be held off until all cars who need to are given a second pass. Same with a third attempt… it needs to be all or nobody, especially with the second pass.
Further clouding the issue is the reports of some teams that NASCAR gave up and turned the lasers off for the last few cars that did squeeze through. NASCAR denies it, and as with any cans of he said, she said, the truth isn’t easy to ascertain. In any case, as soon as one car was put through the process a second or third time, all should have been afforded the same, especially since the evidence strongly suggests that the original problem may have been with NASCAR’s equipment.
Why… did Johnson win the race?
One thing Johnson and his team have always done and done well is to make a racecar better as a race goes on, and this week was no exception. Starting from the back after missing qualifying due to NASCAR’s technical issues, Johnson drove to the front immediately, and from there his team was able to turn what they thought was a top-10 car into a winner.
Another things that played into Johnson’s hands was the new rules package that took effect this weekend. A lighter car with less downforce makes for a car that a driver has to manhandle a bit, something Johnson has always done well. He prefers a car on the loose side, and this new package is right in his wheelhouse. If he and his team can keep up with it as the season goes on, he’ll have a say in this year’s title, something that couldn’t be said for Johnson in 2014.
How… did the little guys do?
Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): Truex followed up his eighth-place finish at Daytona with a sixth at Atlanta, running in the top 10 for most of the race. He’s now fifth in driver points, the highest a driver for FRR has ever been.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Better Than Bouillon Chevy): Allmendinger also had a great day, finishing seventh after starting just outside the top 10 in 11th. This team looks to be picking up where they left off a year ago. Along with Truex, Allmendinger made the most of the team’s technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, outrunning the better-funded RCR drivers.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears had a fast car, posting strong speeds in practice session, but he started 21st and wasn’t able to move forward as easily as his team hoped. Mears scraped the wall at one point, but recovered to drive a smart race, recovering from a bad call where, trying to lead a lap, the No. 13 pitted late on a cycle with just under 100 laps to go and lost a lap as a result. Mears recovered to finish 15th, and he’s currently sixth in points.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Annett had the kind of day that’s become the norm for him, running among the better small teams and also in the top 20 overall, finishing in 20th. Look for this to be Allgaier’s trend in his sophomore season. New teammate Michael Annett was one of the those bitten by the technical SNAFU before qualifying and as a result, the No. 46 didn’t make the race, though Annett took over the No. 33 for the weekend.
Front Row Motorsports; Joe Nemechek & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 35 Rinnai Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): As has often been the case in the last two seasons, Gilliland was the team’s best finisher with his 22nd-place result. The upper 20s is where this team needs to be finishing on a regular basis, and Gilliland delivered this week. Nemechek didn’t fare as well, finishing 33rd in his FRM debut. Whitt ran in the lower 20s for a chunk of the day, but his engine couldn’t go the distance, and he exited after 295 laps in 37th.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 7 Toy State/Nikko Chevy): This team showed they could produce some top-25 finishes with Annett in the seat last year, and they backed that up this weekend, with Bowman driving to a fairly stout 23rd place.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Thrivent Financial Ford): McDowell finished at what was probably this team’s upper limit, in 27th, so call it a decent enough day. Remember, for a small team, improvement means going from top-35 finishes, to top 30s, to top 25s and it doesn’t happen overnight. 27th isn’t bad of a part-time team who was starting and parking two seasons ago.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brendan Gaughan (No 62 Chevy): Robinson’s Xfinity Series teams have always been low-budget affairs and performed accordingly. With one of two cars sent packing early when Mike Wallace failed to qualify, Gaughan was his owner’s only representative on Sunday. Gaughan didn’t drive a bad race, and his 28th-place finish isn’t terrible for this team. Again, it’s about small steps.
Circle Sport; Annett (No.33 Pilot Flying J Chevy): Annett hanged rides after the qualifying debacle Friday, taking over the ride from Brian Scott, who’s not competing for Cup points this year. This team runs on a smaller budget than Annett’s HSM operation, but Annett was able to give the team a top 30, finishing 29th, and that’s actually better than they’ve fared with some other drivers, so all in all, the temporary takeover turned out okay.
GoFAS Racing; Mike Bliss (No. 32 Rimrock Design Ford): With its revolving door of drivers, this team hasn’t made the forward progress of some of its counterparts. Perhaps a little continuity would help point the organization in the right direction; Bliss finished 31st this week, which, if they could finish in that same bracket each week, would be a foundation to start from.
Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): This is a team that could take that next step this season if things work out. Wise finished 32nd in Atlanta, but he showed last year that he can snag some top 30s. In order to make the next step forward, they’ll need a few more of those this year.
BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Jeb Burton & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota & No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota): The BK team, which showed promise a couple of years ago, appears to have taken a step back recently. DiBenedetto never had the chance to make a qualifying run, and while both Yeley and Burton made the show this week, they finished 34th and 35th respectively.
The Motorsports Group; Ron Hornaday Jr. (No. 30 Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy): Hornaday called it a race after 187 laps, finishing 42nd and citing rear gear failure. Usually, that’s just a euphemism for starting and parking, so we’ll have to watch this team to see what their intentions are in the coming weeks.
Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Snap Fitness Chevy): For the second week in a row, Cassill was forced to retire early after an engine failure and finished 43rd on the day. This team will get some decent finishes if they can get the bugs out of the engines.