NASCAR – Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway – Sun Sep 14

The start of the chase usually throws up an unexpected winner. And while it didn’t disappoint in that regard, it was overshadowed by the even more unexpected big loser of the day.

Kyle Busch had ended the Race for the Chase with a big lead, but that was all but wiped out by the ‘reset’ of the Chase points. And although he started the Sylvania 300 from pole thanks to rained out qualifying, he was clearly less than happy with the handling of his car, quickly losing the lead to Carl Edwards on lap 4 and 2nd to Clint Bowyer shortly thereafter.

And then things really went wrong: the car was looking undrivable, sliding its rear into the wall at one point as Busch fought like hell to keep it under control. It seemed that something was seriously wrong with the sway-bar, and his only option was to hold on until the planned competition yellow on lap 35. He came in, got a diagnosis from the pit crew (a broken bolt), exited in time to beat the safety car, raced around and came back in for the repairs hoping to avoid going a lap down. It didn’t work: not only did the repairs take too long to stop that from happening, NASCAR then slapped him with a lap penalty for overtaking the cars on his race-round lap.

It was essentially game over for Kyle, dropped to 43rd and dead last. His only hope was for a free pass at the next yellow, but his handling was still terrible and he went another lap down before the first genuine caution period. And worse still, he was the cause of it when he spun on lap 83 and pirouetted onto the grass. Behind him, Jamie McMurray also spun in sympathy – and ended up ramming the back of Kyle’s car as the number 18 reversed back onto the track. The team managed to stick the back of Kyle’s car back on with duct tape, but all he could do was circulate at the back of the field in the vague hope that other cars would drop out and he could pick up a few places simply by hanging in there.

Up at the front, Jimmie Johnson had managed to pass Edwards for the lead on lap 66, and he led the restart on lap 84 – only to be overtaken Dale Earnhardt Jr. who took over control of the race and looked very strong.

Impressively, the race then ran for 126 laps caution-free, which meant that the next round of pit stops – around lap 160 – were held under green conditions. Greg Biffle popped up on front after the pit stops, lost the lead to Dale five laps later, but then took it back when Earnhardt started to struggle. The latest set of tyres, combined with the warming track, was not suiting the car and Earnhardt started to fall backwards at a disturbing rate.

When the next yellow finally came out on lap 214 for debris on the front straight, everyone hit pit road for fuel and tyres – but it looked a little too early for everyone to make it all the way to the end. They would have to really nurse the fuel and hope for a plethora of yellows to make it work out, but it was the only sensible strategy.

Jimmie Johnson won the race off pit road and took the lead ahead of Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton. Johnson had never been far from the lead all afternoon, and popping up in the lead at this critical point seemed to indicate that he was in complete control and cruising to a win.

The race restarted on lap 220 but almost immediately went yellow again when Joe Nemechek was tipped into a spin by Regan Smith and slammed head-on into the inside wall by the start/finish line, bringing out the caution as his radiator let loose all over the track.

Surprisingly at this point, Denny Hamlin gave up second to come in and top off on fuel. It meant that he could definitely make it to the end of the race, but it also put him down to the back of the lead lap and 19th position. Arguably it could prove a work of genius if everyone else had to do a late splash and dash, but for the meantime it pretty much eliminated him from the lead and left Johnson, Biffle, Edwards and Burton fighting it out, with a rejuvenated Earnhardt looking a lot better now in 5th.

The race attempted to go green on lap 228 but once again immediately went to yellow – and then to red. Chad McCumbee had found himself in a five-wide situation and become destabilised by the turbulence, throwing him into a spin that collected Matt Kenseth and then resulted in David Gilliland hitting Kenseth side-on into the wall. Brian Vickers and Casey Mears also got serious damage, and the track was a mess and completely blocked. After one lap diverted through the pit lane, NASCAR decided to throw the red to allow the clean-up.

The red was out for 10 minutes, and racing resumed with the green flag on lap 234. Despite the yellows, some teams were still very worried about the fuel situation – Bob Osborne, crew chief for Carl Edwards, predicting that they were two laps short on fuel, a similar thought to other crew chiefs being interviewed. But a couple more yellows helped with that: A.J. Allmendinger slammed into the wall on lap 265 bringing out a six lap yellow, and then Patrick Carpentier and Robby Gordon got together and Carpentier spun on lap 284, meaning another three laps under yellow. That pretty much dealt with the fuel issue, and Hamlin’s earlier refuelling gambit was for nought.

It was now a straight 13-lap dash for the chequered flag, with Johnson leading Biffle, Edwards, Burton and Earnhardt. Everyone assumed that Johnson had it in the bag at this point, unless someone happened to have been taking it easy and had something in reserve.

And that person proved to be Greg Biffle, who blasted past Johnson at the final restart, survived a little love tap from Johnson, and easily kept the lead right to the end of the race. Johnson later admitted, “The only weakness we had all day long was on the restarts. From the very first start of the race, we were loose in spots. It would take a while to get the tyres up and get going.” He was right; but he was also happy with second, all things considered, and also picked up the extra 5pts for leading the most laps.

“I knew I had something for Jimmie,” Biffle said. “I was waiting until the time was true. I made a run on him down there, trying to get him loose and my front end started sliding and I couldn’t get him. But I was able loosen him up at (turn) two.

“The dark horse rode today!”

The win was Biffle’s first in over a year, and his first ever at New Hampshire. The Chase always seems to throw up an unexpected winner – although Biffle can hardly be called an outright surprise as he’s been up the sharp end all season, if not quite taking the chequered flag until today. Last year’s winner, Clint Bowyer, really had been a genuine surprise in 2007 taking his first ever win; and he had been a favourite to repeat that success this year, too, having topped every practice session at the track this weekend. However, handling issues hampered his day and he could only manage 12th.

While it had been a bad day for his brother, Kurt Busch had a very good showing at New Hampshire and was the highest of the non-Chase runners in 6th place, having been rarely outside the top ten all day.

Kyle’s team mate Tony Stewart had a tempestuous race of his own, but with an ultimately more rewarding conclusion than the number 18. Having been challenging for the lead before the pit stops on lap 87, he had a collision on pit road that damaged body work and required him to come into the pits a second time, dropping him to 35th place. He recovered over the course of the next stint, but then had another pit lane nightmare on lap 159 when he was judged to have broken the speed limit when leaving, and handed a drive-thru penalty that put him a lap down and in 29th place. he finally got his lap back with a free pass under the yellow on lap 221 brought out by Joe Nemecheck’s smash, and battled back into the top ten to finish 8th.

“Last week it was a mistake in the pits, and this week it was a mistake on the driver’s part,” Stewart said. “I got a drive-thru penalty that got us way behind. We had some bad luck and then I made our problem worse with the speeding penalty. To fight back to 8th – I’m pretty happy with that.”

As for Joey Logano – the teenage Nationwide series sensation set to replace Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing next season – his early awaited début in the senior series was best described as a damp squib. His only memorable contribution to the day’s action was dragging a jack down the pit lane that hadn’t been detached after the tyre stop under the first yellow on lap 35, which earned him a drive-thru penalty. “Not what I wanted — that’s for sure,” said Logano after finishing three laps down. “It was a tough one. We tried hard, but it just wasn’t there the whole time.”

“Just a lot of give and take out there,” Logano said about what he had learned on his first day at the office. “Again, there’s a lot of take – believe me. You see what these guys are doing and we’ll see what we can do for the car for the next time we are here. It was fun – I enjoyed it. By lap 200 I wanted it to end because we weren’t running worth a dang. We are going to take what we learned and go at it.”

Logano will compete again in two weeks at Kansas, but Ken Schrader is scheduled to drive the No. 96 car at Dover next week.

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Greg Biffle         Ford        300
 2.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   300
 3.  Carl Edwards        Ford        300
 4.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   300
 5.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   300
 6.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       300
 7.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet   300
 8.  Tony Stewart        Toyota      300
 9.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      300
10.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   300
11.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       300
12.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   300
13.  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       300
14.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   300
15.  David Reutimann     Toyota      300
16.  Travis Kvapil       Ford        300
17.  Juan Montoya        Dodge       300
18.  Aric Almirola       Chevrolet   300
19.  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   300
20.  Johnny Sauter       Chevrolet   300
21.  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   300
22.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       299
23.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   299
24.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       299
25.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      299
26.  Robby Gordon        Dodge       299
27.  Michael McDowell    Toyota      299
28.  David Ragan         Ford        298
29.  Bill Elliott        Ford        298
30.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       298
31.  Patrick Carpentier  Dodge       298
32.  Joey Logano         Toyota      297
33.  Dave Blaney         Toyota      297
34.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      288
35.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      287
36.  Ryan Newman         Dodge       285
37.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   269
38.  A.J. Allmendinger   Toyota      264
39.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        230
40.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        228
41.  David Gilliland     Ford        228
42.  Chad McCumbee       Dodge       228
43.  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   218

Chase For The Cup – Points Standing:

Pos  Driver              Change  Points
 1.  Carl Edwards          +1     5220
 2.  Jimmie Johnson        +1     5220
 3.  Greg Biffle           +6     5190  - 30
 4.  Dale Earnhardt Jr            5170  - 50
 5.  Jeff Burton           +2     5170  - 50
 6.  Denny Hamlin                 5148  - 72
 7.  Tony Stewart          +1     5147  - 73
 8.  Kyle Busch            -7     5146  - 74
 9.  Clint Bowyer          -4     5137  - 83
10.  Kevin Harvick         +1     5134  - 86
11.  Jeff Gordon           -1     5121  - 99
12.  Matt Kenseth                 5043  -177
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