Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
For some drivers, Saturday night represented one last chance to grab a Chase spot with a win, and one driver who gave it everything he had was Aric Almirola. Almirola drove his way forward for most of the night, but managed only fourth. While he didn’t make the final Chase cut, had he and his team run with as much fire as they showed at Richmond they might have enjoyed a far different regular season. Even without a repeat Chase appearance, Almirola showed that he’s a talented driver who’s getting the most from his mid-level Richard Petty Motorsports team (Petty called him the best driver in the No. 43 since Pete Hamilton) and he’s keeping the team in contention with some good runs.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
For the second week in a row, tires proved to be a quagmire for many teams—a set of Goodyears did not last a fuel run, and many teams struggled with that aspect of race strategy. Not that it’s a bad thing. Tire wear was, for many years, an integral part of racing, and the rock-hard tires that teams have relied on in recent years to last well beyond their fuel windows have been detrimental to the racing. But like anything that’s different and difficult, teams will have to learn to adapt their strategies, especially if Goodyear continues to create tires for the 2016 rules that require teams to make difficult decisions about speed and durability.
And after the race, there was the Chase reset to throw a wrench in the works for the point leaders. Jimmie Johnson gained four spots to take the lead in a tie with Kyle Busch, who grabbed a whopping 25 spots, and Matt Kenseth, who gained four. Carl Edwards also gained four spots, moving up to eighth. Meanwhile, the big losers were some drivers who have been at the top of the standings all season long. Kevin Harvick, the points leader since Las Vegas, fell four places to fifth and Joey Logano falls to fourth, matching his season low. All in all, 10 of 16 playoff drivers actually lost points positions that they had earned based on their performance during the first 26 races. Is Kevin Harvick a fifth-place driver? No he’s not… except according to NASCAR and a system that rewards occasional performance over consistent excellence.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Logano won the pole, and led five times for 25 laps. He looked like he might be the only driver who could challenge Kenseth for most of the race, but he was a tick behind even before a questionable call on a restart sealed the deal for Kenseth. Logano fell to third on the final run and enters the Chase as Ford’s best representative, in fourth place with three wins.
Brad Keselowski was the winner a year ago, but while he scored a top 10, finishing eighth, he never led a lap. Keselowski has been a half-step behind his teammate Logano for much of this season, and that’s a little perplexing, given that the two work well together and have excellent resources to draw from.
When… did it all go sideways?
While it’s unlikely that it altered the outcome of the race, NASCAR’s non-calls on a couple of restarts left a lot of people questioning the governing body after they announced just a few weeks ago that they would scrutinize restarts more carefully going forward. First, Kyle Busch appeared to change lanes before the start/finish line on a mid-race restart, with no penalty from NASCAR, despite Busch appearing to be at leader Denny Hamlin‘s door in the inside as Hamlin passed the line. On the final restart of the night, Kenseth got very aggressive, and it looked like he hit the gas before the restart zone. Again NASCAR allowed the questionable start to stand, though Kenseth all but admitted that he jumped it.
“I knew for sure I wasn’t going to go late,” Kenseth said after the race. “Joey [Logano] and Brad [Keselowski] are just so good on restarts. They just launch so good. I don’t know what they do. I wish we did. They just launch so fast. All the restarts I had tonight, Joey would typically beat me… I had to have a good restart and get some distance and hold on because our short run wasn’t the strongest part of our car tonight. I knew it was going to be important to make sure we were clear when we got to turn 1.”
Social media was abuzz with questions of favoritism after the race, the fact that the drivers in question were teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that NASCAR has been lenient with in the past. Heading into the sport’s version of playoffs, accusations of favoritism aren’t really something the sanctioning body needs to have on their plate.
Why… did Kenseth win the race?
Because nobody could catch him. Sometimes it really is that simple. Kenseth had a dominant car as part of a JGR charge in Richmond. At one point, the JGR teams occupied all four of the top spots in the race, and only Carl Edwards didn’t lead a lap among the organization’s contingent. Kenseth is peaking just as the Chase begins. Is that too soon, or will he hoist a second championship trophy in Homestead? While all of JGR is running like a house afire, Kenseth may well be the top title threat from that stable. He’s the team’s most consistent performer and doesn’t have a history of falling apart when the heat is on, like teammates Busch and Hamlin have, and he’ll take more chances than Edwards. Hamlin is playing hurt as well, so don’t be surprised if it’s Kenseth who proves himself to be the team’s top contender.
How… did the little guys do?
The Three Best
Casey Mears; Germain Racing; 21st. Mears may have had the best finish in this group, but he was far from satisfied with his car during the race. After posting top-five speeds in practice and qualifying 15th, Mears looked like he’d easily run in the top 15 with a possible shot at a top 10 (he did run inside the top 10 early), but as the race went on, the handling on the No. 13 got progressively worse. This team is capable of more but are lacking consistency right now.
We were fast for about half of a run then fell off real bad. It was fun to have some speed now just need to make it last. @GEICORacing #13
— Casey Mears (@CJMearsGang) September 13, 2015
Brian Scott; Circle Sport; 22nd. When Scott (or Ty Dillon) runs the No. 33, it’s technically a full Richard Childress Racing entry, but it’s still difficult for a driver and pit crew to adjust to a here-and-there schedule. Scott started 17th and ran as high as 11th before falling into the mid-20s for most of the race. Scott is a solid Xfinity Series driver but has yet to win a race, making him a tough sell for a full-time Cup ride.
AJ Allmendinger; JTG Daugherty Racing; 24th. Allmendinger, like Mears, should have finished better, but handling woes caught up with the No. 47 team before halfway and never went away despite the team working to make adjustments all race long. The team may be a step behind where they were a year ago, but they’re still solidly among the best of the small teams.
All the Rest
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||15th||21st
Great run early; looked like a top-10 car, had battery issue but were able to correct; tires fell off on long green run mid-race; Mears was very unhappy with the car.
|33||Brian Scott||Circle Sport||Shore Lodge Chevy||17th||22nd
No. 33 is an RCR car when Scott drives; not a bad finish for Scott, but needs to be strong if he wants to land a Cup ride
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Kroger/Bush’s Beans Chevy||21st||24th
Had a top-20 car most of the night; lost spots in closing laps
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||18th||25th
Had a top-20 car but faded late with a too-tight car. Reports have Allgaier out of the ride in favor of Clint Bowyer for 2016; team denies
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||Precon Marine/Interstate Moving Chevy||35th||30th
Made gains throughout race. Team has improved in 2015
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||16th||32nd
Slapped the wall to bring out first caution; hit oil from No. 98; team made repairs but it was a long night. Truex seeded 10th in Chase
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||The Pete Store Ford||30th||33rd
Mediocre finish but a drama-free night for Gilliland
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota||43rd||34th
Not a great finish, but did make gains during the race; best finish on team
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||Dockside Logistics Ford||37th||35th
Was happy with the car in practice but speeds fell off for qualifying and race
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Burger King Toyota||33rd||36th
Team brought an older chassis and it was not competitive
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Chevy||36th||37th
Tagged the wall in the closing laps; sad afterward the team never found handing that worked
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||MDS Ford||34th||38th
Uncharacteristically difficult weekend for Whitt; pit road tire violation didn’t help matters
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Estes Toyota||41st||39th
Tangled with Michael McDowell and Michael Annett, sent Annett spinning. There have some been some questions about his readiness for Cup
|32||Jeffrey Earnhardt||GO FAS Racing||Beerfrost.com/Corvetteparts.net Ford||42nd||40th
Earnhardt didn’r race badly, but the equipment wasn’t there for a better run.
|98||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||40th||41st
Leaking oil early; Truex slipped in oil
|95||Michael McDowell||Leavine Family Racing||Thrivent Financial Ford||39th||42nd
Tangled with Annett and Burton but no spin, no damage. Had heavy damage during late caution from contact with safety vehicle ended night
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Switch Hitch Chevy||27th||43rd
Extensive damage after being spun by Burton in traffic
|30||Josh Wise||The Motorsports Group||Curtis Key Plumbing Ford||DNQ||—||—||37th|
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||DNQ||—||—||N/A|