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The Big Six: Questions Answered After the Auto Club 400
Tough to celebrate when you’re not in the car. Fear didn’t factor in to Hamlin’s missing the race, though, did it?

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the Auto Club 400

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’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…the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

Kyle Larson grabbed his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win on Saturday, and he looked like he might pull off the weekend sweep on Sunday, getting a strong restart on the green-white-checkered and making a run at Kyle Busch, who had to block Larson all the way to the apron to hold the lead. That impeded Larson’s momentum and cost him the chance at his first Cup win – but Larson is a quick study and won’t be so easy to stop next time. Once he’s got some more experience under his belt to match that raw talent, Larson could be a threat almost every week. He’s the most talented of this year’s rookie pool, and it looks as though his Chip Ganassi equipment is coming around as well.

CREED: Kyle Larson’s Coming Out Party

What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?

It may not have affected everyone, but Denny Hamlin’s sinus infection certainly impacted the No. 11 team, who had to make a driver change at the eleventh hour as Hamlin was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. Sam Hornish, Jr. was already on hand for Matt Kenseth, whose wife Katie is due to give birth to the couple’s third child, but wound up in Hamlin’s seat instead after doctors advised the driver to sit the race out. His vision was getting affected, to the point he failed a “follow the finger” test and was actually losing sight in one eye.

NASCAR can give Hamlin a medical exception should he win one or more races and otherwise qualify for the Chase, perhaps the one positive of this year’s postseason changes. In the past, a driver in Hamlin’s situation might have decided to race anyhow, which could have put other drivers as well as himself in danger.

A year after Hamlin suffered a broken back, following a vicious wreck in Fontana, there is also the nagging question of whether the track played a role in Hamlin’s decision to sit out. Would he have stayed on the sidelines at Martinsville or Richmond? Did fear play a role? Those are questions only Hamlin can answer.

Tough to celebrate when you’re not in the car. Fear didn’t factor in to Hamlin’s missing the race, though, did it?

Tough to celebrate when you’re not in the car. Fear didn’t factor in to Hamlin’s missing the race, though, did it?

Tough to celebrate when you’re not in the car. Fear didn’t factor in to Hamlin’s missing the race, though, did it?

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

Matt Kenseth took the pole this weekend, and looked like he’d challenge for the win, leading four times for 19 laps. But in the end, Kenseth had to settle for fourth after the green-white-checkered run to the finish. It’s his first top-5 run of the year, though and Kenseth has three top 10s. That leaves him sitting just seven points off Carl Edwards’ early championship lead.

Kyle Busch won this race a year ago, and he repeated this time around, winning the race and becoming the fifth victor in five races so far this year. His win also showed the No. 18 team’s strength — they didn’t have the best car, but the pit crew put Busch in exactly the position he needed to be in at the end. That’s where the driver capitalized and got more out of the car than he perhaps should have.

When…did it all go sideways?

Just 20 laps into the race, Kevin Harvick cut a tire while running fifth, to mark Harvick’s third race in a row where his team met trouble, despite running well. But that was just the beginning. Throughout the race, it became apparent that 20 laps was about the limit on these tires, and after that, it was just a matter of time until left-sides started blowing. With fewer than seven laps to go, no fewer than five teams had tires go down trying to make it to the finish.

It’s not entirely a Goodyear problem. Teams said that the more aggressive setups they’ve been allowed to work with this year were the main factor. The sport is on the right track with running a softer tire, but it’s clear that more testing and development is necessary. Tire strategy makes racing better, but it should be about the cars handling terribly after 20 laps, not worrying about when (not if) a tire will blow. That crosses a line — it doesn’t make the racing itself better, and it’s dangerous. Tire strategy needs to be a part of the sport, but it went beyond strategy in Fontana.

BOWLES: NASCAR, Tires, And The Goldilocks Theory

Why…did Kyle Busch win the race?

Because sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Busch had a good car but never had the best car as the race wore on. He’d be fast on fresh tires, then fade as a run continued. Late in the race, as the cars crossed the 20-lap tire threshold, two of the fastest teams, the Nos. 48 and 15, both lost left-side tires and saw their chances slip away. All in all, five cars lost tires in the final laps, setting up the green-white-checkered finish.

Busch wasn’t one of the drivers affected by the rash of blowouts, and he also beat Jeff Gordon, who clearly had a better car, off pit road, and from there was able to take it to the front. He held off charging rookie sensation, Kyle Larson, blocking Larson to the apron to take the checkered flag.

Kyle Busch, not the class of the field, but definitely the finest on restarts.

Kyle Busch, not the class of the field, but definitely the finest on restarts.

How…did the little guys do?

JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Charter Chevy): This race is the type of run this team is capable of pulling off this year with improved equipment. While they have a lot of competition and need to catch up, after years of being behind the curve, JTG should be grabbing top-10 runs here and there while finishing inside the top 15-20 on a regular basis. This week, Allmendinger excelled at a track he’s clearly at home on, and brought home a fantastic finish, taking eighth. It’s the best performance for the No. 47 since Bobby Labonte ran seventh, back at Loudon in July of 2011.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): After starting out strong, this team hasn’t quite hit its stride yet; they should be qualifying better than they have the last few races and their finishes haven’t been as strong as they’re capable of. Handling was an issue this week, as Mears was fighting the car off the corners for most of the day. The team did get it right at the end, taking advantage of the green-white-checkered finish to grab some spots and finish 15th, which is right about where they should be running at these tracks. Mears is hanging at 18th in driver points, best of this group so far.

Swan Racing; Cole Whitt & Parker Kligerman (No. 26 & No. 30 Swan Energy Toyotas): Whitt carried the torch for the team this week, running 18th — his best career Cup result and his team’s second-ever top-20 finish on an intermediate track. Again, this team is showing signs of strength. Unfortunately, Kligerman didn’t share in his teammate’s good fortune; he got into the wall after just 86 laps and wound up 42nd, one of just two drivers who failed to finish the race.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): Sunday marked strong runs for both TBR drivers, a boost the team sorely needs after the last couple of races. This week, both finished on the lead lap, with Annett cracking the top 20, in 19th and Sorenson right behind in 21st. Sure, the tire failures helped, but luck is exactly what teams like this one need. This week? They finally found some.

BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 83 Borla Exhaust Toyota): Bowman showed some chops on Sunday, working his way from a 40th-place start to 22nd by the end of the race. Like TBR, this team badly needs a few top-25 runs and some old-fashioned good luck. They didn’t find that for both teams this week, though, as Truex lost a lap after a NASCAR penalty for passing the pace car while not getting a wave-around. On a day where half the field stayed on the lead lap, that meant finishing 31st… which is still better than some elite drivers did.

Circle Sport; Brian Scott & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Whitetail Chevy & No. 40 CRC Brakleen/FiberLock Chevy): Cassill took a gamble at the end, staying out under the final caution and, while he ended up with a flat tire and no chance at a steal, Cassill still had a strong day, coming home 25th. A top 25 is a very decent result for this team, paired with the TV time for taking the gamble and running first in the first place. Scott, while running a full Richard Childress Racing entry this week in the No. 33, tangled with Aric Almirola, triggering a two-car caution and drawing Almirola’s ire. Scott limped his damaged machine home in 35th.

Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan, David Reutimann & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): It wasn’t the best day for the all-David lineup this week, with their best finisher, Ragan, just 27th and no car on the lead lap. Reutimann ran 29th, while Gilliland, who suffered damage after smacking the wall, was able to get repairs and come home 38th. It wasn’t a terrible day; certainly not a setback, just not the improvement they were looking for.

HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): It was a forgettable day for Allgaier, who avoided trouble for the most part to finish 28th. This team is behind where it was a year ago, but whether that’s due to the ownership change, the driver, or the equipment remains to be seen.

Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Land Castle Title Toyota): They didn’t start and park this week (no teams called it a day before the checkers except for a couple whose cars were damaged beyond repair) and Nemechek was able to bring the car home a lap down in 32nd. It’s not a great day for an underfunded operation, but not the worst they could have had either. Whether this operation has staying power remains to be seen, as Robinson hasn’t posted a contender in the Nationwide Series, his former home in years.

GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 SK Hand Tools Ford): This team didn’t get to take advantage of the attrition as much as their counterparts, though Kvapil finished just one lap down. That was good for 33rd place, a spot reserved for drivers multiple laps behind at many tracks. This team is a capable group of people, but without the funding to buy more competitive equipment, they continue to struggle.

Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Trench Shoring Company Ford): For this team, finishing a race is a good week, and Wise was able to do that after the team found funding for the race. Wise scraped the wall late, ruining a potential top 25 but was able to soldier on to a 37th-place finish. This team might have room to grow if they had funding, but that’s been sporadic at best.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.