NASCAR: Round 17 – Lenox Industrial Tools 301, New Hampshire – 28 June

An entertaining and hard fought race at Loudon was given extra frisson by the weather gradually closing in: would anyone be able to play the rain card to perfection and pull off a shock win? Yes, actually, they could …

The starting order for today’s race was set by championship standings after qualifying on Friday was rained off, giving Tony Stewart pole with Jeff Gordon alongside. Rain had also hit the New Hampshire circuit overnight, wiping away any the rubber that had been laid down and causing NASCAR to opt for a competition yellow at lap 35. Would the race itself get away without any rain delays?

Stewart had a poor start on the inside line and fell back to fourth by the end of the first lap as Gordon, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman took the lead spots. Stewart continued to fall back and was grateful to be able to pit under an early yellow on lap 16 caused when Patrick Carpentier had some sort of mechanical problem and ran into the wall in turn 4.

Kurt Busch had taken over the lead on lap 7 and led Gordon, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards at the restart. He opted for the inside line at the double file restart and had the same sluggish results as Gordon had at the start of the race; Gordon duly took the lead back. A second caution followed almost immediately, when Kevin Harvick gave the lightest of taps to the rear of Jamie McMurray’s car, sending the 26 backwards into the wall at turn 4.

Gordon stuck to the inside line at the restart and this time made it work; and Kurt Busch even briefly lost the second spot to Greg Biffle as the racing was astonishingly fast and furious for such an early stage of the race, with three-wide racing a lot of jostling going on. Biffle’s surge was rash and he flirted with a slide before dropping back to 4th behind Busch and Johnson. But again the racing action was short-lived, with a third yellow out on lap 28 for a spin by AJ Allmendinger.

Busch made the outside line work at the next restart and took the lead again on lap 32 ahead of Gordon, Edwards, Biffle, then Kyle Busch battling Jimmie Johnson for 5th. With all the yellows in the early laps, the competition yellow was moved back to lap 45 and this was finally reached without further incident. At last, the cars could come in for a proper stop and finally take on some fuel for the first time.

Jimmie Johnson claimed the honours at the restart ahead of Gordon and Kyle Busch. Greg Biffle managed to get away with hitting the wall hard in turn 4 on lap 53 but kept it going, although falling back two spots to 7th behind Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and a back-on-form Tony Stewart.

The fifth caution came out on lap 60 when Elliot Sadler got loose on the inside, tapped Scott Speed who in turn tapped Michael Waltrip, who spun; along with Robbie Gordon who was coming up behind. It was all a minor affair with no lasting damage and the race quickly resumed.

Finally an extended period of green flag racing: and Jimmie Johnson dominated, stretching out more than a 2s lead before finally encountered lapped traffic that put him right back into the sights of Jeff Gordon and the chasing pack. As the caution-free period approached 60 laps, green flag pit stops loomed for the majority of the field from lap 117: it was a frenetic few minutes as the cars cycled through. Juan Montoya was one of the few cars off sequence and inherited the lead for a few laps from lap 123; but it was clear that fresh rubber was a significant advantage of some 4mph, and when Montoya found himself passed by several lapped cars it was clear that they needed to pit earlier than strictly necessary before losing too much ground.

Jimmie Johnson therefore recovered the lead on lap 135 ahead of Gordon, Kurt Busch, Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and green flag running continued through to lap 151 (88 in total) for debris on track at turn 2. This allowed the leaders to get a chance for a breather and come in for a relatively relaxed pit stop under caution; Jeff Gordon beat Kurt Busch off pit road by the narrowest of margins, with Johnson falling back to 3rd ahead of Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch in 6th.

The race had passed the halfway point, which was good news as the weather was closing in and the teams were reporting spots of rain on the grandstands. Radar suggested this was a very minor front, but it certainly focused the minds of the teams and crew chiefs.

Gordon managed to fight off Busch at the restart despite intense pressure and three-wide racing with the 48; Jimmie Johnson came off worse and got shuffled backwards, while suddenly Earnhardt Jr was on song and roaring into contention at the front, battling Busch for second. A breathless period of battle came to a temporary end on lap 169 when Paul Menard locked up and hit the wall in turn 3 bringing out the 7th caution, allowing for some further pit stops down the field.

It seemed inevitable that – with tensions rising as the weather deteriorated – the combat was going to trigger an accident, and sure enough it happened at the restart on lap 175: Dale Earnhardt Jr seemed to get a poor getaway and checked up a fraction across the line, forcing Martin Truex Jr immediately behind him to brake in turn. Kyle Busch meanwhile thought he saw a middle line opening up, went for it – and then found Truex Jr braking back into the spot he was going for. Busch’s impact tipped Truex into a spin, and after that it as a case or blind luck as to who would get involved in the ensuing ruck: Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and David Ragan lost the lottery.

With so many cars involved, a red flag was needed to allow the clean up crews a chance to work, but it didn’t stop the intensity of the battle when the race did eventually restart on lap 180 with Gordon having to fight hard to hold off Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Ryan Newman hit the wall on lap 181 but it wasn’t until the following lap that the 9th yellow came out, for Joey Logano getting a cut tyre following contact with David Reutimann.

Kurt Busch came off worst from a fierce tangle with Gordon at the restart and nearly lost the line into the next turner; he was saved only by contact with Jimmie Johnson on the outside, and poor Johnson fell back to 9th as a result of the contact. Seconds later and there was the 10th caution as Scott Speed hit the wall hard going into turn 1 on lap 189 allowing everyone to breath again.

Tony Stewart saw off the competition at the restart on lap 195, and finally there were some serious green flag laps that allowed Smoke to open out a big lead over Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, then the 77 of an excellent Sam Hornish Jr. ahead of Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya. There was a relatively settled period of the race, marked only by an emergency pit stop from Carl Edwards on lap 219 complaining of a tyre coming loose.

With no cautions in sight, it was time for another round of green flag pit stops started by Kyle Busch on lap 233 and quickly followed by the rest of the leaders, but Tony Stewart’s crew had problems with the front right lugnuts, causing him to fall behind Gordon and Kurt Busch. Meanwhile a number of off-sequence cars had their turn in the lead limelight, staying out to the very limit of their fuel in the hope of rain closing in. Bobby Labonte took the lead and then Ryan Newman, who overdid it and ended up stalling on empty on pit lane on lap 263.

That left the only driver yet to pit, Joey Logano, in the lead ahead of Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, David Reutimann, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. But Logano would have to pit any second, so unless it started to rain RIGHT NOW, he was … –

And then the caution came out as the weather closed in and the mist started to condense into something more inclement. The call went out to Logano to do everything possible to conserve fuel during the caution period, and even then everyone expected him to crawl to a halt at any second. But then the rain intensified and the field had to be brought into the pits to park up, with the number 20 making it to its allotted position. Provided that they didn’t have to fire up again, Logano was about to celebrate his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup victory a year after his first series début event.

And as the minutes wore on, the rain got heavier. Jet blowers were sent out, and then recalled as the rain came down too heavily. They were losing the track – the race was over. Logano had just become the youngest ever Sprint Cup winner at 19 years and 1 month and 5 days old, all on an incredible stroke of luck – but to give credit where it due, it also came down to a serious bit of strategic thinking by his pit crew.

Race result

FIN CAR  DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   20   Joey Logano *       Toyota      190/5    273   Running
2   24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   175/5    273   In Pit
3   2    Kurt Busch          Dodge       170/5    273   In Pit
4   00   David Reutimann     Toyota      160/0    273   In Pit
5   14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   160/5    273   In Pit
6   09   Brad Keselowski     Chevrolet   150/0    273   In Pit
7   18   Kyle Busch          Toyota      146/0    273   In Pit
8   77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       142/0    273   In Pit
9   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   148/10   273   In Pit
10  9    Kasey Kahne         Dodge       134/0    273   In Pit
11  07   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   130/0    273   In Pit
12  42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   132/5    273   In Pit
13  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   124/0    273   In Pit
14  5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet   126/5    273   In Pit
15  11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota      123/5    273   In Pit
16  34   John Andretti       Chevrolet   115/0    273   In Pit
17  43   Reed Sorenson       Dodge       117/5    273   In Pit
18  16   Greg Biffle         Ford        114/5    273   In Pit
19  99   Carl Edwards        Ford        106/0    273   In Pit
20  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   103/0    273   In Pit
21  96   Bobby Labonte       Ford        105/5    273   In Pit
22  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford        97/0     273   In Pit
23  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      94/0     273   Running
24  55   Michael Waltrip     Toyota      91/0     273   In Pit
25  7    Robby Gordon        Toyota      93/5     273   In Pit
26  19   Elliott Sadler      Dodge       90/5     273   In Pit
27  78   Regan Smith         Chevrolet   82/0     273   In Pit
28  12   David Stremme       Dodge       79/0     273   In Pit
29  39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   81/5     270   In Pit
30  98   Paul Menard         Ford        73/0     267   In Pit
31  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   70/0     251   In Pit
32  44   A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       67/0     238   In Pit
33  26   Jamie McMurray      Ford        64/0     237   In Pit
34  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   61/0     231   In Pit
35  83   Brian Vickers       Toyota      58/0     190   In Pit
36  187  Scott Speed *       Toyota      55/0     189   Running
37  1    Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   52/0     174   Running
38  6    David Ragan         Ford        49/0     174   In Pit
39  187  Joe Nemechek        Toyota      46/0      67   In Pit
40  171  David Gilliland     Chevrolet   43/0      48   Out of Race
41  37   Tony Raines         Dodge       40/0      30   Out of Race
42  66   Dave Blaney         Toyota      37/0      29   In Pit
43  36   Patrick Carpentier  Toyota      34/0      14   Running

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              POINTS BEHIND   ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        2524    Leader  17  0   1   9   13
2   --  Jeff Gordon         2455    -69     17  0   1   9   12
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      2355    -169    17  0   2   7   11
4   --  Kurt Busch          2254    -270    17  0   1   5   9
5   --  Carl Edwards        2157    -367    17  0   0   4   8
6   +1  Denny Hamlin        2132    -392    17  0   0   4   6
7   -1  Ryan Newman         2127    -397    17  1   0   5   8
8   +1  Kyle Busch          2108    -416    17  1   3   4   6
9   -1  Greg Biffle         2106    -418    17  0   0   5   8
10  --  Matt Kenseth        2054    -470    17  1   2   4   6
11  --  Mark Martin         2052    -472    17  3   3   4   8
12  --  Juan Montoya        2049    -475    17  1   0   0   7
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  --  Kasey Kahne         2048    -476    17  0   1   2   6
14  --  David Reutimann     2037    -487    17  2   1   4   5
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        1955    -569    17  0   0   3   6
16  -1  Jeff Burton         1941    -583    17  0   0   2   6
17  --  Brian Vickers       1852    -672    17  4   0   2   6
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      1798    -726    17  0   0   2   4
19  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1764    -760    17  0   0   1   3
20  +1  Casey Mears         1747    -777    17  0   0   0   2
21  +3  Joey Logano*        1741    -783    17  0   1   1   4
22  -3  Jamie McMurray      1733    -791    17  0   0   0   3
23  --  Elliott Sadler      1660    -864    17  0   0   1   2
24  -2  Martin Truex Jr.    1642    -882    17  1   0   0   3
25  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     1638    -886    17  0   0   0   4
26  +1  Reed Sorenson       1604    -920    17  0   0   0   1
27  -2  Kevin Harvick       1598    -926    17  0   0   2   2
28  --  Bobby Labonte       1579    -945    17  0   0   1   1
29  --  A.J. Allmendinger   1534    -990    17  0   0   1   3
30  --  David Ragan         1496    -1028   17  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       1441    -1083   17  0   0   0   0
32  --  Michael Waltrip     1429    -1095   16  0   0   0   1
33  --  Paul Menard         1410    -1114   17  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1366    -1158   17  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1148    -1376   16  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1114    -1410   15  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland      984    -1540   16  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          816    -1708   9   0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         638    -1886   13  0   0   0   0
40  +2  Brad Keselowski      629    -1895   5   0   1   1   3
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