Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

Introducing Frontstretch’s newest website feature! Expanding from its spot in our free newsletter, the Big Six will chronicle the Sprint Cup race each weekend by asking the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why with a little How mixed in. It’s an easy way to hit on the big points from the weekend that was with a little bit of analysis thrown in by our Amy Henderson. We hope you like it and please, don’t hesitate to let us know how you feel by adding your thoughts in the comments section below!

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Some days, it’s better to be lucky than good, but when you’re good, sometimes you set yourself up to get lucky. That’s exactly what David Ragan did on Sunday night (May 29), running consistently in the top 10 as day turned to night, eventually putting himself in position to score his career-best finish. The second-place run comes at a fortuitous time for Ragan. With UPS’s contract up at the end of 2011, Ragan may be fighting for his job, especially as Roush Fenway driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is contending for the Nationwide Series championship (and finished 11th Sunday in his Cup debut filling in for Trevor Bayne in the No. 21).

One second-place run might not save Ragan’s sponsor or his job outright, but it might buy him a little time to capitalize on the momentum he’s gained in the last two weeks (Ragan won the Sprint Showdown for a ticket into the All-Star Race last week.) He’ll need to do that before he can breath easy, but he took a step in the right direction on Sunday.

What… was THAT?

It was almost a big night for NASCAR. Their favorite native son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was two laps from victory when Kasey Kahne ran out of fuel and triggered a big crash going into turn 1. Jeff Burton went for a ride through the grass and came to a stop on an access road just off the track’s apron. There should have been a caution, but NASCAR failed to throw the flag. Had anyone but Earnhardt been the leader, would the race have stayed green? Maybe, maybe not, but the bottom line is, it should never even be a question.

The fact that it is is troubling. While you can’t argue that an Earnhardt win would be good for the sport, no win should come with that kind of doubt. Ironically, if NASCAR had thrown the caution as Earnhardt took the white flag (and before the field came back around to where Burton’s car sat, Earnhardt probably would have had enough fuel to coast across the line. We’ll never know if there was favoritism involved in the decisions NASCAR made… but we shouldn’t be left to wonder.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Like a few others bitten by the fuel-mileage bug, Brad Keselowski didn’t get to end the race where he’d started. In fact, he wasn’t even close, finishing 19th. But the silver lining was that the Penske group seems to be finding speed. Teammate Kurt Busch found himself fourth when the smoke cleared, his best run in weeks. And while qualifying well doesn’t always translate into racing well, it does mean there’s speed in the car. Without that, adjustments and changes won’t help. With it, you have a starting point for a team that frankly needs to start somewhere.

When… will I be loved?

Ironically, the driver with the most irate fans wanting to throttle him didn’t wreck anyone. He didn’t even take the air off anyone. Nope; what Jimmie Johnson did to earn himself a dearth of love was to be unlucky enough to have an engine self-destruct with five laps to go, causing the extended caution for cleanup that may have cost Earnhardt a shot at the race win.

You know it’s just not your day when you end up the villain… and you didn’t even do anything to deserve it except have your own chances at a decent finish go up in smoke.

Why… do people think a 600-mile race is “boring” again?

Sure, the first half of the race was tame. 600 miles is grueling on both car and driver, and racing all-out in the opening laps can spell disaster later on. Sure, the race came down to fuel mileage, as a long race on a big track often does. Face it, it’s a part of the game and the best strategy can win it. The only way to avoid it would be to throw a competition caution toward the end of every race, which would REALLY be terrible.

But it was a good race and the fans in attendance were on their feet for the finish. Fuel-mileage racing is a part of the sport, and Sunday night it left everyone watching on pins and needles in the closing laps. Without the green-white-checkered finish, it would have been a three-way battle for the win between Greg Biffle, Kahne and Earnhardt. Either way, fans got their money’s worth.

How… far has the mighty fallen?

For a track Johnson once called “my house,” Charlotte Motor Speedway wasn’t kind to the five-time defending champion on Sunday. Or perhaps more accurately, Johnson’s own pit crew wasn’t kind to their driver, who lost positions on stop after stop, culminating in a penalty for a wrench left in its adjustment port. The penalty ended up costing Johnson, who was running 10th before the stop, 14 positions on the racetrack.

Worse, it wasn’t as though the team was struggling to pull the wrench as Johnson drove off; it appeared that nobody even made a move to grab for it after the adjustments. Pit stops were Johnson’s Achilles heel in 2010 as well, and to that end, the team held tryouts over the winter to give Johnson better work in the pits.

The problem is, this year’s crew makes last year’s look absolutely brilliant, to the point where they have taken Johnson out of contention at several races this year. This from a team that used to do the exact opposite, finding Johnson spots on pit road and overcoming anything thrown at them with apparent ease. The issues likely cost Johnson the win at Dover and a top five at Charlotte. If the free-fall doesn’t stop, the No. 48 team will hit rock bottom at Homestead.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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