New Hampshire Motor Speedway saw ups and downs for the Chase field and for one driver, a repeat performance. Tony Stewart once again displayed the “Smoke Show” at the end of Sunday's Sylvania 300 after grabbing the lead in the closing laps. Fuel mileage played into the end, same as Chicagoland, and is putting the Chase drivers and their crew chiefs to the test.
The ladies of Skirts and Scuffs recap it all for you once again.
1. Tony Stewart – Smoking the Chase Field With 2 Wins – By Amanda Ebersole
Starting the Chase in 9th, Tony Stewart may have been counted out by many in the pre-Chase polls. Now two races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, if you are not including Tony Stewart as a contender, you are seriously off your rocker.
With two wins in the first two races, Stewart is setting himself up for his first Sprint Cup title. Stewart is a two-time Nextel Cup Champion, winning in both 2002 and 2005. Stewart is the only driver to win both the Winston Cup under the old points system, and the Nextel Cup under the Chase format used presently.
Starting in 20th position for Sunday’s race, Stewart gained positions steadily. At lap 30 he had taken the Mobil 1 Chevrolet up to 14th and for a track where passing can be difficult, Stewart was passing cars to make his way to the front.
After the race, Stewart recounted the strategy that earned him the victory. “It was just getting the track position. I mean, it was really hard at the beginning of the race to make up any ground.
"And then we had one restart there where we just, we caught a bunch of guys messing around with each other and we were able to just pick them off two at a time.”
In the end, the dreaded fuel mileage was what won Stewart the race. Clint Bowyer led the race until lap 298 and just two laps shy of the win, ran out of fuel as Stewart ran in second. Crew chief Darian Grubb made sure Stewart had saved enough fuel to make it until the end of the race, but it was close for the team.
“... I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end, said Stewart in his post race press conference. “But we came off of turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand and we didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road?”
2. Kevin Harvick – 7 points behind – Happy will be happier with that Sprint Cup in his hands - By Holly Machuga
After coming into the Loudon race first in points, Kevin Harvick leaves sitting seven points behind leader Tony Stewart.
The 29 team started out the day right and hung around in the top 10 and even the top 5. The pit stops and the car were fast. But, just like everyone else, Kevin Harvick had issues with the fuel mileage, which forced him to finish 12th.
Harvick tweeted, “Well it didn’t end like we wanted it to but we will figure the gas mileage thing out in the morning and be ready to go for Dover!”
3. Brad Keselowski – 11 points behind - No longer the underdog of the Chase – By Unique Hiram
Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, crossed the finish line second as the checkered flag waved for the conclusion of the Sylvania 300 in Loudon. He is now seeded in the third position of the Sprint Cup points standings, 11 points behind new leader Tony Stewart. Keselowski began the race in the 16th position and struggled throughout the day running both just inside and outside the top 20. Approximately with 70 laps to go, he was able to lead a lap gaining one bonus point when race leader Jeff Gordon pitted during a series of green flag pit stops.
"It's funny, because 10 races ago, we left Loudon here 23rd in points," Keselowski said. "Who'd have ever thought we'd be third in 10 weeks? It's been a good road to travel down the last few weeks, and today was no exception. We weren't the fastest car -- I'd be lying if I tried to tell you we were -- but we made good adjustments to our car, got it to where it was a good, solid top-10 car and drove up to fourth or fifth there with 100 to go, 80 to go, whatever that was. ... All in all, I felt like we earned the majority of our good fortune."
Keselowski and his race team are definitely headed in the right direction in order to be deemed true contenders in winning the Sprint Cup Chase championship. Eight weeks to go and consistency is a must for this team to remain competitive.
4. Carl Edwards – 14 points behind – Fuel mileage the saving grace for Edwards – By Amanda Ebersole
Heading into Loudon, Edwards and the No. 99 team were 3rd in the Chase standings and with past performance at NHMS, that would be difficult to maintain.
Qualifying did not go well for the Scotts team, relegating the team to a 23rd starting position for Sunday’s Sylvania 300. Passing at New Hampshire can be a challenge, so starting that far back was a disadvantage for the No. 99 team and driver.
Like many drivers, Edwards complained to crew chief Bob Osborne that he was not turning well enough in the center and was loose off. With only five pit stops in the race, the No. 99 pit crew ( or the Flying Ducks as I call them) got to work.
Pitting on lap 234 and taking on four tires and fuel, crew chief Osborne told Edwards that fuel would not be an issue for their team.
Making his way up to 14th with just 50 laps to go, Edwards was on the move. With just 11 to go, he had finally cracked the top 10. In the final three laps other cars began to run out of fuel, Edwards got bumped up in the running order because of all the other cars who ran out, including race leader Clint Bowyer.
Finishing in 8th, Edwards said of the race, “We had a pretty good finish, but we didn’t have a very good day,” Edwards said. “We struggled. This is one tough race track, very, very tough. I’ve got to thank Scotts Winterguard for being on board. We were trying to get them a good showing and at the end we got a couple guys because of fuel mileage and our car was as good as it had been, so we’ll take that eighth place and go on, but I’m just glad to make it out of here with something better than the 15th or 20th we should have run.
“I’m glad we don’t have to run this one in the Chase again, that’s good. Dover is great for us. Kansas will be great. I feel pretty good after our test at Phoenix, so we’ll go and we’ll be really good. It was a decent day for us. We’ll take it and move on.”
5. Jeff Gordon – 23 points behind - On his way up the points ladder – By Amanda Ebersole
Jeff Gordon has the most experience of any Chase driver and it is showing. Starting the Chase in 3rd, a difficult race at Chicagoland dropped Gordon back to 11th and –25 points behind.
The word of the day – rebound. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson needed to rebound and get the No. 24 team back on track and they did just that.
Starting the race in 7th, Gordon was already at an advantage because passing can be difficult on the flat track on New Hampshire. As the green flag fell, Gordon worked his way upward and by Lap 10 was already in third place.
Leading three times for a total of 78 laps, Gordon received bad news with 50 laps to go. Gustafson told him that they did not get the No. 24 Chevrolet full of fuel, after just running out of fuel with 70 laps to go and being forced to pit for an extended pit stop.
Forced to conserve fuel once again, Gordon was a frustrated after the race. “None of us want to put ourselves in that position,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to go a couple of more laps [on the next-to-last run]. We’re making great horsepower but we’re not getting good fuel mileage.”
More frustrating for Gordon was the fact that Tony Stewart, who drives a Chevrolet with a Hendrick engine, got better fuel mileage then he did.
“Tony has figured out a way to do it so you have to give those guys credit. They have the same engines we have and we have got to do a better job at it. I’ve got to do a better job at it,” said Gordon.
After a 4th place finish, Gordon is just happy to have rebounded. “To pull off a top 5, we got what we could out of it,” Gordon said after the race. “We didn’t need to take any chances like we did last week at Chicago. All we can do is look at the good side, and it is good that we made gains in the points. We aren’t making enough gains on the leaders. That is the only frustrating part.”
6. Kyle Busch – 26 points behind - Making gains after a solid finish – By Katy Lindamood
After a dominating win in Saturday's Camping World Truck Series race, Kyle Busch set his sights on bringing home the checkered flag in his No. 18 M&M’s Sprint Cup car. Unfortunately for the younger Busch it wasn't his day, but it wasn't a wasted effort, as the No. 18 gained three positions in the standings and finished a solid 11th.
Heading into the second of 10 races in NASCAR's playoffs, Busch knew he would have to finish strong to stand a chance of remaining in contention for the title. Starting in eighth, the M&M's Camry handled poorly for the majority of the race as Busch fought to keep the car from spinning out from a loose condition. As the day progressed, the team worked tirelessly on pit road trying to improve track position; however a miscue by Busch cost the team time when he slid through his pit box.
Although Busch was able to finish in 11th, he didn't have an 11th-place car late in the race, but he did have more fuel than many of those ahead of him. Whereas fuel mileage led to a poor finish at Chicago, it helped this weekend.
After the race Busch said, “Track position was important today and I just have to thank the guys for hanging in there with me and fighting hard all day long. We survived and we’ll go on to Dover, which is usually a much better place for me.”
7. Matt Kenseth – 26 points behind – Hard-fought finish keeps title hopes alive - By Rebecca Kivak
Matt Kenseth battled back from an ill-handling car and a mid-race spin to finish sixth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, one of his most challenging tracks. The driver of the No. 17 Affliction Clothing Ford for Roush Fenway Racing kept his championship hopes alive, making up ground in the points standings after a disastrous finish at Chicagoland.
After starting 27th in Sunday’s Sylvania 300, the former Cup champion was mired in traffic. Within the first 50 laps, Kenseth reported the car was tight and that it was losing rear grip. After crew chief Jimmy Fennig called for major adjustments to air pressure and the track bar, Kenseth was able to climb to 20th when the first caution came out on Lap 86. Unlike the majority of teams who pitted and got two tires, the No. 17 took four and an air pressure change. The adjustments continued to help the car’s handling, and by Lap 144 Kenseth had driven into the 11th position.
After the second caution on lap 156, Kenseth restarted 15th. While racing hard for track position on Lap 173, Kenseth’s teammate Carl Edwards accidentally made contact with the No. 17, causing Kenseth to spin out in Turn 2. This brought out the race’s third caution. Kenseth managed to keep the car off the wall and did not incur any damage. The No. 17 restarted 25th, losing the ground Kenseth had previously made up.
But Kenseth was determined to make it up once again. By lap 225, Kenseth had cracked the top 15. Nine laps later, Kenseth made what would be his final pit stop, with Fennig assuring the driver of the No. 17 he would have enough fuel until the end. On Lap 274, Kenseth charged into the top 10. As the laps wound down and other cars around him ran out of gas, Kenseth brought the No. 17 home in sixth place. The top-10 finish buoyed Kenseth three spots in the championship standings, from 10th to 7th place.
“It was great day for our team except for when we spun out because we lost some track position, but overall, it was good,” Kenseth said.
“I was pretty discouraged after Chicago, although you’ve got to brush that off, but I’m pretty encouraged today because this is probably one of my worst tracks. I don’t feel like I do a good job at all driving on this track. We had a pretty fast car today and we were able to get around here pretty good. We had good pit stops, good strategy, and got a top 10 out of it, so I’m looking forward to Dover.”
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 26 points behind but making gains – By Genevieve Cadorette
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the race in 12th position and finished in 17th and dropped in points to 8th, putting him 26 points behind the leader, Tony Stewart.
He started off strong and moved in the top 10, where he was steady for the race.
His No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew was a very fast car despite the tire difficulty he faced by lap 229 when his right front tire blew and he had to make an unscheduled pit stop.
He started catching up and was in 15th on the final lap when another tire went down.
In the end, he had to settle for a 17th-place finish.
9. Kurt Busch - 28 points behind - Drama pre-race carries throughout - By Rebecca Kivak
It was an eventful weekend for Kurt Busch, though most of the excitement happened before the Sylvania 300 got under way at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The former Sprint Cup champion had a “Dude, Where’s My Car?” moment before Sunday’s race.
Busch’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge was late getting to pre-race inspection, where it failed because of a rear-end issue. NASCAR allowed the No. 22 to fix the problem, but NASCAR did not release the car back to the team until four minutes before engines were fired. During the National Anthem, Busch stood on pit road with his team, minus the car. To add insult to injury, an unhappy Busch used the F-word during a live ESPN interview before climbing into his racecar.
Busch was allowed to keep his starting spot of 5th, which had already been in jeopardy earlier in the weekend, when rain threatened to halt Friday’s qualifying session.
Though Busch had dodged a few bullets entering Sunday’s race, the race itself didn’t go his way. Busch ran in the top 10 for the first 20 laps, but complained of handling issues throughout the race. Busch fell further back and found himself mired in the 20s as the race reached halfway. Despite numerous adjustments to the car, Busch slipped as far back as 26th. Before his final pit stop, Busch led Laps 242-245, gaining one bonus point. The driver of the Double Deuce gained little ground in the last run and was forced to settle for a 22nd-place finish, one lap down. The finish was Kurt’s lowest in the last five races, and dropped him from 4th to 9th in the points standings, losing the most positions of any Chase driver.
“It was a frustrating day,” Busch said. “Our Shell Pennzoil Dodge was certainly a handful. The front tires felt like they were on skids and the car was plowing through the corners. We were late going through inspection and that set the tone for our day. We were able to stay out and lead some laps under green and (crew chief) Steve Addington and the guys kept making changes and got our Dodge better by the end of the race. I just wish we could have started the race with the car that good."
After Sunday's race, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby said no penalties will be issued to the No. 22 team.
10. Jimmie Johnson –29 points – Falling in points but not to be counted out - By Unique Hiram
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had a less than stellar performance on track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. He started the Sylvania 300 in the 10th position and finished 18th after completing all 300 laps of the race. For a majority of the time, throughout the day, Johnson drove inside the top 20 – mostly in the 15th position.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed, and track position was so important,” Johnson said. “We’ll take this one on the chin and go on to the next one. You gotta take every race as they come. Anything can happen, but days like today aren’t what you hope for, that’s for sure.”
On another note, he was able to lead a lap for one bonus point (Lap 238), which could be instrumental when the Chase contenders head to Homestead-Miami in eight weeks. Although today was frustrating for the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team, I wouldn’t count them out just yet because they have the tenacity to fight back and claim victory.
11. Ryan Newman - 34 points behind and Chase hopes fading - By Katy Lindamood
Seeing the boss put his name atop the Chase race winner's list at Chicagoland, Ryan Newman entered Sunday's Sylvania 300 with high hopes. Claiming victory in the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, after starting on the pole, Newman set his sights on a repeat performance but lady luck was not on his side as he finished 25th.
Under bright skies and hotter temperatures than the days leading up to the race, the No. 39 Haas Automations Chevy started from the pole position and looked to be strong leading the first 62 laps, but from there his day only got worse as time went on. Two separate pit road mishaps left the team out of the top 15 and dealing with an ill-handling race car until the final blow came on Lap 296. With just four laps to go, the team had to make an unscheduled pit stop because of a tire that was going down.
Although one member of the Stewart-Haas team is riding the wave of victory, Newman's hopes of becoming the 2011 Sprint Cup champion are fading fast.
12. Denny Hamlin – 66 points behind - All but eliminated from the Chase after 2 bad races - By Lacy Keyser
Denny Hamlin has not had a great start to his Chase season, coming off a horrible finish at Chicagoland. Hamlin hoped to bounce back at Loudon but sadly qualifying 28th was going to prove to be a hard task. Hamlin looked to be off to a great start, gained a few positions and by Lap 60 was in the top 20. When the first green flags stop came out, Denny was 19th and his car was on the free side for most of the day. On Lap 173 Hamlin stayed out when the caution came out to gain track position, Hamlin would restart in the top 10 but due to his loose car he wasn’t able to gain any ground.
With 74 laps to go, Hamlin finally found his mojo; his car looked smokin’ as he cruised into the top 6. With two laps to go, it appeared Hamlin would make an amazing comeback as he charged Jeff Gordon for 5th. But the 11 car ran out of fuel and finished in a heartbreaking 29th place.
Denny’s quote on running out:
“We thought we were good and that’s just strategy racing nowadays. We just came up short right there. The only thing I can think of is we were on a little bit of a cleaner race track that last run, but that was the worst fuel mileage we got all day and I was backing my corner up quite a bit. There’s only two things, either we weren’t getting the fuel mileage we thought or we didn’t get it full or I just used too much. We’ve got to work through it. Another tough day for us, but we’re just figuring out what we need to do to be a little bit more competitive.”
Check back in with Skirts and Scuffs on Friday for our Dover preview.
Special thanks to Skirts and Scuffs photographer Debbie Ross for all the beautiful pictures.