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?
Racing has never been easy for Brian Vickers. He lost two of his best friends (Adam Petty and Ricky Hendrick) to the sport, with Hendrick’s death occurring on Vickers’s 21st birthday. A series of health issues has sidelined Vickers on a few occasions, with the most recent layoff ending this week. Three months ago, Vickers wasn’t even sure he’d be able to race again after having undergone emergency open-heart surgery to correct an issue with a patch that had previously been placed on his heart to repair a hole. Vickers finished a solid 15th Sunday in his return to the No. 55, and while that might not be the type of finish most teams strive for, the smile on Vickers’s face all weekend sent the message loud and clear that there are different kinds of victory in life, and he’d just scored a big one.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. If that’s true, then it might be time to bring out the white coats for the No. 48 team, who just can’t seem to get their tire strategy down. Whatever they’ve been doing in the last couple of seasons simply isn’t working; driver Jimmie Johnson has had several tire failures in the last two seasons, some of which led to his abysmal 2014 campaign. This week, a pair of tire issues cost Johnson a shot at the win and also derailed Jeff Gordon‘s day as he tagged Jeb Burton while the two were trying to avoid Johnson slamming the wall after the second tire failure of the day. Johnson is as good as ever, and he has great cars, but if his team can’t get the tires figured out, it will be for naught when the Chase rolls around.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Gordon won the pole and looked to be in position to finally shake off the dismal start he’s had to 2014. Unfortunately for Gordon, Danica Patrick couldn’t hold on to her car in the final practice session on Saturday and Gordon had nowhere to go, with the result being a back-up car for Gordon and a last-place start. Gordon drove into the top 10 by mid-race, but the contact with Burton as the two tried to avoid a crashing Johnson left Gordon in 18th at the end of the day. It’s his best finish of 2015, definitely not what was expected for the four-time champion in his final season.
Brad Keselowski struggled with his racecar throughout much of the day. He started 11th and was in and out of the top 10 as his team worked to improving the handling on the No. 2 car. Keselowski and Co. were eventually able to hit on something and use a little pit strategy to save the day, finishing seventh when all was said and done.
When… did it all go sideways?
The race was fairly tame, about par for the 1.5-mile course, but one piece of bad luck ruined the day for a pair of drivers who both could have used the pick-me-up a top finish provides. It started when Carl Edwards lost his tenuous hold on an ill-handling car and slid up the track. Unfortunately, Kasey Kahne had been racing with Edwards on his outside and was pinched hard into the wall. Eight tires were better than four for Edwards, who was able to right his ship momentarily. But as the pair headed into the next corner, Kahne cut down across Edwards’s path and the No. 19 spun into an inside wall.
Was it intentional? Well… it certainly looked that way, though Edwards said he car was already trying to come around on him when Kahne got into the picture. Kahne could have been trying to arc his damaged car into the corner, but the smart money’s on intentional. It’s understandable that Kahne was upset; he had a car that looked strong enough to have a shot at taking on Kevin Harvick for a win, but Edwards’ part in the incident was anything but intentional. Kahne overreacted in the heat of the moment, and at the end of the day, Edwards finished 42nd, Kahne 17th, not the finish either had in mind.
Why… did Harvick win the race?
It probably helped that the only team who looked like they could run with the No. 4 had two flat tires, but Harvick had a car that he could do anything with, all day long. Their string of six straight top-two finishes dates back to last year, and there’s a reason Harvick is the reigning champion. He’s steady behind the wheel, and that’s all his racecar needed Sunday.
The real mystery is why, when Harvick is running up front every week, the rest of Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling mightily. Perhaps a four-team model is too much, perhaps they’re sinking too much time and effort into a driver who can’t keep up, but whatever the problem, SHR as a whole is a step behind the field. They need a little of Harvick’s magic to rub off on the rest of them, and soon.
How… did the little guys do?
Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): Strength at the intermediate tracks is often the most elusive thing for the small teams to find, but these guys have hit on something. With his second-place run in Sin City, Truex now sits a convincing fourth in points. Sure, it’s early, but if they can keep even a moderate pace, this single-car operation could find themselves in the Chase come fall.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Clorox Chevy): Allmendinger was strong all day, advancing from his 22nd-place starting spot to finish sixth. He moves up to fifth in points as well. He’s already proven himself Chase material, but you can bet this team would love another shot at it.
Circle Sport; Brian Scott (No. 33 Whitetail Chevy): Scott quietly gave the No. 33 team a solid top-15 finish. The team gets additional support from Richard Childress Racing when they run an RCR development driver, and that could be the ticket to help bring the team up to speed in the long run.
Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Blaney had a very good race, snagging a 19th-place finish and beating some elite drivers and teams along the way. One of those was the man he replaced. Overall, it was a very good day for Blaney and the team.
Front Row Motorsports; Brett Moffitt & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 Shaw’s Ford & No. 35 Speed Stick Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Gilliland is underrated even among his small-team peers, but he’s this team’s best driver. That often held true even when David Ragan was in the No. 34, and this week, Gilliland was the team’s best finisher in place. Whitt and Moffitt struggled to keep up, finishing 32nd and 37th, respectively. Was a third car too much to handle? That’s a possibility.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): One test of a team’s progress is how they rebound from adversity, and this team stumbled badly in that area this week. A terrible call to take two tires under the competition caution resulted in Mears falling from eighth to a lap down and never being able to recover a good finish. They were capable of a top-15 run, and were one of the fastest cars in the final practice session. Had they played it safe on that stop, it would likely have been much prettier than the 25th-place result they got. They’ll need a win to make the Chase.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 KLOVE Ford): It’s a bit of a contradiction to say that McDowell’s 30th-place run wasn’t bad after criticizing the No. 13 for finishing 25th, but the two teams are not in the same place in their development. The No. 95 is on a part-time schedule and was starting-and-parking not long ago, so that 30th-place is a building block. The trick now is to lay down more of them each time they race.
HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Cypress Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): A pair of penalties hurt Allgaier’s run on Sunday. First, the driver had to start at the tail end of the field for men over the pit wall too soon, and later had to come back to pit road for a sway bar issue when NASCAR deemed it a safety hazard. Allgaier finished 31st. Annett also faced mechanical gremlins, and finished 10 laps down in 39th. This team should be able to find their stride, though, as they grow.
BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Burton (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 23 Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota): A two-car effort after Matt DiBenedetto missed the show in the No. 83, the BK duo struggled on Sunday. Yeley never found his mojo, winding up seven laps down in 36th. Burton tangled with Gordon when he slowed to avoid Johnson’s crash, and the resulting damage relegated him to 40th place.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): With fresh rumors of sponsor dollars swirling, Wise could use the boost. He finished 34th on Sunday. That’s five spots better than he started, and his team has shown some flashes of better days, so it could have been worse, and some dollars could make those bright spots bigger and more frequent.
Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): This team has struggled to get their feet under them so far. After suffering engine failures in the first two races, Cassill struggled to a 35th-place finish, six laps down. They had some strong runs last year, so there is plenty of hope that they can turn it around.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 South Point Chevy): The team announced that they won’t continue to run the No. 66 after Mike Wallace failed to qualify this week. That’s probably a good move. Robinson looks to be in over his head with a two-car effort and he’ll be better served concentrating on Gaughan’s team, which has support in the form of Gaughan’s family business. Gaughan is a good enough veteran driver to help the team pull through the growing pains. They ran this week, par for the course for an underfunded new team, but the real test will be where they’re finishing in six months.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 7 Nikko/Toy State Chevy): Bowman suffered an engine failure during the competition caution on lap 25 and headed to the garage, finishing last. It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Bowman, who has shown some speed at times.