The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2015 Coca-Cola 600

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 W’s and even the H…the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

 Anyone would forgive a driver if it took him a few races to get back into the swing of things after being sidelined for three months with a broken leg and a broken foot, especially since his first full-length race back in the driver’s seat was the longest of the year. But Kyle Busch never missed a beat on Sunday night, racing with the leaders all night long. He started 14th and raced as high as second before falling to 11th after pitting for fuel late in the race. The performance was vintage Busch, and with all three of his teammates in the Chase with wins, you can bet that Joe Gibbs Racing will throw the kitchen sink at Busch to help assure he makes the postseason Superfecta.

 What…beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

 A day-night transition on a notoriously temperature-sensitive track made for a long night for some teams. Teams that ran well early dropped back as the track cooled and tightened up, and some who struggled early found their mojo as darkness descended.

The racing by day was as good as it gets on a 1.5-mile track, but once night fell, it was more typical intermediate track fare, where there was some great action on restarts but little else. While most fans seem to like night racing, the jury is out on why, because racing by day when the weather’s hot generally makes for a much better show. The series would do well to dial back the number of night races on the schedule, leaving this race, Bristol’s August event, and perhaps the Saturday Night Special At Daytona in July and scrapping the others.

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

 Matt Kenseth took the pole on Thursday, and was hoping to duplicate his Bristol performance, where he rode the pole all the way to the win. Kenseth had an up-and-down night, leading three times for 26 laps but having to make an unscheduled stop late for a vibration. That may have helped him in the end when it all came down to fuel strategy. Kenseth wound up fourth, a sound finish to a night that could have gone very wrong.

 Jimmie Johnson won the Coca-Cola 600 a year ago, and after he got sideways early for the third time in three races (one of which was Kansas, a race he went on to win), Johnson looked to find some of his magic, performing a spectacular save to keep the car off the wall and coming back to race into the top 5 with lap times that were faster than the leaders’. It looked as though Johnson was a strong candidate for a repeat until he spun again on lap 274, this time slamming head-on into the inside wall. His team made repairs and got Johnson back on track. But the damage was done, and he finished a distant 40th, 30 laps behind.

 When…did it all go sideways?

 Other than Johnson’s pair of spins and a few scrapes with the wall for a handful of others, things didn’t really go south in any big way. Quite the opposite, really, as the race was one of the better ones we’ve seen on a 1.5-mile track recently. No, it wasn’t perfect, and the daytime half was far racier, but it was probably the best race Charlotte has seen since repaving the track in 2006. As the pavement ages, the racing will only improve. Charlotte used to host some good races; it’s narrow and fast, trickier than some of its close cookie-cutter cousins. Returning the fall race to daytime would only serve to improve things further. Some will complain about the racing Sunday, but some will complain about any race, and this one was actually pretty good.

 Why…did Carl Edwards win the race?

 Because crew chief Darian Grubb apparently has a magic formula for calculating fuel mileage. Edwards should know; it was Grubb’s strategy that cost him the 2011 title when Grubb was calling the shots for Tony Stewart. This week, Edwards stretched a tank of fuel for more than 60 laps to find his way to Victory Lane. It’s the second time Grubb has turned fuel strategy into a win in NASCAR’s longest race; his 2007 win with Casey Mears was also a mileage gamble that paid off. With enough in the tank and clean air up front, Edwards cruised home for his first win with Joe Gibbs Racing, becoming the third driver to win for that organization this season.

 How…did the little guys do?

(Photo: Yvonne Leonard

Martin Truex Jr. had the dominant car, but ultimately had to settle for fifth. (Photo: Yvonne Leonard)

Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex, Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing/Visser Precision Chevy): For the second points race in a row, Truex had the dominant car only to have luck on someone else’s side at the end. Truex finished fifth after leading 131 laps (most of any driver), but he should have won, and his disappointment was palpable after the race. His team has that look, though, that if they win one, they might reel off two or three once they get rolling.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Military Chevy): What didn’t happen to Mears on Sunday? He said his team had found something in practice on Saturday, and though he started 34th, he was running 20th by lap 175. Mears had an issue early when he smelled smoke and the car lost power, but it turned out to be an issue with the driver’s cool box, which Mears was without for the rest of the night. To top it off, his spotter wasn’t feeling well, prompting a midrace replacement with Justin Allgaier‘s spotter after Allgaier fell out of the race A couple of brushes with the wall added to the team’s issues, and while they’re not satisfied with 23rd place, it could have been worse.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No 7 Culer Chevy): TBR has struggled at the 1.5-milers (as do most of these teams because of the cost of fine-tuning the cars), but Sunday night’s 26th-place finish was the team’s best on an intermediate track this season and a step in the right direction. A combination of strategy and solid pit work was a key for the team.

Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 35 Speed Stick Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Whitt’s 28th-place run was the best of the night for the team, but as they often do, all three FRM drivers finished within a few spots of each other, which shows that they’re on the same page and improving as an organization. Moffitt finished 31st and Gilliland 33rd despite a shock issue. Overall, it wasn’t a perfect night, but not a terrible one, either.

JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Almendinger struggled with his car almost all weekend. At one point, he called the No. 47 car “evil” as he fought the handing. The team also had an extended stop on pit road late in the race and ultimately finished five laps down. The good news, if there is any from his night, was that five laps down still translated into 29th place.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No 95 Thrivent Financial Ford): McDowell had some speed early on, running inside the top 30. That’s a solid performance for this part-time team.

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Both Allgaier and Annett had their issues on Sunday night. Allgaier tagged the wall on lap 135 and the team was unable to repair the damage and return to the track, winding up in 43rd place. That turned out to be a boon for the No. 13, as Allgaier’s spotter was able to fill in for Mears’ usual spotter, who wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t so helpful to Allgaier, whose team tweeted a video recap of his day after he fell out. Annett went for a spin on lap 328, bringing out a caution. He was able to continue on to a 32nd-place finish. Annett had some very good finishes for Tommy Baldwin Racing last year but has struggled a bit this year as his team works to adjust to being a two-car operation.

BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Hope for Warriors Toyota & No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota): DiBenedetto has been a bright spot for this team several times this season, and while he struggled on Sunday, his 34th-place run was the best BK Racing result. Yeley lost his engine with just a handful of laps remaining, relegating him to 38th place. The team was unable to qualify with its third car and driver Jeb Burton.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 RoyalTeakCollection.com Ford): Wise and Co. fought an ill-handling car all the way to a 35th-place finish. On the up-side, Wise avoided trouble and brought his car home in one piece, something that’s truly important for a single-car operation without a large fleet of cars at its disposal.

Circle Sport; Alex Kennedy (No.33 HonorandRemember.org Chevy): Kennedy said before the race that his goal for his first visit to tracks like Charlotte was to log laps, finish the race, and learn. Kennedy had never raced at Charlotte in any series, so it was an adjustment for him. The No. 33 bunch took home a 36th-place finish, but Kennedy also takes home the experience that will help the team build for next time.

Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Snap Fitness Chevy): Cassill, who got out of the car and ran a half-marathon to downtown Charlotte after the race, was running in the top 30 as the laps ticked by until a broken axle sent him to the garage for repairs. Quick work by his team got Cassill back on track, and he finished 39th, not indicative of his race as a whole.

Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Blaney’s 42nd-place finish does not tell the story of his race by any means. Blaney started 16th and had a top-20 car all night long, running in 11th by lap 175 . Blaney was able to keep his car in the top 15 until he lost his engine with just over 100 laps to go. It was a very good run for the rookie driver on a track that’s not friendly to the smaller teams.

 

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the Sprint All-Star Race

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Joseph Wolkin has you covered with this week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five W’s and even the H … the Big Six

Who … gets my shout out of the race?

2015 Charlotte All Star Kyle Busch credit NASCAR vis Getty Images

Kyle Busch returns to racing (credit: Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin ended the evening in Victory Lane, with Kevin Harvick making a hard charge during the final 10-lap segment, but the real story belongs to Kyle Busch. With a very impressive return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Busch finished sixth on Saturday evening during the Sprint All-Star Race. Hamlin, Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch swapped the lead multiple times throughout the race, but the No. 11 team was able to come out in front after entering pit road sixth when the field was set by average finish for the first four segments.

His brother, Kyle, did not have luck on his side, though, as he fell a lap down following an unscheduled green-flag pit stop. He had a car that was likely capable of finishing in the top five, yet he got caught in the back of the pack as he adjusted to his first laps with the new engine and aero package in race conditions. For Hamlin, he proved that clean air is once again the way to prevail at an intermediate track.

What … made this All-Star Race different from the others?

The lack of excitement in this year’s edition of the All-Star Race proved that multiple changes need to be made next season. Besides an aero package that enables cars to go nearly wide-open in the corners, the tapered spacer gives them more speed, which caused large gaps in the field. After multiple passes for the lead in the first two segments, things slowed down in the third and fourth segment. Clean air had a larger effect in the race than it has in a while, and it showed as Hamlin pulled out by nearly a second on Harvick after an intense battle for about four laps. Hamlin’s victory also marks the first time a Toyota has won the All-Star Race since it entered the Sprint Cup Series in 2007.

Jeff Gordon’s final All-Star Race started off as an emotional one – being greeted by former crew chief Ray Evernham, along with his family. Well, it paid off for the four-time champion as he finished fourth, which marks his first top 10 in the All-Star Race since 2006. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson struggled throughout the event, which is rare for him at Charlotte.

Where … did the pole sitter, Sprint Showdown transfers and the fan vote winner wind up?

Hamlin sat on the pole after an amazing effort by his pit crew. He led the first 14 laps of the opening 25-lap segment, and evidently led 26 on the night. With a strong average finish, he had a solid position entering the final round of pit stops, and his pit crew did the rest of the work for him. Keselowski, who led a race-high 49 laps, was second coming out of pit road, but received a speeding penalty. Hamlin had a solid restart, and was able to hold off Harvick, who dropped several tenths of a second behind him in the closing laps.

Clint Bowyer, who won the Sprint Showdown on Friday, struggled during the All-Star Race. After earning a solid qualifying position inside the top five, he dropped rather rapidly, and finished the day in 12th. He had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel, which dropped him one lap down, but he was able to fight back, which is the lone bright spot of his day.

Greg Biffle, who made the All-Star Race after leading the Sprint Showdown following the first segment, finished 13th. He shockingly started second, and was running strong inside the top five until the end of the first segment, when he hit the wall coming off Turn 4. Biffle’s car was extremely loose early on, and he smacked the wall once again as the first segment ended. He ran toward the rear of the field for the majority of the race, but was able to show Roush Fenway Racing has some speed.

Danica Patrick unsurprisingly won the Sprint Fan Vote. She was the highest qualifier out of the Stewart-Haas Racing camp, but had to start at the rear of the field due to an engine change. Patrick finished last in the field after a burnt left-front tire hub, which sent her to the garage for 32 laps.

When … did it all go sideways?

The race was solid until the start of the third segment. At first, Hamlin and Kasey Kahne had a solid battle for the lead. However, Brad Keselowski took the lead on Lap 34, and that started an abysmal run to the finish. There was very little passing in the final segments of the race, and whoever held the lead coming out of pit road ended up leading the remainder of the segment.

Though it was a very clean 110 laps, thankfully, just about everyone in the field experienced loose conditions. Joey Logano was extremely loose at one point, and dropped outside of the top 15 after nearly hitting the wall. The same happened to Johnson and Biffle. The lack of downforce is still not enough to fix the racing on intermediate tracks, and putting the 2016 package on the track would have been a much better decision than using the current one.

Why … did Denny Hamlin win the race?

2015 Charlotte All Star Denny Hamlin wins credit NASCAR vis Getty Images

Denny Hamlin taking the win (credit: Getty Images)

Hamlin ran up front throughout the day. His No. 11 team has been up and down this year, with six finishes of 22nd or worse. But Hamlin’s car was dialed-in on Saturday evening, and he was determined to get into Victory Lane, especially with JD Gibbs at the track for the first time in a while.

His pit crew was stout on the night, and they are the reason that he pulled into Victory Lane. He had a solid car in traffic, but dropped outside of the top five in the middle of the race. Getting out front on the final pit stop was all he needed to seal the win.

How … could the All-Star Race be better?  

NASCAR has changed just about everything besides the kitchen sink over the past few seasons, except for the All-Star Race. Now, after multiple seasons of lackluster races, it is time for a change. Charlotte is a wonderful track, and provides great racing on long runs, but it is not the place you want to have a 10-lap dash to the finish. The sport keeps attempting to be like other sports, such as the playoff format, yet it refuses to move the All-Star Race to a different venue each season.

Tradition is more important in NASCAR than any other sport for various reasons, including stubborn fans and track owners not wanting to budge – thinking that they can sell a race based on that “tradition.” However, things are different now, and people do not want to see 50 laps of solid racing, then 60 markers of subpar racing.

If the Sanctioning Body does not want to leave Charlotte since it enables team members and families to go to the race, then it can at least try a different package. NASCAR was originally going to enable teams to run the 2016 aero/engine package for this year’s All-Star Race, but it never happened. It would have made things very unpredictable, along with providing teams a different look at what could occur on intermediate tracks for next year. Eliminations would also create a sense of urgency, like it did years ago, and that would provide much better racing for the $1 million prize.

Along with changes to the race itself, the Sprint Showdown needs to be moved back to Saturday evening. Adding qualifying just prior to the All-Star Race was a smart move, but putting the Showdown in the early afternoon on Saturday would give fans a full day of racing. Putting it in front of the Camping World Truck Series race gives less air time for small teams, and makes the race rather illegitimate for just two drivers to advance to the All-Star Race.

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2015 Sprint Showdown

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Friday night’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five W’s and even the H with the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

Most people wouldn’t be surprised if the Sprint Showdown winners had included the likes of Kyle Larson, Paul Menard or Martin Truex, Jr. The two victors that emerged, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer didn’t raise many eyebrows either. But when the dust cleared after 40 laps, a few heads might have been turned when Sam Hornish, Jr. was racing the leaders every step of the way in the second segment. Hornish drives a mid-tier car for Richard Petty Motorsports (teammate Aric Almirola is in the All-Star race already); however, his name wasn’t on many pre-race favorite lists. Hornish ran a strong event, used pit strategy to his advantage and held his ground in traffic, a solid night that keeps momentum rolling since Kevin “Bono” Manion was signed onto the crew earlier this month. Could this night be a turning point going forward?

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Sam Hornish, Jr., while failing to win Friday night had one of his best runs of the season during NASCAR’s Sprint Showdown. (Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images)

What…beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

The All-Star weekend in general has lacked excitement for the past several years as the 1.5-mile tracks show how aero dependent the cars have become. Coupled with the resurfacing of Charlotte a few years ago, reshaping the asphalt it’s just not a recipe for the kind of racing that All-Star weekend was once known for.

JJ Yeley‘s spin in the second segment showcased the problem perfectly. There was no contact to initiate the crash, just close-quarters racing that pulled his car around as the air was interrupted. That’s not good for this type of aggressive competition, especially in short segments designed to bring out the best this sport has to offer.

Where…did the pole sitter and the fan vote winner wind up?

Paul Menard took the pole and that was the last time he’d see the front of the pack. Greg Biffle out-jumped Menard on the start and went on to win the first segment. Menard made a run for the lead later on, contending in segment number two but was not able to catch Clint Bowyer and settled for second overall on the night.

Danica Patrick, meanwhile became the first driver to win the fan vote more than once (2013) but she wasn’t a factor to get into the show any other way. Patrick, starting in the middle of the pack mixed it up a few times but had to settle for ninth after 40 laps.

When…did it all go sideways?

The first segment was tame, but the second one got a little spicier, and eventually JJ Yeley’s car got away from him. He missed Cole Whitt and Michael McDowell by inches while taking a ride through the infield grass. As noted above, close racing in itself shouldn’t be causing spins and crashes without contact.

There was contact for the second incident in segment two. Kyle Larson threw one block too many at Sam Hornish, Jr. and Hornish pushed back, causing the cars to collide. Larson slid up the track and brushed the wall, forcing him straight to the pits.

Why…did Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer win the transfer spots?

Biffle got the jump when the green flag waved and that was it. He led the entire first segment handily, demonstrating that track position is going to be key for the next week as it usually is on the 1.5-mile tracks. If the segments in Saturday’s All-Star Race run caution free, look for similar results.

Bowyer admitted after segment two that had the caution not flown for Yeley’s spin, he wouldn’t have caught Martin Truex, Jr. in clean air. The yellow flag closed up the field and allowed Bowyer one more shot. He made the most of it, including hanging tough during a three-wide battle with Menard and Truex on the ensuing restart. How these two will fare against the stronger teams on Saturday remains to be seen, though. Only two Showdown transfers have captured the All-Star event, and the fan vote winner’s chances are even slimmer… it’s only happened once.

How…come this race is the undercard to the undercard?

I’ve made this statement before, but it bears repeating: the Showdown race needs to be back on Saturday. Charlotte Motor Speedway is the winner here, because now fans have to buy two tickets if they want to see all the drivers, but something is missing from the overall show by splitting things up. The real shame is that the small teams work just as hard as the big ones, maybe harder, because they have fewer people to do the same amount of work. Now, on a rare night where underdogs once had to be showcased this new schedule has turned them into barely an afterthought. Missing the All-Star Race doesn’t mean a driver doesn’t have talent; it often means he doesn’t have money. What a shame that “Rich vs. Poor” mentality is reinforced with this new system.

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2015 SpongeBob SquarePants 400

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 W’s 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 finshed 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 pole sitter 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 5, 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’ 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 four 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 (miles per hour) 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 Jimmie Johnson win the race?

 

(Photo Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson is getting closer and closer to matching some of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s record-setting numbers. (Photo Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images)

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; Martin Truex, Jr. (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 tenth top 10 this season. Truex led laps, most of any driver, and the good news is that the No.78 looks more like a winning team every week…and 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 midpack, 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, 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-20’s 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; Josh 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 David 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.

 

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the GEICO 500

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 W’s and even the H…the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

 Talladega is a whole different animal in NASCAR, and for a young driver in a part-time ride, that can be bane or blessing. For Ryan Blaney, it was a blessing and it was obvious from the start that Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing team had brought a rocketship to the track. Blaney qualified third, and in the closing laps, it looked as though he was the only driver who might be able to challenge Dale Earnardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson at the front of the field. Blaney got shuffled a little on the final lap, but made a comeback to finish a solid fourth. It was a great race for the youngster and a glimpse at why Team Penske may be looking to add a third Cup team in the not-too-distant future.

 What…beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

 A driver can get caught in someone else’s mess anywhere at any time, but at Talladega the risk is magnified as drivers have little chance of avoiding chaos with close-quarters racing and reduced throttle response. That means that the other drivers they depend on for drafting help are also a potential source of disaster. Nowhere but the plate tracks is a driver completely out of luck if he’s out there alone, yet inches away from disaster. Twice on Sunday, one driver got loose in traffic and several others paid the price. Both Trevor Bayne and Carl Edwards lost their cars on their own, yet both triggered multi-car incidents that affected many. It’s part of the game, but an ugly, unfair part.

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

 Jeff Gordon looked dominant early, winning the pole and leading six times for a total of 47 laps. The last time he boasted numbers like that, he won the race, and it looked like he’d do it again this week at a track where both ends of pit road boasted the number 24 painted on the ground to honor his legendary career. Unfortunately, Gordon got tagged with a speeding penalty on pit road late in the race and was unable to race through the field to challenge his teammate for the victory, finishing 31st.

 Denny Hamlin, who won his only race of 2014 in the GEICO 500, tried to make a late run on a repeat, but had nobody to work with when it counted, surrounded by Hendrick-built Chevrolet’s and the Wood Brothers Ford. Hamlin made a move from fourth on the final lap, but was shuffled back to ninth when the dust cleared.

 When…did it all go sideways?

 One thing that’s been a problem in the sport for many years has become a bigger issue on the restrictor plate tracks as well. The race cars are too dependent on aerodynamics—they race faster in clean air at the front—but on the plate tracks where they become more unstable in the draft, it causes cars to be pulled around even without direct contact from another car. Two multi-car crashes were triggered when Bayne and, in a later wreck, Edwards got loose in traffic. With the field so closely bunched, multiple teams were involved. NASCAR should be searching for a package that allows the cars to race better in the pack if they want the tight groups that have become the expectation at Talladega and Daytona. The package they ran in the early 2000’s (and the XFINITY Series for much longer) with the roof spoiler made for much better racing than we have now. Surely there’s another solution to make the cars more stable in the turbulent air.

 Why…did Dale Earnhardt, Jr. win the race?

 Earnhardt drove a convincing race and had help when it counted from teammate Johnson, who already owed him one and was certainly beatable. However, hardly anyone even tried, because a combination of current rules and the Chase make the risk greater than the reward. It’s hard for cars to close in the draft with the current car, and for anyone in the top 10 or 15, making a move out of line isn’t worth the finishing position. If you go alone and several others don’t go with you, you’re done, sliding back into oblivion…and it was obvious in the late laps Sunday that nobody wanted to pull the trigger and try to make a run for the win. Tony Stewart led a late charge that looked as though it could bring a line of cars to the front to challenge the leaders, but it fizzled as most of those drivers pulled into the safety of the top line rather than continue the charge on the bottom. The last-lap moves were too little, too late, and fans who were expecting an exciting finish were probably disappointed.

 How…did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Blaney started third in what might have been the only car that had anything for the Hendrick Motorsports group. In just his sixth Cup race, Blaney was at the front when it counted, and charged to fourth at the end of the day despite getting shuffled in the closing laps by some veterans who didn’t want to chance working with a rookie…or maybe just with a rookie in a car that was faster than theirs.

Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex, Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): It’s getting to the point where it’s more of a surprise to see this team out of the top 10 than in it. Truex scored his ninth top 10 and second top 5 of 2015 with his fifth-place finish and moved up a spot to second in points.

(Photo: CIA Stock Photography)

Josh Wise finished a career high 10th in Sunday’s Geico 500. (Photo: CIA Stock Photography)

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Phoenix Construction Ford): Wise scored his career-best finish on Sunday, bringing in a top 10 for his single-car operation. Wise was also able to lead a lap. Runs like Wise had are the upside of plate racing; when the playing field is leveled, talent plays a bigger role than equipment, and that leads to some pleasant surprises at the top.

Front Row Motorsports; Chris Buescher & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Ford & No. 35 Speed Stick Ford & No. 38 Farm Rich Ford): Whitt led the way for FRM this week, leading a couple of laps and scoring his best finish of 2015. Gilliland also led a circuit and scored a top 20. Buescher had overheating problems early but recovered for a 24th-place finish. The team had a very strong showing this week as a whole and that’s one thing this team is good at — putting all three cars in a similar position at the end.

BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Matt DiBenedetto (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota): After a slow start to the season, a pair of top-20 finishes was sorely needed for BK Racing, especially after Jeb Burton failed to qualify. Yeley overcame a black flag when his window net came undone, as well as a subsequent penalty for speeding while coming in to fix it, for a 14th-place result at the end. DiBenedetto suffered minor damage in the lap 47 crash caused by Bayne’s spin, but was able to continue and finished 18th.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Alex Bowman (No 7 Golden Corral Chevy): Bowman also suffered some damage in the lap 47 melee, but his team was able to make repairs and keep the young driver in the game; he finished a strong 16th, a career best.

JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kroger/Hungry Jack Chevy): Allmendinger hasn’t been known for being a top restrictor plate racer, and Sunday didn’t really do much to make him suddenly fall in love. He ran in the 20s or so for most of the day and actually benefitted from the last-lap crash, which gained him several spots to finish 17th.

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Bene-fit Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier was caught up in the Bayne crash, and all things considered, a 23rd-place finish certainly wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Annett ran in the back half of the 20’s for much of the day, and that’s where he finished, in 29th to be exact. For the pair, it wasn’t a disaster, and they got away with an okay day.

GoFAS Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Ford): Labonte, like many others, was in the wrong place at the wrong time at the end of the day. Unable to move forward when nobody was willing to make a move, Labonte wound up midpack, in 27th. That’s not a terrible finish for this team, but it’s not what they were hoping for either.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Things can turn in an instant at Talladega, and they turned the wrong way for Mears on the final lap as a top 10 turned into a 28th-place. Edwards got loose and turned in front of the No 13, leaving Mears with no place to go. Instead of one of the best finishes of the day in this group, he had one of the worst. His team’s Twitter summed up the final lap:

Hillman Smith Racing: Landon Cassill (No. 40 Chevy): Cassill got the worst of the lap 47 crash, sending him to the garage for repairs. The team puts a great deal of focus on the restrictor plate races, and to be taken out so early was a disappointment to Cassill, who finished fourth in the fall race at Talladega last year. He had worked his way into the top 10 just before the crash. His team was able to make repairs and get him back on track to gain a spot or two, and Cassill even joked about leading the field. After the ordeal, Cassill finished 39th.

Premium Motorsports; Brendan Gaughan (No 62 Dia Thrive Chevy): Gaughan and Co. made the race, which has been a struggle for them this year, but that might have been the highlight of their weekend. Gaughan was collected in the lap 47 crash caused by Bayne, but was able to continue, only to cut his right rear tire on lap 92, hitting the wall to bring out caution. Gaughan was okay afterward, but for a team searching for positives, an early exit in 40th place was tough to swallow.

Circle Sport; Brian Scott (No.33 Shore Lodge Chevy): Scott lost his engine on lap 19, ending his day early and relegating him to last place.