Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s Sprint Cup event? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H … the Big Six.

Who … gets my shoutout of the race?

One thing about the Coca-Cola 600 is that either the cream rises to the top and the top finishers are exactly who you’d expect them to be, or it comes down to fuel strategy and there are some unexpected numbers on the pylon. Sunday’s race (May 27) was one of the former and the nine drivers who finished on the lead lap were no surprise.

But one driver and his team tried a strategy play, staying out on the final caution of the night. If there had been one more yellow flag in the race, it would have netted Landon Cassill a top-10 finish. For Cassill, who has struggled with newcomer BK Racing to earn a Top-35 points position, a top 10 would have been huge.

Even without luck landing their way, Cassill and team put together a commendable run on Sunday. They got faster when the sun went down, which meant after the tank ran dry, forcing a stop for fuel, Cassill was still able to bring the No. 83 home in a very respectable 18th place, ahead of such notable drivers as Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch.

For a team that is still learning and which came into 2012 admittedly behind the competition, it’s a game of baby steps – and Cassill took several healthy ones in Charlotte.

What … was THAT?

OK, so I shouldn’t be surprised by this one, but it never fails to catch me unaware when Danica Patrick gets so much airtime despite running a mediocre race at best. Nothing against Danica, who is a rookie driver with only three Cup races to her name, but shame on the television producers and analysts who continue to shove Patrick down the fans’ throats for no apparent reason while virtually ignoring drivers having better runs in lesser equipment than Patrick receives.

It’s not because the fans are clamoring for it; in fact, many have voiced their displeasure over the attention she garners.

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A glance at Sunday’s Cup results show drivers like David Gilliland, Casey Mears and Cassill putting up some of their best intermediate track results of the year in cars that are inferior to Patrick’s. Even the popular Trevor Bayne, who has won the Daytona 500 on a partial schedule couldn’t wrestle a few seconds of the announcers’ time away from Patrick and he finished six spots ahead of her.

How bad did it get? Travis Kvapil, who slammed the turn 4 wall early on, was able to finish better than Patrick’s 30th-place result, yet the only airtime received was when he brought out that mid-race caution flag.

Why do Kvapil and others toil in the back half of the field most weeks? Simple: money. But why should a sponsor step up and shell out millions for a car that might as well be invisible to the TV cameras? For one driver who’s finished behind them in every race to get so much television time while the rest are lucky to get a mention if it’s not for them being lapped is just a crying shame.

Where … did the polesitter wind up?

Aric Almirola had a fast car in qualifying on Thursday night and again on Sunday under the blazing hot Charlotte sun. But as the sun went down and shadows crept across the track, the No. 43 couldn’t quite keep up with the changes. At least the team learned from experience; as the race went on, the downward spiral flattened out and Almirola was able to bring it home in a respectable 16th place.

For Almirola and his team, that’s solidly where they should be finishing each week. The expectations might be a little higher for Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose, because he’s been with the organization longer, but a dose of NASCAR reality is that RPM isn’t quite at the level of the bigger organizations.

Hanging around the top 15 is a very solid showing for a mid-level team, especially considering that Almirola is only 12 races into his first season with RPM. That means the “rookie” is doing well … and if he can reel off some more mid-level finishes, a top-20 result in the points standings certainly isn’t out of the question.

When … will I be loved?

Really, the race was about as clean a 600-miler as you could ask for. There was hard racing throughout the pack on many occasions, but nobody really drove over their heads and nobody got unnecessarily aggressive. The hardest hit was when Kvapil pancaked his Toyota on the turn 4 wall and that was a single-car incident.

However, tight pit-road conditions did lead to one crash: as Stewart, running in the top 10, came down pit road for a routine stop, Brad Keselowski was leaving his pit and instead of waiting a split second for Stewart, who was already turning into his box, to get past, Keselowski caught Smoke in the left-rear corner, spinning the No. 14 around just as Carl Edwards was on his way out of the pits.

Edwards was able to avoid Stewart, but it could have been worse. While on the one hand, it’s actually surprising that incidents like that don’t happen more often on a crowded pit road, it’s also decidedly an issue when they do, because crewmen don’t have a ton-and-a-half of rollcage around them and overaggressive driving in the pits poses a very real danger.

Keselowski did apologize later, sort of. “Basically, I ran into him,” Keselowski said after the race. “I don’t want to make it any more complicated than that. It’s like going into a Wal-Mart parking lot; you know you’re both going for the same parking spot and don’t know who’s giving and who’s taking. I took and I probably should have gave. Sorry about hurting his day; it hurt our day as well, but stuff like that’s going to happen in 600 miles.”

Why … was this win so important for Kasey Kahne?

In a nutshell, it’s because the Chase is only 14 weeks away, and the win puts Kasey Kahne in position to grab a wildcard spot. He doesn’t have it yet; if the Chase started now, Kahne would lose out to Keselowski’s two wins and Ryan Newman’s higher points position with one.

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But it’s still vital for Kahne, who moved into 15th in points at Charlotte, because if Keselowski or Newman should oust a winless Edwards (provided he remains winless), Kahne would, at least temporarily, hold the Chase berth. And it’s still early enough for Kahne to keep adding to his total, too.

While multiple wins would all but lock Kahne into the wildcard, they could also boost him into the top 10 in points, virtually unthinkable at this time two months ago. And remember how strong Hendrick Motorsports is in the Chase? Yeah, so does Kahne.

How … physically taxing is this race on the drivers?

While for some, looks are deceiving, a walk along pit road or a glance at the faces of the drivers coming into the media center tell the tale. Even ones that don’t look exhausted (and the top drivers don’t, for the simple and very good reason that they are so physically fit) look gaunt. And that’s because they’ve lost close to 10 pounds over the course of the night.

The real wrench in the works is in years like this one, the 600-mile race is often on the first sweltering-hot race day of the season. Drivers say the first hot race is the toughest because their bodies have to acclimate, so for the first one to be in the longest race of the year is doubly difficult.

The drivers talked to the media on Thursday and most said that the most important element of preparation for this race is hydration – it starts days before the race and continues until the checkered flag flies. Greg Biffle commented Thursday that proper race hydration for 600 miles meant hourly or even more frequent trips to the restroom, but not to be prepared to that point meant not being prepared enough.

Eating correctly also plays a role; Denny Hamlin commented Saturday that by choosing the correct foods and staying hydrated, he’s been successful at lowering his heart rate in the car by 30 beats per minute. That’s a major improvement with an obvious payout in Hamlin’s second-place performance.

About the author

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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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