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?
Teams are now three weeks deep into the 2015 rules package and some seem to have them figured out, while others struggle to find a balance for their drivers. So, you could certainly excuse Kurt Busch if it took him a few races to catch up. Coming off a three-week suspension, Busch had yet to drive the newest version of the racecar in competitive conditions, and overall, with the notable exception of Kevin Harvick, they’ve thrown his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates a curveball. But Busch stepped into his No. 41 like he’d never been gone, running fast in practices and qualifying eighth. Busch ran easily inside the top 10 all day long, fighting Harvick for the lead late in the race. A late stop for tires took away Busch’s chance to win, but he charged back to fifth by the time the checkers flew, showing an outstanding performance for a driver who started the season a month behind his competition.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
While in general, the tires Goodyear brought this week were decent – there was rubber on the track as they ran and not a huge rash of failures – a few teams still felt the sting of tire failures. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Stewart all had extensive damage to their cars following flat tires. Knowing a tire is going down is a terrible feeling for a driver, because he knows it’s likely to ruin his day in one way or another. If it’s a catastrophic failure, he’s likely to end up in the wall or the side of another car. If it’s a leak or equalized inner liner, it means an unscheduled trip to pit road that can be impossible to overcome.
But the conundrum for Goodyear doesn’t end with making a tire that doesn’t fail. Make it too hard and resistant to damage, and it doesn’t wear. Tire wear is an integral part of race strategy, and if it’s not there, it makes for subpar racing. Tires should ideally lose most of the grip several laps before the end of a fuel run, making teams gamble on staying out on fading rubber or staying on track until the tank runs dry. Rubber on the track means changing grooves and a challenge for teams to keep up with conditions as they evolve, making domination form one team that much more difficult. Good tires make good races, and right now, we’re a few steps away.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Harvick monopolizes the section this week, qualifying in front as well as defending his race win. His bid was successful. Harvick won the race in convincing fashion, leading more than four times the number of laps as the next guy on the list and cruising into Victory Lane for the second time in the last two weeks. With Phoenix so deep in the Chase, it makes another title bid that much more likely for this team come fall.
When… did it all go sideways?
There were a few mishaps, starting as early as lap two, when Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers tangled, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone had a more demoralizing day than Stewart. Stewart, who has struggled dating back to a 2013 injury, looked like he was turning a corner on Sunday, running inside the top 10 when he got together with Justin Allgaier and spun, hitting the outside wall. Stewart lost three laps while the team made repairs, but he eventually got back on track.
The rebound was short-lived, though, as Stewart cut a tire less than 50 laps later. Was there a tire rub after the team’s hasty repairs, or was Stewart abusing his Goodyears after his first spin? A couple of other teams also had tire failures Sunday, so it could have been a similar issue. But whatever it was, it leaves Stewart’s team a hot mess. 36th in driver points, after four races, Stewart is three spots behind Busch on the chart. Busch made his season debut at Phoenix. Something’s gotta give.
Why… did Harvick win the race?
Harvick certainly has Phoenix figured out. He’s now won four straight races. This time, he clearly had the best car, winning the pole Friday as well as the race and leading 224 laps, running inside the top 10 all day long. But the car wasn’t the only key to Harvick’s victory Sunday. He had two stellar restarts in the closing laps, holding off Jamie McMurray, who was intent on stealing his thunder. McMurray almost cleared Harvick on what ended up being the final restart of the day, and had he done so, you might be reading an entirely different story here. As it is, though, Harvick is proving why he’s the reigning champion… and why the road to this year’s title will likely lead through the No. 4 team.
How… did the little guys do?
Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): Truex ran as high as second early, but a tire rub on a restart forced him to pit road, fortunately under another yellow flag. Truex struggled a bit, mired deep in traffic, and it looked as though his streak of top-10 finishes to open the year was over. But a gamble to stay out with 20 to go put Truex back in the top 10, where he was able not only to hang on, but to move forward, finishing seventh. This team is impressive.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kingsford Chevy): Allmendinger started at the rear of the field after a pre-race engine change, but was inside the top 20 by the halfway mark. His race wasn’t as strong as he’s had the last couple of weeks, but it was good enough to keep him fifth in points.
HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Allgaier (No. 46 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): This team experienced the best and worst of Phoenix this weekend, with Allgiaer running a smart, clean race and breaking into the top 10 at one point, though he slipped back to 18th in the closing laps. Annett, meanwhile, suffered the opposite fate, meeting with mechanical gremlins and finishing 42nd, the last car still running at the end.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): The No. 13 bunch unloaded mid-pack and never really improved throughout the weekend. Mears did look strong early, racing forward, but an early caution killed his momentum. Mears had a solid run at the very end and improved to 20th, dropping him to 12th in points. He needs a strong run next week to keep pace with the Nos. 47 and 78.
Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 CRC 1 Tank Renew Chevy): Cassill was able to stay on the lead lap, thanks in part to getting the free pass three times early, but after that, he held his own and finished 22nd, beating the likes of Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. This team operates on a budget similar to a few other teams in this bracket (think the Nos. 32, 33 and 98 for starters) but performs at a step above. That speaks to Cassill’s talent behind the wheel.
Front Row Motorsports; Brett Moffitt & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 35 Sprouts Farmers’ Market Ford & No. 38 MDS Transport Ford): The FRM group performed right about where they’re expected to be every week, and encouragingly, they all finished close together, a sign that the team is working as a whole. Whitt’s top-25 run was the best in the stable this week, with Gilliland 29th and Moffitt 32nd. If they can improve as a group by 4-5 spots by midyear, they’ll definitely be on the right track.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 7 Toy State/Nikko Chevy):Bowman finished 30th this week, perhaps a step back from the finishes Annett grabbed for this team last year. Still, they’ve had just four weeks to gel, and top 30s are an improvement over where they were coming into last season, so it’s a little early to write them off as falling backwards.
BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Jeb Burton & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Maxim Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): BK is a team who has stagnated in their growth, perhaps even backslid in the last couple of years. Yeley, in 31st, was their top finisher this week, with Burton 34th and DiBenedetto 35th. On the bright side, the team did get all three cars in the show this week, with DiBenedetto making his Cup debut in his third try.
GoFAS Racing; Mike Bliss (No. 32 Draftdemons.com Ford): Bliss came home four laps down in 33rd. While he’s a veteran presence, he’s never been a Cup success. Perhaps the team should have given Timmy Hill a full-time nod last year.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): While they gave us a feel-good story last year, running full races all year and turning out some decent finishes, reality set in in 2015. They’re still running every week, but without funding, finishes like Wise’s 36th this week are likely to end up the norm. That’s not really the team’s fault. They’re doing the best they can without sponsorship.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brendan Gaughan (No 62 Chevy): Robinson is an owner in over his head. The No. 66 failed to qualify again this week, and while Gaughan made the show, the team is struggling to keep up as a 37th-place finish attests. Perhaps the best course of action would be to shelve the No. 66 and concentrate on improving Gaughan’s cars.
Circle Sport; Alex Kennedy (No.33 Chevy): A low-budget team with an inexperienced driver, the No. 33 team is fighting the good fight. It finished 38th this week, and while the effort is admirable, perhaps a driver with a few more races under his belt would be a step toward a stronger season.