Race Weekend Central

The Big Six… Questions Answered After the NRA 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?

After getting a bombshell dropped on his team just before race time, Brad Keselowski had reason to be angry. And sometimes, an angry danger is a dangerous driver. But instead of letting them get the best of him, Keselowski was able to focus his emotions into a deeper drive on Saturday night, and with help from the free pass on the final caution, went out and took ninth place in the closing laps. If that’s what Keselowski does when he’s mad, Penske Racing needs to get someone to really piss him off come Chase time..

But will Keseloski’s hard charge (and that of teammate Joey Logano, who finished fifth), be for naught? NASCAR could drop a bomb on the two Penske teams for a prerace infraction with the rear end housing (more on that below), and because we haven’t seen a major violation with the Gen-6, we don’t yet know how tolerant (or not) the sanctioning body might be—they took a very hard line with the COT, though, so expect the same…and that could mean that the points Keselowski gained on Saturday night could go up in smoke on penalty day.

What… was THAT?

It can’t be easy to see the entire field sititng on the grid…except for your car. That’s what Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano went through as raced time approached. Both the No. 2 and No. 22 failed prerace inspection for a rear-end housing that was skewed too far off center. Both teams were allowed to change the rear-end housing and go back through inspection, with the cars rolling onto the grid at zero hour. NASCAR confiscated the parts and will make any determination on penalties this week.

There are a couple of questions here. Was the car illegal all weekend and NASCAR just didn’t catch it? Did they catch it before and tell the Penske Racing teams to fix it, but it didn’t get done correctly? Were the cars changed after qualifying? Those are some of the questions NASCAR will have to answer in making the final call.

There is a bit of irony here: last year, Brad Keselowski was the most vocal driver in the garage about the way some teams were able to skew their cars—complaints that were possibly part of the reason for there being very little tolerance for the rear end on the Gen-6 car. NASCAR now uses lasers to determine if the body is straight in relation to the wheels. Interesting that Keselowski should be the first caught by the new rules after being the most outspoken against allowing the off-center cars.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

For an agonizing second week in a row, Denny Hamlin as watching the race from the pits instead of behind the wheel of his No. 11 Toyota. After suffering a fractured vertebra at Fontana, Hamlin is expected to be out until at least Darlington in May.

Instead, it was Brian Vickers in the driver’s seat of the No. 11 this week. Vickers drives for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series, and is now also expected to fill in for the remainder of the time Hamlin is out. Vickers is also scheduled for a handful of races in the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip Racing, and is looking like the top candidate to fill that seat next year when Mark Martin vacates it. And he certainly is trying to make the most of his extended audition. Vickers brought the No. 11 home with a solid eighth-place finish at Texas, gaining a spot in owner points for JGR. That’s probably small consolation for Hamlin, but it was a great night for a team making the best of a bad situation.

When…will I be loved?

The racing in Texas proved to be more of a Mild Asphalt Circus than the wild one the track promoted, but there was still some quality racing to be had. Face it, the racing on the 1.5-mile tracks will always fall short of the excitement produced by tracks of a mile and shorter, with the general exception of Darlington.

For the most part, the drivers were on their best behavior, save a Kyle Busch slam into the side of Dave Blaney after Blaney kept him out of the preferred lane getting to pit road. However, a few mechanical gremlins got nasty in the Lone Star State, biting several teams who had been having solid runs. Kurt Busch was in the midst of one of Furniture Row Racing’s best runs of the year after starting on the outside pole before the mechanical woes caught up with him. Dale Earnahrdt, Jr. had a power issue while running third that relegated him to 29th place at the end. Jeff Gordon was also running third when a broken wheel hub sent him to the garage just 27 laps from the checkered flag. JJ Yeley uffered a broken rear axle that kept him from making it to the end.

Why…worry now?

The talk each week has been about how it’s still too early to worry about the Chase…and while in general, it’s hard to talk about who’s locked in and who is going to come down to the wire. But for some teams, as the season approaches two months in, making the Chase is going to quickly become a concern. Obviously, for Denny Hamlin, chances are all but gone because of his fractured back, but for Tony Stewart, performance is the only reason he’s got for not being a contender. Sure, there’s time to turn it around—but so far, Stewart hasn’t shown signs of being able to do it, continuing a slow backslide that began late in 2012. Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman did gain six spots at Texas, but chances are Newman will need at least one win to either gain the points necessary to get into the top 10 or a wild card berth. Jeff Gordon had gained a little traction recently, but lost three spots after his mechanical woes this week. He’s in better position than the SHR teams, but not by much.

How…did the little guys do?

Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire Ford): The intermediates tend to be unkind to teams who don’thave money to burn, and this week’s race was a good example of that. Bayne was the best of the group with his 18th-place finish, the only top-20 result among this group, and the only small-team on the lead lap. It wasn’t a terrible result for the part-time Wood Brothers operation; it was more indicative of the sport today than of the team’s talent or dedication. *BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil * (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Kvapil was the top driver of this duo, finishing 22nd, but, like in 2012, the two cars were not separated by too many spots, as Reutimann came home in 24th. That’s a solid step in the right direction for both halves of the BK team, who needs to right the ship after showing some improvement through 2012 but stumbling out of the gate this year.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley(No 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Accell Construction Chevy): Blaney came home 25th, a decent if not spectacular result. He did get a little TV airtime thanks to a brushup with Kyle Busch on pit road, and for these teams, any airtime is better than what they usually get. Yeley’s night didn’t go quite as well, as a broken rear axle ended his night 41 laps too early.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 EZ Pawn/ EZ Money Ford): Top honors from this team go to Ragan this week after his 26th-place finish. Wise finished four laps down in 30th, and Gilliland brought up the rear for FRM, five laps down in 32nd.
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Lean 1/Swan Energy Toyota): 27th isn’t a finish that many teams would be happy with, but it was solid for this upstart. For a new team, unless it’s got unlimited funding or a tight technical alliance with a bigger team, NASCAR is a game of baby steps and this team took one in Texas.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Texas was a bitter pill to swallow considering the success this team has had this year, and Mears’ 31st place finish, while hard fought, was his worst of 2013. Mears fought an ill-handling car all night, and the No. 13 team was able to use pit strategy to gain a few spots at the end, but the finish cost Mears four spots in the standings.
Phoenix Racing; Austin Dillon (No. 51 Bruce Lowrie Chevrolet/Realtree Chevy): Dillon had a rough night, saddled with fairly extensive damage from an early on-track tangle with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Dillon was able to continue, but not to rebound, ending up 33rd, eight laps behind the leaders. This team has slipped a bit in the last couple of weeks, but all in all, considering that they have just 18 full-time employees, sitting 16th in owner points is still a very good season to date.
Circle Sport; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Justin Original Workboots Chevy): This team picked up last-minute sponsorship, something they have been needing to update their equipment. Cassill finished 34th, eight laps in arrears, but was able to grab enough points to keep the No. 33 in line for a provisional starting spot next week should they need one.
NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 ATIgunstocks.com Toyota): Nemechek is an owner/driver who started and parked most week in 2012 but has made the leap to running at the end so far this year. Nemechek is another example among this group of a team that’s behind despite its driver’s considerable skill; Nemecheck is a Sprint Cup race winner who once had the reputation for being a fierce qualifier. Drivers don’t forget how to drive overnight, and Nemechek just missed the top 10 in driver points in the Nationwide Series last week, but his equipment is a few steps behind many of his peers’ stuff, even among this group, as his 35th place finish, ten laps down, shows.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXYwater Ford): Like just about all of their counterparts, this team is still struggling on the intermediates, and Hill has less expereice than the other drivers in this group as well. The rookie finished 12 laps down in 36th.
Furniture Row Racing; Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): Engine woes caused angst for several teams running Earnhardt-Childress power this week, and FRR, which has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing akin to Stewart-Haas’ relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, was just one of those with trouble, but unlike Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard, whose teams were able to take care of the issue before the race, Busch’s day was ruined after he lost several laps for repairs. For a team that had been having a top-10 night after qualifying second, that had to sting.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Toyota): It’s likely that if the No. 47 bunch could forget Texas altogether, they would gladly erase it from memory. Labonte had the stomach flu before the race began and had hoped to run long enough for a relief driver to be found among the start and park ranks, but he had to pull in after a handful of laps to go to infield care for IV fluids. Michael McDowell dropped out of the race, but is considerably taller than Labonte and had trouble fitting in the seat. The team had hoped that Mike Bliss would pull in sooner, but his team needed to gain points, so the No. 47 sat in the garage for a bit before McDowell eventually squeezed in. Unfortunately his effort, while a generous gesture, was wasted as a blown engine ended the team’s day.

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