Monday, September 23, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

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Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images  
New Hampshire Motor Speedway played host to the Sylvania 300 on Sunday afternoon. At the end of the day Matt Kenseth stood in victory lane as the points leader and race winner. Dale Earnhardt Jr. clawed his way up the standings after a disappointing finish in race one, while his teammate Kasey Kahne fell to the bottom after an accident forced him to the garage for repairs.

For the second week pit road played a role in the outcome of the race and six of the 13 Chase contenders finished inside the top 10.

1. Matt Kenseth - Race winner and points leader (2097)
by: Katy Lindamood

Over the years Matt Kenseth has earned the name "Mr. Consistency" and in 2013 he's been consistently at the top. Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kenseth added his name to a very short list - drivers to win in their 500th Sprint Cup Series start. The only other name on the list? Seven-time champion Richard Petty.

Loudon was the big question mark in the Chase for Kenseth. "Certainly if I had to pick all the races, this is probably one that I had probably more anxiety over than most just because I really feel like I'm the weak link here," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said after his victory.

Sporting a special paint scheme in honor of his 500th start, Kenseth’s day began from the ninth position. By Lap 106 he had moved up to second and to the lead just after halfway. Kenseth went on to lead a four times for a total of 106 laps, taking his seventh victory of the season.

“It's just been an amazing blessing to be part of this group, and happy to have the success we're having. But even without that, honestly I've just made a lot of friendships. I really feel at home there. I just really enjoy being part of it. When you can have success on top of it obviously that makes it even more fun,” said Kenseth in regards to his relationship with his team and his emotional victory lane interview.

The 2003 champion is having a banner year at JGR and maintains his points lead as the series moves to Dover.

Kenseth joins Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart as the only drivers to open the Chase with consecutive victories. Stewart’s wins at Chicagoland and New Hampshire in 2011 led to his third series title.

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Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
2. Kyle Busch (-14)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

Kyle Busch finished second to teammate Matt Kenseth to give Joe Gibbs Racing its second straight one-two finish.

While that sounds like a great start to the Chase, especially considering he didn’t even make the Chase last season, Busch is anything but satisfied with his results so far. He’s been polite in post-race interviews but it’s obvious he wants to win.

“I can't say enough about the race we ran today. The guys did a great job of working on it for me and getting me better each and every run. I felt like we were making gains,” said Busch.

“All in all, though, there, those last couple restarts just making some spots, trying to keep spots there on the last one when I spun my tires too much. But just frustrating sometimes when you feel like you're getting beat on restarts too much. Other than that, second.” 

As dominant as Busch has been in the Truck and Nationwide Series, he’s been outrun by the No. 20 team this season. But there’s still a lot of racing to do, so it’s still too early to hand Matt Kenseth the trophy. 

When asked about trying to beat Kenseth, Busch said, “I don't think you do anything differently than you've done all year long. I think the organization is going to give the equipment to the both of us. I don't think any one of us is going to get better stuff. It's just going to come down to better communication between myself and the crew chief in that way, because those are certainly the ways that you win these things.” 

Busch still holds a grudge over the final restart last week. “I think the 20 lucked into one last weekend. I just didn't get a good enough restart and he got a better one, got a push, got by us. And then here this weekend he got a good restart there. I spun my tires a little bit so I didn't get a chance to race him at all, and then I had to fend off everybody else and get stretched out and try to run him down.” 

At just 14 points back, Busch certainly has the best chance to catch Kenseth. Busch said, “It doesn't matter if it's your teammate or anybody else. You've still got to work hard and persevere. It's eight more weeks.”

3. Jimmie Johnson (-18)
by: Beth Bence Reinke

Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team brought a different setup to Loudon, making changes, trying different things and getting it “dialed in.” He said his goal this week was simply to just stay in the hunt with a top five or top-10 finish, and he succeeded.

"It was better than we thought it would be. I felt like we were really going to have to scrap for a top 10, maybe a top five. I truthfully feel like we had a shot to win this race, if not run second or third.”

Overall, the No. 48 crew had an uneventful race with smooth pit stops including several chassis adjustments. Johnson started 11th, but steadily crept forward and ran in the top five from around Lap 173 until the end.

The only vexing moments for Johnson occurred on restarts. He lined up as the second car on the inside for two late-race restarts, and the inside leader just didn’t get going, keeping him from gaining track position.

“Those last couple of restarts lining up on the inside lane just didn't work for anyone. I'd lose a couple of spots and have to get them back.”

After Greg Biffle sneaked up into the top five on the final restart, Johnson spent the final 40 laps of the race battling him for third place. The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy just didn’t have enough oomph to make the pass, leaving Johnson with a respectable 4th-place finish.

“Great start to the Chase, you know, our five, four isn’t too bad,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to beat a one, one that Matt (Kenseth) has right now, but we will keep plugging along.”

4. Carl Edwards (-36)
By Carol D’Agostino

Carl Edwards' weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was uneventful, but successful, as he gained a spot in the championship standings moving from fifth to fourth. He now trails leader Matt Kenseth by 36 points and third-place Jimmie Johnson by 20 points.

The No. 99 car spent most of the weekend running in the teens from practice to throughout the race. Edwards was able to make up for a poor qualifying effort - 26th place - and stayed out of trouble on pit lane and the track.

Edwards summed it up best, “Overall, it was a pretty fun race.”

Fortunately, Concrete Carl has Dover International Speedway to contend with this weekend. The only driver who has tamed the Monster Mile better than Carl is Jimmie Johnson.

5. Greg Biffle (-38)
by: Lacy Keyser

It was an up-and-down day for Greg Biffle in New Hampshire. His day was mostly spent in the top 15 battling his way and trying to gain as many spots as he possibly could.

On the final restart Biffle went from sixth to third, going three-wide and securing the position.

“I was doing all I could do to try and gain spots," said Biffle on his three-wide move.” And I was three-wide on the bottom and got that to work a couple times, and then the last bit of that, the outside really worked well for me.”

On the remaining laps Biffle kept Jimmie Johnson at bay as Johnson kept riding his bumper trying to steal the position. Biffle was able to pull away and secured his third-place finish, a turnaround from being in the top 15 all day.

Biffle's strong finish moves him up six positions to fifth in the standings, 38 points out of the lead.

6. Kevin Harvick (-39)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Sunday was definitely not the day that Kevin Harvick was looking for after his strong start to the Chase in Chicago. A 20th-place finish dropped Harvick from fourth in the points to sixth, down two places from the previous week and 39 points behind Chase leader Matt Kenseth. 

While Harvick didn't encounter any major on-track issues, he did have an ill-handling race car that he battled all afternoon. After starting eighth, he slipped back to 11th in the early stages of the race when the Budweiser Chevrolet became tight in the corners. Harvick battled the handling issues all day, but they persisted and the No. 29 fell back to the 20th spot on Lap 213.

Crew Chief Gil Martin called Harvick to pit road once more on lap 247 making air pressure adjustments along with four tires and fuel. Harvick restarted 23rd after the stop, and fell as far back as 25th. He was able to work his way back to 20th, where he would finish the race.

When asked about the disappointing day, Harvick stated, "We dealt with handling issues all day and never could get it figured out. Even though we didn't get the finish we were looking for today, we're not going to let it get us down. Next week is another race and we'll look for better results going into Dover."

Ever-confident Harvick will need to remain in control of the No. 29 team as they head into the next seven races and try to close the championship.

7. Kurt Busch (-40)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Kurt Busch’s day at New Hampshire could be summed up in one word: frustrating. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet complained on his team radio all day about his ill-handling racecar. Despite their struggles, Busch and his team salvaged a 13th-place finish.

Busch started a promising fourth in Sunday’s Sylvania 300, but he never contended for the win. Busch and his crew were unable to hit on the right adjustments and endured some slow pit stops, dropping the No. 78 as far back as 26th. But Busch found some speed toward the end of the race, clawing his way to finish 13th.

"We didn't hit it right on the adjustments today," Busch said. "It was nobody's fault, we all agreed what adjustments to make and it just didn't work out. We struggled with the handling and couldn't make a move to the front."

"While we aren't pleased with where we finished, we fought for every position and gave it our best effort," Busch added. "But we know we can do much better and we'll keep on plugging away."

The 2004 Sprint Cup champion fell one position to seventh in the point standings, 40 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, but just four points out of fourth place.

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Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
8. Jeff Gordon (-42)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After New Hampshire, Jeff Gordon was left with the question of “what if.” The four-time Sprint Cup champion had a shot at the win at the 1.058-mile track until a late-race mistake cost him.

Starting third, Gordon ran solidly in the top five for most of Sunday’s Sylvania 300. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet looked sporty as he led the race twice for 36 laps. On Lap 196, he had built a 1.269-second lead over teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But after a caution came out for debris on Lap 200, Gordon slid into his pits, losing precious time as he backed up into his pit box. The driver error forced Gordon to restart back in 22nd. With fewer than 100 laps to go, Gordon only had enough time to work his way up to a 15th-place finish.

“I’m highly disappointed in myself,” Gordon said after the race. “The team put me in a great position. We had a decent car and then track position made it into a great car. So it was obviously important to maintain that. I just came in and slid through. I hadn’t come close to sliding through all day and I guess just leading, I carried a little bit more speed in there and crossed the splitter over the line by an inch and that’s all it takes to make a difference between a chance at winning and finishing 15th.”

After his finish at New Hampshire, Gordon lost more ground to points leader Matt Kenseth in the championship standings, falling one spot to eighth and 42 points out of the lead.

9. Ryan Newman (-47)
by: Lacy Keyser

Starting on the pole in New Hampshire, Ryan Newman was once again the Rocketman. Newman led the first two laps, but quickly started to fall through the field. His day was spent fighting an ill-handling car that just wasn’t running the way he had hoped.

Newman suffered a pit road mistake on Lap 200. The crew made the wrong adjustments on the No. 39 and the handling issues got worse instead of better.

“I still don’t understand what happened with the car," said Newman on the day he had. “It just never drove the same after we won the pole on Friday afternoon. Even in practice on Saturday. Glad we got back up to 16th after the deal on pit road, but I don’t know. We’ll head to Dover and see what we can get.”

Despite the issues, Newman managed to bring home a 16th-place finish, but went from eighth to ninth in the standings.

10. Clint Bowyer (-48)
by: Katy Lindamood

Races are often won and lost on pit road. The decision to take two tires as opposed to four, failing to get enough fuel, speeding penalties, loose lug nuts and malfunctioning equipment can turn a solid run into an uphill battle. On Sunday afternoon Clint Bowyer’s team gambled to get the lead by staying out when most of the field pitted. Unfortunately an error on the final stop left the 5-hour ENERGY team with a 17th-place finish and a loss of one position in the standings.

Half-way through the race weekend Bowyer’s team did a 180 and completely changed the setup they had planned to run. The change didn’t show immediate on-track results. After an early incident on pit road put the No. 15 outside the top 36, they had no other choice but to gamble and gain valuable track position during a later round of stops.

The gamble paid off, allowing Bowyer to lead five laps. At a disadvantage to those who had taken tires, Bowyer lost the lead to eventual race winner Matt Kenseth on Lap 208. The final nail in the day came during the last caution of the race, which was brought out by Kahne’s impact with the inside wall. While taking left side tires the jack was let down before the front tire changer had completed his duties.

Bowyer fell to 10th in the standings, 48 points behind.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

"Our Chase will be over without some wins so we are going for trophies.” -- Steve Letarte 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. clawed his way up two spots in the Chase standings with a sixth-place finish in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. A fumble on pit road with the first pit stop forced the crew chief to turn to pit strategy to try to compete for the win.

Under the steady guidance of Letarte, the crew didn't panic. They went to work. And Earnhardt Jr. got his lap back the hard way - he drove back through the field.

Leading twice for 17 laps, Earnhardt Jr. remained near the front of the field for most of the remainder of the race and almost scored a top-five finish. He couldn’t quite hold off Jamie McMurray in the closing laps. 

“I run out of rear tires trying to hold him off. Couldn’t get the power down just off the corner and he was a pretty fast car to begin with. I knew it was going to be difficult to hold him off, but we had a good car yesterday. Almost as good as it was today,” said Earnhardt. 

“Just real happy to be able to rebound from earlier on pit road and get a good finish. The car was fast as heck yesterday, one of the top three cars I thought. Glad we were able to get a decent finish out of it. Just want to win one. I’m trying hard.” 

With eight races to go, Junior sits 11th in points, 62 in back of leader and race winner Matt Kenseth. As motivated as the team is, they’ll need more than skill to contend for the Cup. They’ll need some folks to have some bad luck, and some to make mistakes. 

And they’ll need to win some of those trophies Letarte mentioned.

12. Joey Logano (-69)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Joey Logano rebounded from his dismal day at Chicago to finish 14th at New Hampshire. While the finish did not move Logano up in the points standings, he did maintain his current position of 12th.

Logano started the race from the sixth position, where he ran in and out of the top 10 all day. The No. 22 team never found the set of adjustments they wanted, and Joey battled the handling all day on the car. Precious clean air was hard to find, which made the car loose off. The team did find that the car responded better to four tires than two, so they changed all four on the final pit stop, but still could not find the clean air to get the car out in front. They would settle for a 14th-place finish.

A lot of people question Logano about New Hampshire, since this is the track where he scored his first Cup victory back in 2009 at the age of 19. He said even though this was the place where he first won, he doesn't consider it one of his favorite tracks. He said he has always struggled here, and that if you don't hit the setup just right, you can end up having a long day.

When asked about the Chase and how he feels about his chances going forward, Logano says he thinks that there are two or three really good tracks left on the schedule where the team has a shot at winning. He continues to say that the team needs to keep working hard, and knows that even though they are not a part of the Chase, they can still go out and compete for wins.

Interesting thought from Logano. Is he already counting himself out of the hunt for the title? I guess we'll see in the weeks to come.

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Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
13. Kasey Kahne (-71)
by: Katy Lindamood

A day that started out with hope ended with a wrecked race car, a terse interview and a 37th-place finish for Kasey Kahne.

On Saturday Kahne qualified his Farmer’s Insurance Chevy on the front row alongside Ryan Newman. It didn’t take long for the No. 5 to move into the top spot, passing the No. 39 on the third lap of the Sylvania 300.

After leading 31 laps the car fell back slightly. On the fourth caution the team took four tires, which put them in 10th position exiting the pits. Kahne made up two positions on the track and had moved up to eighth before bringing out the final caution of the day.

Exiting Turn 4 while making a pass, the rear of the Kahne’s car snapped loose, sending him into the inside retaining wall. Kahne was able to exit the car under his own power before being transported to the infield care center. After being evaluated and released, Kahne spoke to ESPN saying that he didn’t know what happened, but they had hit the inside wall.

Although the team was able to make repairs and get the car back out on the track, Kahne was the lowest Chase finisher and fell three spots in the standings.

On Monday @kaseykahne tweeted: “Sore today but you'll have that when you hit walls. Was racing hard with the 55 and lost it. Feel bad for my guys, will be ready for Dover.”

Check back with Skirts and Scuffs on Friday for our Dover preview.

1 comments :

Did anyone else see that interview with Kahne after he came out of the care center? His face was blank and he had no idea what was going on. And then they sent him back out on the track!

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