Race Weekend Central

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the STP Gas Booster 500

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?

Sometimes kudos are like potato chips; I can’t pick just one this week after a pair of drivers who started in the back of the pack simply manhandled their cars to the front after 500 long laps. Well, maybe “manhandled” is the wrong word, because Danica Patrick brought it to the front, gaining 20 spots on her official starting spot of 32nd to end up 12th at the checkers. But in reality, Patrick rolled off 42nd after an engine change in the No. 10. She easily drove by her boss in the closing laps, besting Tony Stewart by five spots, and took Rookie of the Race honors for the second time this year. Yes, she had a great car, but she still had to drive it. And she outdrove a lot of great drivers this week.

Equally impressive this week was Casey Mears. Mears started 39th after a terrible qualifying lap. I talked to Mears on Friday after qualifying, and he wasn’t too worried, because his team had tried an experimental setup for qualifying that hadn’t worked, and his team could go back to a setup they knew worked on race day. It worked at Phoenix, where Mears started dead last and raced to 14th, and it worked again at Martinsville. Mears climbs to 17th in driver points, and if he can stay inside the top 20, he’ll be in line for one of his best points finishes ever. He’s finished in the top 20 twice before, once with Chip Ganassi Racing and once with Hendrick Motorsports. If he can do that with upstart Germain, it will be an impressive feat. (Mears will be front and center in Beyond the Cockpit on Wednesday, too, so check back to find out more about his team’s improvement!)

What… was THAT?

Did anyone know what happened there? When the caution flew for a chain reaction crash on lap , It appeared that Jimmie Johnson was losing ground fast, but he was scored as the leader after NASCAR reviewed the incident, though the No. 18 had clearly gotten by him. There was a lot of discussion as to how Johnson was allowed to keep the lead, both since he had clearly been passed on track and because he appeared to slow early while others drove by him.

How does that work? Sheer luck. Johnson had still held a narrow lead at the last scoring loop before the caution, and that’s what NASCAR uses to determine positions when the yellow flies. Kyle Busch says it was a close call, that he first saw the caution lights just as he was clearing Johnson’s car. But the loop data has the final word. “ It’s just perfect timing, horseshoe up his @$&,” Busch said on the radio. And that’s about as good an explanation as any.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

Ryan Newman sounded more like the Geico Gecko on Sunday—“Somebody help me, I have a flat tire!” Newman twice saw his chances deflate with his Goodyears, and the first one was costly; Newman stopped on the track after not being able to get to pit road, and NASCAR penalized him three laps for intentionally bringing out the yellow flag (and they weren’t wrong in their call; Newman drove away as soon as the caution flew, so you can’t blame them for the judgment call). A second flat just added insult to injury as Newman’s 2013 woes continued. He finished 31st, eight laps off the pace, and fell to 23rd in points—unless he can turn it around quickly, his Chase hopes are all but dashed already.

When…will I be loved?

Were there dustups? Sure. Kevin Harvick wasn’t too happy with Brian Vickers at the end, but in all honesty, the only villain that stole finishes this week was good, old-fashioned short track racing. It was typical Martinsville: great racing from start to finish with a few dustups. For the most part, nobody let their temper get the better of them, but that didn’t hurt the racing one iota; nobody gave an inch all day long. If rubbing is racing, then we saw some honest-to-God racing on Sunday. Texas may be billing itself as the “Wild Asphalt Circus,” but let them have it. The racing here doesn’t need a gimmicky nickname. Everyone already knows it’s the best there is.

Why…worry now?

Six races into the season, there is still time for teams to turn it around, but some trends are starting to emerge. One is that Jimmie Johnson is in top form. Johnson is the only driver with more than one win so far in 2013, and passed a significant milestone at Martinsville when he surpassed 14,000 laps led in his Sprint Cup career (he led 346 of 500 on Sunday). His win was his eighth at Martinsville and 62nd of his career, and it made him the winningest active driver at the track, breaking a tie with Jeff Gordon (only Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty have more, ever). Only Gordon has more career wins among active drivers. Love him or loathe him, when Johnson is on, he’s going to be a factor in the title. And he’s on so far this year.

Brad Keselowski just kept on doing what he does best this year, which is getting better and better, bucking trends, and going out and taking top finishes. He’s proving his 2012 title was no fluke, and what makes him scary is that he’s still learning and improving as a driver. That means he’s going to get better.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell to third after a rough day, but he’s showing that he was a title contender last year before a pair of concussions sidelined him during the Chase, and that he can be one again this year. He could always drive, but now he’s got the drive to win that he showed early in his career.

In addition, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, in particular are showing signs of being serious contenders this year.

On the flip side, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are in real trouble. They’re 22nd and 23rd in points, respectively, behind two drivers with one fewer start than they have and two more who drive for underfunded single-car teams. Stewart flat got outraced by his rookie driver, Danica Patrick, on Sunday. It isn’t pretty for the pair, and to top it off, both drivers are still searching for sponsorship for some races, and Newman needs backing for 2014 if he hopes to stay with Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s mostly just bad luck that has them where they are, but if they can’t find a way to make their own luck soon, it’s going to be a long season for them.

How…did the little guys do?

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): This team looked like the Little Engine that Could on Sunday, overcoming a terrible qualifying effort to finish 16th…and they were second-guessing themselves over it. This is a team that finished better than 20th just three times in all of 2012. They’ve already met that mark this year, and Mears, despite racing with an aching back, overcame two speeding penalties and falling a lap behind early to finish 16th, which moves him to 17th in driver points and the team to 20th in car owner points…moving Mears to the top of the class among this group of drivers.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Toyota): You have to admit, there’s a certain irony in having beans as a sponsor at a race called the STP Gas Booster 500. But wisecracks aside, Labonte rana solid, smart race on Sunday, and his experience showed as he came home 21st and on the lead lap. This is a team that looks as though they could be competitive if they had the right equipment; they’re solid if not spectacular in the lesser stuff.
Phoenix Racing; Regan Smith (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Smith played a big role in this teams 2013 success with a top 10 at Daytona, and Martinsville was his second stint in the car this year. The team could never quite find the speed to contend for a top finish, but he did finish on the lead lap, in 22nd. The No. 51 fell out of the top 10 in owner points, but if they can stay in the top 15, it will be a huge year for them in terms of improvement and stability.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley(No 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 United Mining Equipment Chevy): This team has also taken a step forward from 2012, but is still a step behind Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing, and Germain Racing. Still, they’re finishing races and getting slowly better. Yeley as top dog this week, coming home three laps down in 27th, while Blaney finished two laps and two positions behind in 29th.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 Jong John Silver’s Ford): All three teams came to run the distance this week, including the No. 35, which sometimes has to pack it in early to help its teammates out. David Gilliland was the best of this bunch, finishing 28th, four laps behind the winner, and Ragan tallied in 30th place, eight laps in arrears. Josh Wise was racy early, but an electrical issue ended his day just twelve laps before the checkers.
FAS Lane Racing; Ken Schrader (No. 32 Federated Auto Parts Ford): Schrader just flat knows how to drive Martinsville, but his knowledge couldn’t overcome a slow car, and the veteran racer finished eight laps down in 32nd. This is a team that badly needs stability, whether that means finding solid backing and/or one driver to build around. It’s obvious that owner Frank Stoddard wants to improve, but they’re haing trouble executing.
Circle Sport Racing; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos/Precon Marine Chevy): Owner Joe Falk says that his team is approaching 2013 with the game plan of finishing races. After parking early many weeks in 2012, that’s a step in the right direction. Cassill finished eight laps behind in 33rd this week, but they stayed out and beat some guys. Baby steps.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks.com Toyota): Joe Nemechek is a champion driver who still wants to race, but his career is in its twilight. Lack of funds (though he is running full races with the purple colors of MaddiesPlaceRocks.com) has plagued Front Row Joe, who brought it home again this week, but in 34th, nine laps down.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Widow Wax Toyota): This upstart is already improved over its predecessor, Inception Motorsports. They had a decent qualifying effort, starting 24th, but an electrical gremlin sent Stremme to the garage 15 laps shy of the end with a 36th-place finish.
Furniture Row Racing; Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): Sunday was just a tough day for Busch. He had flat tires. He got spun. And a fiery crash in Turn 1 finally finished him off. Busch has been impressive this year, but the bad luck bug bit him hard this week with a 37th-place run. He loses the top points spot among single car drivers to Casey Mears this week. *BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil * (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): While a few small teams have shown marked improvement this year, BK seems to have taken a step backwards.
Leavine Family Racing; Scott Speed (No. 95 Surrender the Sponsor Ford): Once again, this team gets the benefit of the doubt about their early exit, because a broken pinion stopped Speed on the track after completing just 64 laps. They pulled into the garage with a broken car this week instead of on team orders, though they finished 40th.

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