Race Weekend Central

The Big Six: Questions Answered After the Toyota Owners’ 400

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Saturday night’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered 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?

Juan Pablo Montoya broke through on Saturday night, ending the worst slump of his Sprint Cup career with a fourth-place finish at Richmond.

One thing about racing — sometimes the driver who should win doesn’t, and that’s exactly what went down on Laburnum Avenue Saturday night. Juan Pablo Montoya had the best car late and was driving like he owned the place before a late crash by Brian Vickers shuffled the field and left Montoya on the outside row for the restart. That was all she wrote as it was Kevin Harvick who was able to make the move to the front on a green-white-checkered run to the finish; Montoya was left sitting fourth.

But on the bright side, it looks as though things are looking up at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as of late. Both Montoya and Jamie McMurray had a solid week at Richmond, and both were in contention to win, though McMurray’s old tires relegated him to a finish that doesn’t reflect his weekend well (from second to 26th on the final restart). While making the switch from Earnhardt-Childress engines to Hendrick power may have helped, an ECR powerplant won the race, so that isn’t the only answer. Whatever this team has done, it has made serious gains, with McMurray creeping towards Chase contention, sitting 12th in points after this week’s race.

What… was THAT?

While Saturday night’s race turned into a barn burner at the end, including a caution for lawn sprinklers, the really weird stuff happened under Friday’s full moon. Of course, between the bumping, the wrecking, and the kicking, it’s pretty hard to ignore the post-race dustup after the Nationwide Series race in which Brian Scott confronted Nelson Piquet, Jr., still wearing his helmet. Piquet responded by kicking Scott in the groin; the fracas eventually ended up with two of Scott’s crewmen getting arrested for assault after allegedly ambushing Piquet in the motorhome lot. Which of these moves was weakest? You decide!

As far as the Cup race goes, the biggest surprise of the weekend was the top teams who had poor qualifying runs. Title contenders in the back half of the field included defending champ Brad Keselowski (23rd), point leader Jimmie Johnson (26th), Carl Edwards (28th) and Greg Biffle (33rd). Two of those drivers were able to make up some ground: Edwards finished sixth and moved into second in points, while Johnson came home 12th and extended his points lead. On the flip side, Keselowski had multiple issues during the race and finished 33rd, while Biffle suffered a broken shock and wound up 36th.

Where…did the defending race winner wind up?

Kyle Busch entered the weekend hoping to extend his record streak of four straight wins in the spring race at Richmond; instead, he wound up with a good run turned sour for a second week in a row. Busch was caught in the aftermath when Tony Stewart got loose and turned Jimmie Johnson in front of the No. 18 on lap 328, suffering considerable damage as a result. From there, it was mostly downhill for Busch, who led 40 laps before the incident. He ended up in 24th place, on the lead lap but out of contention.

Busch is making it clear this year that he intends to make the Chase, after missing the field in 2012. But does he have the consistency and ability to overcome the adversity it takes to make a title run? That’s what Busch needs to show in the upcoming races. He stumbled at Kansas, then was unable to recover after trouble at Richmond; back-to-back weeks like this one, in the Chase are all it can take to end a title bid.

When…will I be loved?

The Busch brothers were both Saturday night contenders until circumstances didn’t tilt their way late at Richmond.

While Saturday’s cool-down lap was downright tame compared to what went down Friday, after the NNS race, there were still some hot tempers and some unnecessary roughness as the cars spun one more time around Richmond. First, Kurt Busch gave Matt Kenseth a pop for the (perfectly executed) bump and run he pulled on Busch on the green-white-checkered, and then Tony Stewart did the same to Busch for a similar move.

While both drivers need a good finish – Busch, if he has any hope of making the Chase as a wild card, and Stewart, just to make chicken salad out of a terrible start to 2013 – neither post-race reaction was called for. Had Kenseth put Busch in the wall, or Busch done the same to Stewart, as Nelson Piquet, Jr. did to Brian Scott to ignite Friday night’s fireworks, then the reaction might have been justified. As it was, both were a little too hot over perfectly acceptable racing.

Why… worry now?

While Jimmie Johnson managed to extend his points lead despite a mediocre finish on Saturday night, the race marked the quarter pole of the 2013 season. And nine races in, some trends are starting to take shape. It’s likely that the current top seven in points — Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch — are headed for the Chase come September.

But for some others, a potential bid for the title is slipping away. With a third of their chances squandered, things are getting desperate for Tony Stewart — his last, best chance is to grab a couple of wins and steal a “wild card” spot. Kurt Busch, a Chase dark horse, is in the same boat. He needs to win… but he’s looking like he’s got a better shot at Victory Lane than Stewart. There are also going to be some spots in the Chase field up for grabs amongst several drivers. With Kevin Harvick’s lame duck status, he’s a tough call, though Saturday night’s win strengthens his case. It’s unlikely that Paul Menard will go the distance inside the top 10, and Greg Biffle’s luck this year makes him a hard sell as well. Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth is likely to climb back in and someone like Ryan Newman or Joey Logano, who are both making weekly gains, could sneak in before all is said and done.

How…did the little guys do?

Furniture Row Racing; Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): Busch led 36 laps and had a shot at the win late in the race before getting shuffled to ninth. Busch also showed his trademark temper postrace, getting together with Matt Kenseth after Kenseth pulled off a bump and run on him through a green-white-checkered run. He didn’t need to do that; everyone knew he was there, contending inside the top 5 long before that show of emotion. With Talladega coming up, could Busch end FRR’s two-year winless streak soon? Signs point to it being a distinct possibility.
Phoenix Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): It might have looked like the team’s decision to stay out when the leaders pitted before the green-white-checkered was a mistake. But consider this fact: Allmendinger ran in the mid 20s for most of the race, and after the gamble, came home 14th. No, it didn’t give the team a surprise win, but it did gain them about ten spots in the final tally. That’s smart racing… and smart racing has made this team the best among its economic class for most of 2013.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Toyota): Richmond was a good track for many of the smaller teams this week, including Labonte’s crowd. They nabbed their first top 20 since Daytona, and Labonte’s 19th-place finish also gained Labonte a spot in points, where he moved up to 27th. Labonte was tops in driver points in 2012 among this group; so far in 2013, he’s slipped to third amongst the same teams. These guys need to pick it up a notch, and it seems as though Toyota doesn’t give the little guys much help. It’s too late for this year, but perhaps this team should consider making a manufacturer switch in time for 2014; at this point, it’s clear their connections aren’t working as well.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Josh Wise & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX/Play It Safe Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Ragan was top driver among the FRM crowd this week, and his 20th-place run was his best of 2013 to date. After a pair of crashes to start the season, Ragan has slowly improved. Meanwhile, Gilliland slipped five spots from last week, but he didn’t turn anyone and didn’t make headlines for telling a fellow competitor to “shut up and drive.” A quiet week, despite the 27th-place result, was probably a good thing for him. Wise had the most eventful night in Richmond, tangling with Landon Cassill early, but rebounded to come home 28th, his third-best effort of the year. Wise parked early throughout 2012, and he’s still learning to go the distance.

David Reutimann ran strong at Richmond Saturday night, finishing 22nd but BK Racing as a whole is lagging behind in their second season on tour.

BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 93 Dominion Raceway Toyota): Reutimann had a solid, if not particularly memorable, day, and his 22nd-place finish was his best since Daytona. The No. 83 has gotten back to about where they were in 2012, but the No. 93 has struggled to keep pace, where a year ago the two cars seemed very equal. Saturday was not the night Kvapil needed to right his ship; he followed up last week’s blown engine by causing two of the 11 caution flags. The first came with a single-car crash, when his Toyota smacked the Turn 3 and then came a fluid leak that relegated him to a 37th-place finish. He was running at the end, but it wasn’t pretty.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & J.J. Yeley (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 NASCAR Foundation Chevy): Blaney quietly got the weekend off to a good start, outqualifying Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson, to name a few. He’s been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year; when he doesn’t have issues, he’s finished in the mid-20s consistently. That’s not much on paper, but an improvement over last year. With a 23rd-place finish, he’s already equaled the number of lead-lap results he had in 2012. Yeley’s night wasn’t quite as solid, with a 32nd-place performance, although it’s his first time running at the checkers in three weeks. I feel like while there are advantages to having two cars, it still looks like TBR might have expanded before they were ready.
Circle Sport Racing; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos/Precon Marine Chevy): An early tangle with Josh Wise didn’t keep Cassill from his best finish of 2013. For a team that’s running used parts most weeks, the night was very kind indeed; in fact, Circle Sport has finished better than 25th only once in its existence. This run is the kind of small gain that this team needs to make. If they keep doing it, perhaps they’ll attract a sponsor’s eye and things would only get better from there.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): 2013 started out wonderfully for Mears and Co., but the last few weeks have been a test. Mears fought an ill-handling car at Richmond, and for the first time in awhile, sounded like he wasn’t quite in synch with crew chief Bootie Barker as the team struggled to make the car handle better. They managed just a 30th-place finish. Mears’ assessment on Twitter sums up the week pretty well: “That race went so well I would rather have Gallagher hit my head with a sledge hammer and bust it like a watermelon!”
Swan Racing; David Stremme (No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota): Stremme had a new voice in his ear as Steve Lane took over crew chief duties at Richmond, but the end result was on par with what this team has done this year; Stremme finished one spot lower than his season average of 30th. He did get a little TV time towards the end, while being lapped, but like the other upstarts, Stremme has a hard road in front of him to help this team grow.
FAS Lane Racing; Timmy Hill (No. 32 OXY Water Ford): For a young driver in his first races, it’s often said that the important thing is to log laps and learn. Hill made just his ninth career Cup start this week, and he did do that; he was nine laps down and finished 34th. While that might not be what Hill or his fans want to see, he’s on par with what this team has done in the last couple of years. In 2013 to date, only two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte has cracked the top 30 for Frank Stoddard’s team, so Hill has nothing to be ashamed of.

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