The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2015 Federated Auto Parts 400

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 point leader since Las Vegas, fell four places to fifth and Joey Logano falls to fourth, matching his season low. All in all, ten of 16 Chase drivers actually lost points positions that they had earned based on their performance during the first 26 races. Is Kevin Harvicka fifth-place driver? No he’s not…except according to NASCAR and a system that rewards occasional performance over consistent excellence.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joe Gibbs Racing has been on a roll as of late. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Where…did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Joey Logano won the pole, and led five times for 25 laps. He looked like he might be the only driver who could challenge Matt 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 ten, 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, Matt Kenseth got very agressive, 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 Matt Kenseth win the race?

Because nobody could catch him. Sometimes it really is that simple. Kenseth had a dominant car as part of a Joe Gibbs Racing 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 Denny Hamlin have, and he’ll take more chances than Carl 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-5 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.

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:

No.DriverTeamCarStartFinish+/-Points Position
13Casey MearsGermain RacingGEICO Chevy15th21st
Great run early; looked like a top-10 car, had battery issue but were able to correct; tires fell off on long green run midrace; Mears was very unhappy with the car.
33Brian ScottCircle SportShore Lodge Chevy17th22nd
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
47AJ AllmendingerJTG Daugherty RacingKroger / Bush’s Beans Chevy21st24th
Had a top-20 car most of the night; lost spots in closing laps
51Justin AllgaierHScott MotorsportsBrandt Chevy18th25th
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
40Landon CassillHillman-Smith MotorsportsPrecon Marine / Interstate Moving Chevy35th30th
Made gains throughout race. Team has improved in 2015
78Martin Truex, Jr.Furniture Row RacingFurniture Row Chevy16th32nd
Slapped the wall to bring out first caution; hit oil from No. 98; team made repairs but it was a long night. Truex seeded tenth in Chase
38David GillilandFront Row MotorsportsThe Pete Store Ford30th33rd
Mediocre finish but a drama-free night for Gilliland
26JJ YeleyBK RacingMaxim Fantasy Sports Toyota43rd34th
Not a great finish, but did make gains during the race; best finish on team
34Brett MoffittFront Row MotorsportsDockside Logistics Ford37th35th
Was happy with the car in practice but speeds fell off for qualifying and race
83Matt DiBenedettoBK RacingBurger King Toyota33rd36thTeam brought an older chassis and it was not competitive-335th
7Alex BowmanTommy Baldwin RacingChevy36th37th
Tagged the wall in the closing laps; sad afterward the team never found handing that worked
35Cole WhittFront Row MotorsportsMDS Ford34th38th
Uncharacteristically difficult weekend for Whitt; pit road tire violation didn’t help matters
23Jeb BurtonBK RacingEstes Toyota41st39th
Tangled with McDowell and Annett, sent Annett spinning. There have some been some questions about his readiness for Cup
32Jeffrey EarnhardtGO FAS / Ford42nd40th
Earnhardt didn’r race badly, but the equipment wasn’t there for a better run.
98Reed SorensonPremium MotorsportsChevy40th41st
Leaking oil early; Truex slipped in oil
95Michael McDowellLeavine Family RacingThrivent Financial Ford39th42nd
Tangled with Annett and Burton but no spin, no damage. Had heavy damage during late caution from contact with safety vehicle ended night
46Michael AnnettHScott MotorsportsSwitch Hitch Chevy27th43rd
Extensive damage after being spun by Jeb Burton in traffic
30Josh WiseThe Motorsports GroupCurtis Key Plumbing FordDNQ37th
62Timmy HillPremium MotorsportsChevyDNQN/A


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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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    Q:When did it all go sideways?
    A:January 20,2004-the date NASCAR announced the Chase.
    Richmond used to bill itself as the Action Track. Lately, it’s been anything but, save for a drunk climbing a fence and a driver hitting a safety vehicle. This race is simply another casualty of the Chase.
    And enough with the tears over Aric Almirola. It isn’t like he is a 12-4 NFL team missing the playoffs because there happens to another division-winner that finished 7-9. It’s bad enough at least one driver who did nothing for 35 weeks will be rewarded with at worst a fourth-place standings finish, if this year is anything like last.

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    Another farce.

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    Most of those drivers looked mortified being at that stupid dog and pony show hosted by the bobble head Rutledge Wood. They did last year too. Who can blame them, they looked like they wanted to be anywhere but there. They hate “The Chase” just like the overwhelming majority of fans do. Snippets were dropped of their mouths last year, Brian France missed it or he would have docked points and made them get their check books out.

    NASCAR in the drivers meeting beat the horse to death about keeping things on the up and up..and the lucky Toyotas get two gifts this race. Drivers, owners and fans were questioning the non calls, and rightfully so. Too bad
    NASCAR is just too stupid to figure it out. The integrity of a true Champion has been compromised by “The Chase”, first 10 races, now 1, playing favorites and not making the right calls will further dilute the meaning of “Champion”.

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      As nascar continues to hemorrhage fan support expect them to increasingly fawn over Toyota for fear of losing the company’s financial support. In a historically manipulated “show” it is necessary for Toyota to win a Championship to keep them from questioning their financial commitment. With no legitimate racing press to keep them honest I would not expect the manipulation to be fairly obvious.

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        I dont think Toyota, as a corporation. is concerned about the financial commitment they are making in stock car racing. Rather I think they see it as another advertising tool that they use to be part of Americana.
        Do they like to win? Of course, who doesn’t? But any concerns would be at Toyota North America, not the entire corporation. Besides if any of the three manufacturers can afford it its Toyota.

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          I agree John Q. As for Toyota, somebody is making a commitment and will be held accountable when the day comes to justify the huge financial expense being involved in NASCAR. Having that trophy and good press over these miraculous wins will certainly help that poor slob in the board room with his pitch for continuing throwing the money down the drain. I would not for a minute be surprised if this crappy team in Cup for they last few years is hoisting a trophy in Richmond and it not because of their stable of drivers, of that I am sure. Old Joe went to Toyota and it really hasn’t worked out for them until recently. Tick Tock Tick Tock…Brian France is nervous those $$$$$$$ might fly south right past Homestead.

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          I wanna talk about this Rutledge Wood jackarse. What positive does he add to a race broadcast? He has got to be the most insufferable arsehat I have ever seen on a broadcast and that takes into account the Walrips, McReynolds and Digger!

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          Sorry….HOMESTEAD, not Richmond!

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          And to your point Richie..he is one of the great mysteries that people in positions of power think that someone like that is likeable…another mystery of life that we will never know the answer to in this life..maybe the next…ugh.

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        And you know Toyota isn’t in Nascar to sell Camry’s. Originally, as I understand it, the justification was to sell Tundra’s. Don’t think that has been a huge success, but certainly Toyota can afford it.
        So despite all the conspiracy theories, or perhaps hope that they would pull out I don’t think its going to happen anytime soon.

        BTW: when was the last time you saw any of the three manufacturers run a commercial advertising their association with Nascar?