_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 Wâ€™s and even the Hâ€¦the Big Six._
*Whoâ€¦gets my shoutout of the race?*
While he only led 12 laps on Sunday, *Brad Keselowski* reminded everyone why he's the reigning champion on Sunday. Keselowski waged fierce on-track battles for position all day long and never once backed down from a challenge. His dogged fight with Kyle Busch for third place showed what the 29-year-old is made of. Keselowski never gave an inch, but he never crossed the line into over-aggression, though he's had issues with Busch in the past.
What did Keselowski show on Sunday that makes him a champion? First, he's willing to take a risk during a race, even if it's not for the lead. Lots of drivers are willing to settle for a point or two less in the late going rather than risking a crash and the loss of many points, but Keselowski isn't. Two, he knows that if you ruffle too many feathers, it will come back to bite you. He races as hard as anybody, but with nothing but respect (though he will drive others the way they driver him if he feels the need to send a reminder), and that means his peers will remember that down the road. Three, Keselowski knows how to take care of his equipment while racing for a top finish, and that's not something that just anyone can do. In short, if anyone doubts that Brad Keselowski is the real deal after his 2012 title, they had better adjust their thinking in a hurryâ€”this driver is goin to be a title contender for years to come.
*Whatâ€¦ was THAT?*
It was kind of funny that when NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton discussed the fine levied against Denny Hamlin last week for his comments about the new Gen-6 cars being difficult to race, he said that constructive criticism was acceptable. Really? Because if you listen to the comments Hamlin was fined for, that's exactly what they were. They didn't slam the car or the racing, unlike the comments fired by Kyle Busch when the CoT was rolled out (Busch as not fined for flat out saying the car sucked). I'm sure the back helicopters were circling for the conspiracy-minded when Hamlin, who has said he will not pay NASCAR's fine, was penalized for speeding on pit road, too.
So what gives? For fans who want to hear their favorite drivers discuss their races and not off-track news, *it has to be frustrating knowing they're being throttled at every attempt and will soon be afraid to say anything*. This is exactly the type of thing that makes so many drivers seem so very blandâ€”they're afraid to bite the hand that feeds them, be it sponsor or sanctioning body. It doesn't matter how genuine or funny they are outside the sound bites, because a lot of people aren't looking beyond the broadcasts to see their personalities. If NASCARâ€”and team sponsorsâ€”want to see more fans following them, they need to consider what's really important here. And this week, NASCAR failed miserably to put things in perspective.
*Whereâ€¦did the defending race winner wind up?*
For Tony Stewart, winning at Las Vegas last spring was the case of a driver still riding the wave of momentum from his 2011 Cup title, and it made Stewart an early favorite to repeat in 2012. It was the first of three wins for Stewart last year, but not the start of a fourth overall title run. Stewart, who has been known to heat up with the weather, didn't get nearly as hot as the summer sun, and his repeat bid faded to a ninth-place points result.
This week's performance, while not as engaging as a year ago, was more in line with Stewart's career numbers at LVMS. Stewart finished *11th* on Sunday, slightly ahead of his 12.7 average finish. Last year's winning performance was the only Vegas victory for Stewart, who was not among the eight drivers to lead this week. Still, it was uneventful, and that's exactly what Stewart needs after finishing 41st at Daytona. After finishing eighth last week, Stewart climbed to 18th in driver points this week, up five sports form Phoenix.
*Whenâ€¦will I be loved?*
I'm sure there will be fans clamoring to blame the Gen-6 car for a lack of competitiveness on Sunday, but here's the thing: it could, and did, pass without getting all upset. What it couldn't do (and neither could its predecessor) was catch the cars in front of it. I heard a rumor that NASCAR is considering limiting horsepower using a graduated spacer like they use in the Nationwide Series, but that's not enough.
*If NASCAR wants tighter racing, they need to slow the cars down by about 30 miles an hour.* There are several ways they could limit the horsepower if they chose to do so. Faster isn't always better, and as speeds rise, the racing is getting less and less competitive. Couple that with the points racing NASCAR has created (that's all on them), and well, you get what you saw Sunday. The Gen-6 can race side by side, and it can pass, but it can't fix problems NASCAR won't address in the right way.
It's still a whole lot of too early to pick favorites to make the Chase, let alone win the title, but there are a few trends forming early that warrant a look. *Hendrick Motorsports* is looking strong early, with all four of its drivers in the top 14 in points, including point leader Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in third. Johnson and Earnhardt, in particular, look to be very comfortable in the Gen-6 cars at this point, and Kasey Kahne is rapidly catching on. Still, it's very early, and an advantage with the Gen-6 now doesn't mean it will still be there when the Chase rolls around, and there are other teams looking to pounce as they gain on the car.
*Roush Fenway Racing* has three drivers in the top 11, including last week's winner, Carl Edwards, and rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Greg Biffle and Stenhouse stumbled a bit at LVMS, though, while Edwards put up a fifth-place run. What puts RFR just a tick behind Hendrick in recent years is the team's seeming inability to sustain top finishes for all three teams; at least one has been a step behind as the season wears on. Brad Keselowski is picking up right where he left off for *Penske Racing* as the only driver with three straight top-5 runs to open 2013, but new teammate Joey Logano hasn't gotten up to speed as quickly, having yet to score a top-10 finish. *Joe Gibbs Racing* should be there when it counts, but engine and mechanical woes have plagued them early. Matt Kenseth's birthday win was a step in the right direction, and Kenseth knows how to win a titleâ€”something neither Denny Hamlin nor Kyle Busch has proven able to do yet. Finally, *Michael Waltrip Racing* is looking to show that 2012 wasn't a fluke, and are off to a good start, with both Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer in the top 10 (though Martin won't stay there due to a partial schedule; the team could still post a strong owner point run).
*Howâ€¦did the little guys do?*
*Furniture Row Racing; Kurt Busch* (No. 78 Furniture Row / Serta Chevy): FRR was the only small team to land among the top 20 on Sunday, with Busch's 20th-place effort. Busch was the first driver to finish a lap down to Matt Kenseth, but it looked to be a 50-50 proposition for the Earnhardt-Childress Engine crowd this week anyway; while Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard finished in the top 10, Busch and Jeff Burton finished the day midpack, with Busch besting Burton by six spots.
*Phoenix Racing; Austin Dillon* (No. 51 Tag Heuer Chevy): Dillon had a solid day given the equipment he's in. His 21st-place finish was second-best among this group, not bad for a driver with limited experience on a track where the small teams are unlikely to compete with the poerhouses. It was also Dillon's best result in his four-race Cup experience, so it wasn't a bad day for this team, just an average one.
*Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne* (No 21 Motorcraft Ford): Bayne is a better intermediate-track driver than his Cup results show, but he's one of the drivers whose day hinges more on the engine the team is given from Roush-Yates, and Wood Brothers is about eighth in line in that hierarchy. Bayne finished the day a lap down in 23rd place.
*Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley*(No 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): It wasn't an easy day for the TBR drivers, but it wasn't a start & park day, either. This is a team that wants to go the distance every week, but were often forced to the garage early last year when the money wasn't there. Blaney had the better finish of the two TBR drivers on Sunday, finishing 24th, a lap behind the leaders, while Yeley had a rougher go of it, ending the West Coast trip eight laps down in 36th.
*Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland* (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport' Riviera Hotel & Casino Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver's Ford): Just one of the three FRM cars managed a top-30 result in Sin City, with David Gilliland leading the team to a 28th-place finish. Unsponsored David Ragan ended up 31st, and Josh Wise came home 35th, seven laps down. This is one team who is probably glad NASCAR did away with the top 35 rule-not one of the FRM cars is among that group this year so far.
*Germain Racing; Casey Mears* (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Here is a team that's shown vast improvement in the last couple of years-Mears entered the day 19th in driver points after a top 15 run last week and has been strong in the last several restrictor-plate racesâ€”but is in the same boat as the other small teams on the intermediate tracks. Perhaps even a smaller, leaker boat; if Wood Bros. Racing is eighth in the engine line, Germain is somewhere between ninth and 12th every week, and that shows up on this type of track. Mears also fought an ill-handling car all day en route to his 29th-place finish, two laps off the pace.
*JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte* (No. 47 Kingsford Toyota): Labonte had a tough day on Sunday, going for a spin late in the race. Still, the veteran driver was able to recover enough to finish 30th, four laps behind. Labonte may not be the championship driver he once was, and he's certainly not in championship caliber equipment, but one thing you can say for the 2000 champ is that if he can find a way to salvage at least a halfway decent run, he will do it.
*Swan Racing; David Stremme* (No. 30 Swan Racing / Lean1 Toyota): Perhaps the most memorable moment for this team on Sunday was in the closing laps, when Matt Kenseth was pleading with his spotter to ask lapped traffic to give him the top lane, and Stremme was the only one to challenge him, giving Kenseth and his fans a momentary fright before their victory. Still, this new team was running at the end and not in the garage as so many start-ups find themselves early. Stremme wound up six laps behind Kenseth in 32nd spot.
*BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil * (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): At times on Sunday, it looked more like Reutimann and Kvapil were simply trying to survive the day, staying out of the way of the leaders and trying to keep their cars in one piece. Reutimann limed home six laps down in 33rd, but Kvapil's engine gave up the ghost in the late going, leaving him in 39th. This team is one who should be showing more improvement from last fall to now. They were behind on building cars in early 2012, but that can only be the excuse for poor performance for so long.
*FAS Lane Racing; Ken Schrader* (No. 32 Federated Auto Parts Ford): Frankie Stoddard's team is among the poorest of the poor, but you have to hand it to them, they don't pack it in early. This week, veteran Ken Schrader piloted the No. 32 to a 37th-place finish, next to last among the cars that were running at the end. You have to feel for Stoddard, who was among the best crew chiefs in the sport a decade ago, because he genuinely wants to make his team succeed despite the uphill battle they face every week.
*NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek* (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks.com Toyota): Nemechek, who has in the past, parked early to fund his Nationwide Series efforts, has tried to go the distance each week so far in 2013 with modest backing. A former NNS champion and Cup winner, Nemecheck was running at the end on Sunday, though he was more than 50 laps off the pace in 40th.
*Leavine Family Racing; Scott Speed * (No. 95 Surrender the Sponsor Ford): Transmission failure or start and park? It was hard to tell with this team on Sunday, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and include them, since they raced past the halfway mark, which included having to make some pit stops, en route to their 41st-place result. However, if the trend continues, they'll be left off the list as a start & park effort.
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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