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The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2016 Sprint Unlimited

Who … gets my shoutout of the race?

When you’re involved in a crash that sends the race into overtime and suffer a bashed-in front end in the process, it would be easy to cash in your chips for the night.  That might be especially true if you had already tangled with a Daytona 500 champion (one that you had pushed to one of his wins, no less) and made a hair-raising save to avoid the same fate as he had.

But there was no quit in Casey Mears on Saturday night.  Mears, who only made the race when Jeff Gordon didn’t enter, proved why he belonged in it anyway, finishing fifth with his damaged car after making his second spectacular save of the night to avoid the last-lap melee that collected several front-runners.  Running for the second time with single-car Germain Racing, he collected his second top-5 finish in as many years.

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What … is on my mind after the race?

Restrictor plate racing is definitely a different breed, often coming down to the winner being one of a handful of races who avoid the nearly inevitable multi-car crashes that happen when so many cars are running in a tight pack.  Some love the close-quarters driving, others don’t like the nervous energy of waiting for that wreck to occur and hoping their driver won’t be in it when it does.  But there’s one aspect of plate racing that’s a positive for the sport, and it’s that plate racing is a skill, and because the cars are much more equal, it brings new players to table in terms of who’s capable of winning.

Remember David Ragan’s improbable win at Talladega for tiny Front Row Motorsports?  That would not have happened at an intermediate track where horsepower and handling rule the day and the teams with the best equipment come out on top.  But because Ragan is a solid plate racer, he was able to place his car in front when it counted. Want someone different to watch Sunday?  Check out Ragan, Landon Cassill and Mears. They’re among the best in the plate racing game, period, and they’ll put on a good show.

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

Jimmie Johnson is a champion who has won just about everything there is to win.  He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer who’s likely to tie and pass Dale Earnhardt’s win total this season.  His crew chief helped him out by drawing the pole, but Johnson isn’t a great restrictor-plate racer.  He can be brilliant and win, but he can also make the little slip that’s all it takes to trigger a crash in close-quarters racing, and that’s what happened Saturday night. Johnson just touched the rear quarter panel of Mears’ car, turning the No. 13 sideways. Mears gathered it in, but he came down in front of Johnson in doing so and he went for a wild ride through the grass, leaving his No. 48 car with most of its front end missing.  Done for the night, Johnson came home 22nd.

Matt Kenseth was not one of just three drivers to lead laps during the Unlimited, but he wasn’t one of the 18 drivers to get a piece of the crash action through the first 78 laps.  Unfortunately, the event lasted 79, and Kenseth was swept up in an incident on the final lap of the race.  He still finished 12th, though, thanks in part to the 11 cars whose nights ended early in the mayhem.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
Jimmie Johnson was smiling before the Sprint Unlimited, but afterward? Not so much. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

When … did it all go sideways?

Take your pick on a night that was filled with spins and few drivers escaped unscathed. It’s easier to list drivers who weren’t involved in something than those who were (in case you’re wondering, only Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon aren’t listed in a caution report). A tangle between two drivers running at the back, ironically to avoid trouble, a flat tire for last-minute fill-in Brian Vickers, a tiny slip by a six-time champion into the side of his best friend. … those all happened. So did former Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray, tangling with a snakebit Kasey Kahne, an “oops, guess I wasn’t clear yet, huh?” from Carl Edwards and a last-lap free-for-all.

The race was, in a word, a wreckfest.  Luckily, nobody was hurt, and it can be argued that that’s the type of racing we should see with no points on the line, only pride.  It’s likely not the kind of racing we’ll see in the Daytona 500 (hopefully, anyway), but there were a lot of guys unhappy at the end of the night.

Why … did Denny Hamlin win the race?

He survived.  And just barely; Hamlin was one of the 21 drivers listed as having been involved to some degree in at least one on-track incident.  Hamlin tangled with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. early in the race but recovered and was in front of the field late in the race when things got crazy in his rear view mirror. Hamlin is certainly good in this race, so the next question is whether he can convert his Saturday night luck into enough of it to take home the bigger prize on Sunday.

How … much can we take away from this race?

On the surface, it seems like there’s a lot to glean from this race as a prep for the Daytona 500.  The favorites for the Great American Race are all usually in it, and it’s easy to see why it can be looked at as a glorified practice session.  However, the takeaway is not as much as you’d think– many teams bring older, more expendable speedway cars knowing they might not come back in one piece.

Drivers not racing for points will take chances they would not in a points race.  The race does give the 25 in the field a little extra time working the draft under race conditions, but the shorter race, run at night, and with the checkers-or-wreckers mentality that goes with it, doesn’t necessarily translate into a recipe for a Daytona 500 repeat of what goes down or who ends up in Victory Lane.

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