Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

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 Ws and even the H… the Big Six.

Who…gets my shoutout of the race?

Plate racing may be a crapshoot, but sometimes it still comes up sevens. For NASCAR’s small teams, Talladega is circled in red ink because it’s one of the few tracks where they’re on equal ground. These teams have to do more with less every single week, and they all put in the same amount of work as the biggest of the big organizations — with less money and fewer people to do it with.

The win that resulted, within this group was a long time coming for Front Row Motorsports, an underfunded organization that was starting and parking a car as recently as last year. It gives hope to fans and other teams alike that the good guys can sometimes finish first. David Ragan’s win with David Gilliland’s help is the best David-vs.-Goliath story (literally!) that the sport has seen in a long time. And perhaps its greatest side story is that they weren’t the only one of their peers running up front when it counted; Regan Smith brought Phoenix Racing home sixth, Scott Speed had a top-10 run for his part-time Leavine Family Racing team, while David Stremme and upstart Swan Racing finished 12th. All in all, eight of the teams you see at the bottom of this column each week finished inside the top 20. When they’re on equal ground, these teams show the talent they really have compared to the big guns.

What… was THAT?

That sound you heard? It was the engines firing after a great call by NASCAR to continue track drying efforts even after a second rainstorm washed away an earlier effort. There was time to dry the racing surface to a safe level and give the fans in attendance what they paid for – a finish under the green flag. Had the race been called when the second round of rain came, fans would have seen a win by one of the powerhouse teams and gone home with that same-old, same-old feeling. Instead, they were treated to a Cinderella story the likes of which hasn’t been seen in almost two years. NASCAR is often maligned (for the right reasons), so it’s only fair to praise them for calls like this one as well.

Did the new Air Titan system work exactly as advertised? Not quite; conditions were cold and raw, delaying the effort but it did do its job and racing resumed after more than three hours of waiting. Once the system is perfected, hopefully fans will enjoy more days like Sunday and rain-shortened races will be minimized.

Where… did the defending race winner wind up?

Brad Keselowski finished 15th, but ended up sounding like sour grapes after criticizing NASCAR for Ragan’s restart after the race. Even though he may have changed lanes early, Ragan gained no advantage from it. In fact, he should have started eighth, two spots ahead of where he eventually lined up. At most, the lane change Keselowski tweeted about post-race put Ragan in his rightful place in line, although the officials never really did get the starting order correct, in my opinion.

Perhaps NASCAR realized the mistake and chose not to penalize Ragan for popping out of line, but whatever the situation, it was not called at the time, so the finish will stand. More importantly, Keselowski is gaining the reputation of a driver who complains about other drivers doing things but not having an issue with taking similar actions himself. In any case, the defending Cup champ came home 15th and gained a spot in points to boot.

When…will I be loved?

What is there to say that’s positive about a type of racing where one driver makes a small mistake and a dozen or more others pay the price? Talladega, along with Daytona, is the epitome of what racing should not be: artificially restricted power that allows no throttle response, huge crashes that destroy a dozen or more innocent bystanders, drivers not racing for most of the race because it doesn’t matter until the last few laps. Yes, the finishes are close, but is a close finish worth watching a race just waiting for the inevitable Big One and wondering who will get taken out this time?

The kicker is, this type of racing is almost great. The teams are more equal at the restrictor-plate tracks than anywhere else, and it’s exciting to think a different face might be smiling in Victory Lane. Except it usually ends in heartache for the teams who need a win the most, while the same drivers get lucky time after time. Sure, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but at these tracks, it’s every time.

You can blame Kyle Busch for the first crash or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the one in the closing laps, but the bottom line is that anywhere else, those pick up maybe three or four cars. On a plate track, it’s 10 or more, and it always seems like the teams who can afford it the least get swept up just as they’re having the run of the year. Hoping that the luck of the draw falls your way just so you might finish isn’t racing, it’s a parlor game.

Why… worry now?

The biggest gainers in points after Talladega? Try the first and second-place cars, as Ragan and Gilliland each gained four spots. Ragan, who now sits 39 points behind 20th-place Kurt Busch in 26th, still needs to make up some ground if he hopes to make the Chase on a “wild card.” That’s unlikely to happen, because Front Row Motorsports is still behind the curve on the intermediate tracks in particular.

Tony Stewart’s title hopes continue to fall this week; Stewart was involved in the lap 43 crash and limped home in 27th, not good enough to gain a single spot. Other Chase hopefuls who suffered at Talladega include Kevin Harvick (who currently holds the second wild-card position), Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman.

At the top of the points chart, Kasey Kahne took the biggest hit at ‘Dega, falling three spots to sixth. Just behind Kahne, though sit perhaps the biggest surprises of 2013: Aric Almirola and Paul Menard. Menard has started strong before, only to fade but he continues to sit in eighth this year. Almirola, meanwhile makes his first-ever top-10 rank in points this week. Continuing to turn heads with a string of top-10 finishes, that’s making him a Chase contender nearly halfway through the regular season.

How… did the little guys do?

Front Row Motorsports; Ragan & Josh Wise & Gilliland (No. 34 Farm Rich Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): The No. 38 of Gilliland was up front after the rain delay due to their pit strategy; maybe people should have paid more attention. When all was said and done, Bob Jenkins’s little team had three cars in the top 20, including the one in Victory Lane with easily his signature performance as an owner in the Cup Series. Ragan showed his considerable plate-racing skill, as he and Gilliland came seemingly from nowhere to claim the top two spots; Ragan, of course carted home his second-ever Cup win. Wise had issues on the final restart but avoided tangling with anyone and came home 19th. For Ragan, it was just his second top-five finish in the last two seasons. And for Gilliland and Wise? Sunday was simply the best day of their Cup careers, as each scored his career-best finish. Can you say Cinderella story?

Phoenix Racing; Smith (No. 51 Hendrickcars.com Chevy): Phoenix Racing has always been strong in restrictor-plate races; they have a win with Keselowski at Talladega in 2009. Smith visited Talladega’s winner’s circle less than 24 hours before the start of the Cup event after winning the Nationwide Series race on a bold, veteran move. Together, they proved a potent combination, contending for the win all day and bettering their Daytona 500 top 10 by one spot, finishing sixth. This team will almost surely be a factor when the series heads back to Daytona in July.

Leavine Family Racing; Speed (No. 95 Jordan Truck Sales/TrackingPoint Ford): This is one of the smallest small teams in the garage, but anyone who picked Speed for their fantasy teams this week got quite a reward — Speed had his best finish since he came home fifth in this same race in 2009. For LFR, it was the best result in the team’s 25-race existence. The organization runs a partial schedule, and Talladega was just their sixth attempt of the year — just the second where they have had funding to make it to the end. Sometimes, when someone steps up to back a small team, they get a pleasant surprise; Speed’s certainly did this week!

Swan Racing; Stremme (No. 30 Lean 1 Toyota): 10 races ago, people wondered how long Swan Racing would last on the Cup circuit, but this week, the team got a major boost with its best ever finish (12th place) on Sunday. Despite being caught up in the lap 184 crash, Stremme also had one of the best results of his career; in 174 starts, he’s only topped this one seven times.

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Dave Blaney & JJ Yeley (No. 7 SANY Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): It was almost a great day for TBR; late in the race, Yeley was in contention for a top-10 finish, running sharply toward the front of the pack. Then, lap 184 happened, and Stenhouse made a rookie mistake that ended Yeley’s chances, relegating him to a 31st-place finish with a torn-up car. Blaney didn’t run as strong as Yeley for most of the race, but was able to eke out 16th at the end, his best since finishing 15th in the 2012 Daytona 500.

JTG Daugherty Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 47 Clorox 100th Anniversary Toyota): When the green flag flew after the rain delay, it was Labonte who paced the field. The five laps Labonte led were his first of 2013 and first since he was on point for a single lap, at Indianapolis in 2012. That was probably where the fun ended for the former champion, though; he was caught in the lap 184 crash and wound up 20th.

Phil Parsons Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 98 Curb Records/The Bobby Jones Show Ford): Going the distance for just the second time this year, McDowell made the most of the opportunity to race, running inside the top 10 for part of the event. A blown right front tire with just 15 laps to go relegated the team to 21st, though — not quite the follow-up they hoped for after running ninth at Daytona. Still, any finish is a small victory for this mostly start-and-park outfit.

Circle Sport; Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy): This team continues to very quietly improve under Cassill’s talent in the seat. This week, after running in the 30s for much of the day, Cassill was able to do what many drivers couldn’t: avoid trouble. He was rewarded with his best finish of the year, 22nd place, and another step forward for his team.

Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Ford): It must have felt like a bad rerun for Mears and his bunch. They were running in the top 10 at a plate track, in contention for a good finish if not a win… and they’re going home with nothing but a tangled wad of sheetmetal to show for it. Mears was one of 13 cars involved on a crash before the race had even seen 50 laps, and though he’d get back on track and turn laps as fast as the leaders did (at one point, faster) his chances at a good day were long over. Mears finished 24th, three laps back and said to his crew, “one of these days, we are going to get some luck…” If that day is at a plate track, they’ll be strong.

FAS Lane Racing; Terry Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Labonte ran as high as second on pit strategy, but was caught in the multi-car crash at lap 184. He finished 29th, his worst performance of the year. This team is doing things right most weeks, but haven’t shown that they can find speed on a consistent basis. It’s understandable that they would want Labonte in the car for his past champion’s provisional at the plate tracks, paired with Ken Schrader for the money he brings form sponsor Federated Auto Parts. But what this team needs to do is find a single driver who can help them move forward. That might be rookie Timmy Hill, or it could also be someone with more experience; whatever the options, they need to make a decision and stick with it.

Furniture Row Racing; Kurt Busch (No. 78 Furniture Row/Beautyrest Chevy): Busch took the wildest ride of the day on Sunday after Stenhouse’s ill-advised lap 184 move to make it four-wide resulted in the No. 78 flipping over before coming to rest on top of Newman’s machine. Getting hit by the No. 39 actually appeared to keep Busch’s car from barrel-rolling; however, both drivers found themselves done for the day. It was a particularly bitter pill for Busch, who was in contention for the win, leading twice and running just behind the leaders when the crash happened. Like some of the other small teams this week, Busch deserved a better finish than the 30th place he got.

BK Racing; David Reutimann & Travis Kvapil (No. 83 & 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): This team continues to underachieve, but this week it wasn’t entirely their fault. Both cars suffered heavy crash damage early, with Reutimann calling it a day in 41st place after the lap 43 incident and Kvapil limping around to finish 64 laps down in 38th. You have to wonder just how long disappointing results can last without a major shakeup somewhere within this team… or before they fall by the wayside, altogether like some others before them. Something’s gotta give.

NEMCO Motorsports; Joe Nemechek (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks.com Toyota): Nemechek, once a force to be reckoned with on the plate tracks, especially in qualifying, is showing his age and lack of equipment these days. The four-time Talladega polesitter qualified 41st but managed to gain just two spots before his engine expired. Nemechek can still wheel it, just not the way he used to… and not if his cars can’t keep up.

Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Ford): This team always brings their “A” game to the track; plus, Trevor Bayne is an excellent plate driver. However, the engine didn’t get the memo, and it detonated on lap 23, ending the team’s day early on an afternoon when, like several other small teams, they had the chance to make some serious noise.

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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