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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2015 SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas

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?

Sometimes the driver who should win a race doesn’t, and that happened this week. There were times when it looked as though nobody could compete with Martin Truex Jr., who led the most laps and led five different times. A pit decision on the final caution coupled with a backsliding Kurt Busch in the way on the final restart kept Truex from making a late run for the win. But what his Furniture Row Racing team can and should take away from the weekend is that, while they don’t have a win yet in 2015, they’re as good as anyone every week. The wins will come for a team that’s as consistently good as they have been.

What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

Once again, it was the weather that drivers could not control. A two-hour red flag for rain meant a long halt to the action, and for some teams, like the No. 1 of Jamie McMurray, the changed track conditions meant the end of contention for the win, while for others, including race winner Jimmie Johnson, it proved to be just what the doctor ordered. The reality of racing is that it’s as much about battling with climate and other factors as with the other competitors. At the end of the (very long) night, the race was one of the best shows the sport has had this year, because drivers were able to race hard for the most part and were willing to do so. There were comers and goers and lots of drivers contended for good finishes. It was the kind of show NASCAR needs to have more often.

Another incident that nobody could have planned for ended as a sponsor’s dream. David Ragan tangled with Josh Wise and went spinning into the grass in the tri-oval. His car, which carried a special SpongeBob SquarePants paint scheme with the yellow cartoon character emblazoned on the hood, came to rest smack in the middle of the SpongeBob race logo painted on the grass. Ragan had to be towed out of the wet grass and finished 33rd in his new No. 55 ride, but if there was a trophy for product placement on the night, he’d have had it in the bag. Twitter lit up after the incident.

Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Joey Logano won the pole and led handily for the first 29 laps. It’s hard to point to the rain as the sole reason, though two pit-road penalties didn’t help, for him sliding back later in the night, because it was an up-and-down night for Logano before and after the delay. Logano fell to 18th before the delay, raced back into the top five, fell back again to the mid-teens before rebounding to finish fifth. Logano didn’t have a winning car, but he made the most of what he did have, and in the end, it could be setting him up for another run at the title this year.

Jeff Gordon, the winner of this event a year ago, was in and out of the top 10 on Saturday. His team fought inconsistency in the No. 24; if the car handled to Gordon’s liking at one end of the track, he was struggling at the other. In the end, Gordon took a gamble on fuel mileage on the final caution, and it paid off with a fourthplace finish for the veteran, who was running 12th with a dozen laps left in the event.

When… did it all go sideways?

For rookie Erik Jones, his first Sprint Cup start was almost a storybook race. Jones, filling in for the injured Kyle Busch in the No. 18 this week (and most likely for the foreseeable future, though that hasn’t been announced), qualified 12th and was just getting warmed up. Jones held his position for most of the night, moving into the top 10 a couple of times and looking as good as any veteran. Unfortunately for Jones, aerodynamics plays a big role when racing in tight quarters, and he spun while racing for position with Johnson when he lost some air to his spoiler. Jones finished 40th, and it’s a shame that’s all the history books will show in 50 years, because Jones’s race was so much better than that.

Kansas was not kind to any Joe Gibbs Racing driver not named Matt Kenseth on Saturday, and for the second week in a row, one of them was left steaming over NASCAR’s officiating after a crash. This time it was Denny Hamlin who was critical of NASCAR for not throwing the yellow immediately after he hit the wall hard in turn 4.

“There was no caution there (on the first incident) and then we cut a left rear, blew it off of turn 4 and spun out, hit the wall at the start finish line,” Hamlin said during a television interview after his crash. “I keep spinning out, I keep hitting the wall and I can’t figure out why everyone is still coming at 200 [mph] and I look and the green light is still on. They didn’t throw a caution until seven seconds after I wrecked. Luckily nobody hit us.”

“They’ll continue to monitor the situation, I’m guessing is what they’ll say,” Hamlin added in reference to Talladega, where teammate Carl Edwards spun in traffic but did not draw a caution.

When a driver wrecks in traffic or hits the wall as hard as Hamlin did on Saturday, there need to be a caution immediately. Not slowing the cars down puts drivers in danger and delays safety crews from getting to a crash scene. That doesn’t mean there needs to be a yellow every time someone taps the wall, but NASCAR needs to have a concrete, common-sense approach to what happens when someone crashes, because it’s not about entertaining the masses at that point, but about keeping the competitors safe.

Why… did Johnson win the race?

Remember what I said about the drivers being impacted by things like climate and track surface as much as the competition? That’s exactly what the No. 48 team did this week. Johnson was fighting his car so much early that he nearly spun out, dropping to the back of the field. Even when things began to improve, it looked as though Johnson might be racing for a top 10. But at the end of the night, he was in Victory Lane partly because he can fight his racecar when he needs to, but mostly because he and his team focused on themselves and what they needed to do to improve rather than how to beat everyone else. And by the end of the night, that was exactly what they did.

The win, Johnson’s third of 2015, marks his 73rd career win and inches him closer to seventh on the all-time list, a spot he’ll take over from Dale Earnhardt, a driver Johnson never had the chance to race against. It’s possible that Johnson could reach that mark this season… and should he win another title it will also be Earnhardt he’ll tie, along with Richard Petty. That’s good company for the California native to be in, but it remains to be seen how either milestone will be received by fans, who are divided over both Earnhardt and Johnson, sometimes for the same reasons.

How… did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing; Truex (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): Truex was the driver to beat on Saturday night right up until the last restart, when he was caught behind Kurt Busch, who just could not get going, and wound up ninth, his 10th top 10 this season. Truex led the most laps of any driver, and the good news is that the No. 78 looks more like a winning team every week. Once they start, they could well reel off more before the year is out.

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Dillon’s/Scott Products Chevy): Earlier in the day, Allmendinger announced that he has signed a 5-year extension to remain in the No. 47. The team looked for most of the day like they had a mid-pack, maybe a top-20 car, but Allmendinger was strong on the final short run to snag a 14th-place, 15 spots better than he started.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 Squidward Tentacles Chevy): Mears had a fast car early, climbing as high as 13th in the rundown before fading a bit late. Mears said afterwards that he felt a bad set of tires hurt the team’s setup. He recovered well at the end, scoring a 19th-place finish, which is about where his team should be finishing on a weekly basis.

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Allstate Peterbilt Chevy & No. 51 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevy): Annett has had some struggles of late, so his solid 23rd-place finish was much needed for him and his team. Allgaier finished 30th and explained his day in a video which his team posted on Twitter:

BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Jeb Burton & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): This team has shown some improvement in recent weeks, perhaps from a surprising source: DiBenedetto. He’s had some moments of brilliance in recent weeks and his top 25 was a finish the entire organization has been searching for. It was a tough day for both Yeley and Burton, who spun together on lap 8. Both were able to continue, but Burton’s woes continued; he spun again as the rain started and then went to the garage with a broken rear gear just past halfway. Burton finished 41st. Yeley finished 37th, right where he started the night.

Circle Sport; Ty Dillon (No. 33 Plankton Chevy): The team runs Richard Childress Racing equipment when Dillon drives, but it’s hard for a driver to get in a car for a one-off race here and there and perform at a top level. Dillon ran in the mid-20s for much of the race, finishing 26th. He’s still learning in the Cup cars and from that standpoint, his race was solid.

Phil Parsons Racing; Wise (No. 98 Ford): With speculation swirling about the team’s sale, Wise had a solid night. A top-30 run is a decent day for the team at this stage, and his 28th-place run squeaked Wise into that category. He was involved in one incident, in which Ragan went spinning, but Wise came out of that okay.

Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): Cassill and Co. continue to show admirable tenacity, and they’re getting better by leaps and bounds. A year ago, their 29th-place finish would have been a good result. It’s still not terrible for one of NASCAR’s smallest teams, but now they want more, and they know they’re capable of getting it. Cassill had some fun with his fans and sponsor on Twitter during the rain delay, producing quite a slew of responses:

Front Row Motorsports; Brett Moffitt & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 Dockside Logistics Ford & No. 35 Ford & No. 38 MDS Ford): It was a tough weekend for the FRM bunch, with Gilliland their best finisher in 32nd. None of the trio were involved in on-track incidents, so the struggles came mainly from handling. Moffitt and Whitt finished 34th and 35th, respectively.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 WRL/Larry the Lobster Ford): McDoweell had a handful with his car at times, getting sideways early but making the save. Ryan Newman was upset with McDowell for a near miss, with some choice words on the radio, but both escaped without further incident. McDowell fought his car to 36th place.

GoFAS Racing; Joey Gase (No. 32 Tri State Tower Ford): Gase started 42nd, and was able to gain a few spots to finish 38th. This team does have some potential, but without funding, it’s going to be hard to find the caliber of driver they need to raise the bar.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No. 7 Accell Construction Chevy): Mechanical problems forced Bowman to the garage early on, and the result was a last-place finish. This team has slipped a bit since last year, but it’s hard to pin that on Bowman.

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Dan

Why did Jimmie Johnson win the race? Because that is what Johnson ,Knaus, and the 48 team do. Plain and simple.

Earner

Nobody is better on a changing track than Knaus!

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