NASCAR: Round 27 – Sylvania, Loudon NH – 20 September

The first race of the Chase looked set to belong to Juan Pablo Montoya: he was the birthday boy after all (34, since you ask) and looked in dominating form. When he wasn’t up at or near the front, he was surging past cars with eye-catching panache. Other pretenders came and went, but the Colombian looked able to cover them all – all, that is, except the quiet one who crept in under the radar to steal the day.

Starting from pole, Montoya actually managed to lose the lead on lap 1 to Tony Stewart, but quickly corrected that state of affairs the next time around to lead the first of 104 laps of the day. After fending off the attentions of Denny Hamlin, Stewart methodically cut through the 1.1s lead Montoya had built up to challenge again for the lead on lap 37, as Montoya’s handling started to go off and the leaders got bogged down in traffic. Stewart duly took the lead, as both men came under pressure from the number 2 of Kurt Busch who was closing fast.

The race had run caution free for a lengthy period until finally the yellows came out for the first time on lap 66 after Kasey Kahne blew his engine – disastrous luck for the Chase contender, but good news for the rest of the field who could come in for their pit stops and get some much needed adjustments. With the advantage of the first box by the pit exit, Montoya’s stop was perfection and the 42 returned to the lead ahead of Hamlin, Stewart and Busch. Montoya had to go tree-wide to hold off Hamlin and Stewart but pulled it off, before another yellow came out only ten laps later on lap 85 for debris in turn 3.

The leaders all stayed out, but some of those further back opted to pit again – among them were Chase contender Greg Biffle, whose car was handling very poorly; and Kyle Busch, who narrowly missed out on the Chase last week and seemed in the doldrums this week too.

Montoya blasted off into the lead again, helped by a slight bump between Hamlin and Stewart that sent Smoke falling to fifth place after getting sideways. That opened the gap for Kurt Busch to mount a charge, and on lap 125 he took the top spot for the first time today – and quickly opened up a massive 2.4s lead. Suddenly the blue deuce was looking the car to beat.

More debris on track on lap 146 resulted in the third yellow, just about right for the leaders to come in for their next pit stops; once again, the prime pit position aided Montoya to retake the lead out of pit lane, ahead of Hamlin and Busch with Dale Earnhardt Jr. now in 4th place having an excellent day, and the highest of the non-Chase contenders. Behind him in fifth place was the quiet, unassuming Mark Martin. Watching and waiting …

At the restart, Hamlin was determined to take the lead: he did, but only by going wheel-to-wheel with Montoya for some seven laps of thrilling racing, just pipping Montoya across the actual start/finish line to claim the nominal lap lead but then slipping back during the rest of the lap, while the two of them going side-by-side blocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind them, looking ready to take them both on.

Finally on lap 153, Montoya gave one last heave and took the lead back, but soon afterwards the yellows flew again for a spin by Erik Darnell in turn 2 and Montoya led the majority of the cars to the pits. Kurt Busch had an eventful stop, hitting David Ragan as he exited his pit box, spinning Ragan around and damaging his own front right bodywork. But not all the cars came in: among those staying out were Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Bobby Labonte, and they duly formed the top five at the restart. K

The restart didn’t last long before the biggest incident of the night, triggered by Joey Logano brushing Elliot Sadler, throwing him into a smoky spin that caught up Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Robby Gordon and John Andretti in the process. Paul Menard looked the most seriously injured of the cars involved in what was mostly a harmless affair.

Tony Stewart led the restart on lap 174, but he had developing problems of his own: the axle cap on his left rear wheel was loose, potentially a race-ruining development. Worse case scenario was that he could get black flagged to the pits before it flew off; an only marginally better scenario was that the axle cap could cause problems in subsequent pit stops.

Still, Stewart raced on and the race restarted, went yellow almost immediately (for a spin by the 31 of Jeff Burton) and then got away again on lap 180. Perhaps distracted by the axle cap issue, however, Stewart quickly lost the lead to Jimmie Johnson who was suddenly coming on strong and able to pull out a 3s lead within ten laps.

Juan Montoya had been left back down the field after that previous round of pit stops, but now there were some actual laps of green flag running, he set about muscling his way to the front, rushing past cars like Hamlin, McMurray and Stewart with apparent ease to return to third position by the time the seventh caution of the night came out in lap 193. That was for David Stremme spinning into the wall at turn 2 after contact with AJ Allmendinger.

That meant that the cars that stayed out last time could finally pit, including Johnson, Jeff Gordon – and Tony Stewart, whose pit crew set about fixing the axle cap issue in a very lengthy stop that dropped him to the back of the lead lap in 25th. Oddly, Montoya – who had pitted last time – opted to come in again this time as well, falling to 16th as a result but clearly feeling that the pace of his car would allow him to make up the positions and that it was worth it to keep topped up with fuel and fresh rubber.

That left Kurt Busch leading the field at the restart, ahead of Mark Martin, Elliott Sadler, Jeff Buron and David Reutimann. Busch immediately came under pressure from Mark Martin, and the senior driver finally pulled off the move to take the lead on lap 204. But again, eyes were being drawn further back down the field – Montoya was on the charge again, up to 5th by lap 212 and making mincemeat of several serious Chase contenders.

Montoya levelled off after that, hitting his worst patch of the afternoon, and it was Jimmie Johnson who started carving his way through the field after surviving a nasty moment with contact with team mate Jeff Gordon at the restart as they had been battling over 14th position. Johnson caught and passed Montoya for 5th on lap 240, just before the race leader Mark Martin kicked off the next round of pit stops – this time under green – surrendering the lead to Kurt Busch in the process. Busch himself was in five laps later giving Hamlin another chance to lead the race, and Hamlin had another 20 laps’ worth of fuel in his tank before he had to pit on lap 265.

Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose and Bobby Labonte all had fleeting appearances in the lead as the final pit stops cycled through, before things finally straightened out on lap 275, falling perfectly for Mark Martin who was able to reclaim his lead ahead of Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and David Reutimann. Naturally, the minute the pit stops were done with, the yellows came out – debris in turns 3 and 4 the following lap, just after Jeff Burton and Juan Montoya had a close encounter: Montoya got loose, bumped Burton and both went into a drift slide round the corner before recovering. Burton showed his displeasure with Montoya with a swift bump at the backside under the safety car.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle were among the cars to pit, but the top five remained unaltered into the restart, which was something of a misfire as Dale Earnhardt Jr. – having had such a great run here – was spun by Reutimann getting loose and slamming him into the wall at turn 2, causing extensive and race-ending damage for the 88.

With only 13 laps to go at the restart, Montoya was back and lunging for the lead, passing Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson for third and then Kurt Busch for second next time around, although Martin had used the opportunity of this battle to sprint away to a relatively safe 1.1s lead. Still, if you had to put money on it, it still looked like going to Montoya – providing there was enough time …

The tenth (and final) yellow of the afternoon came out on lap 294 after Allmendinger spun in turn 2 after a solid hit up the backside from Ambrose; that left just 3 laps to go at the restart to the final chequered flag. It was down to Martin and Montoya, the veteran and the Chase rookie, to fight it out at the dual-file restart one more time.

And experience won the day: after a close lap running wheel-to-wheel with Montoya on the inside threatening to break through, Martin finally got in front and pulled away, leaving Montoya in a fierce struggle of his own with Denny Hamlin for second place Hamlin so that he never had the chance to come back and make another attempt at the lead.

There was last minute drama as Allmendinger went for another spin at the start of the final lap. NASCAR held off throwing the caution and freezing the field for as long as possible, but with Allmendinger barely rolling down thr start-finish straight they had no choice as the leaders surged through the final corners. By the narrowest of margins, Montoya had just managed to nise ahead of Hamlin before the yellow cam out – but further ahead the winner was not in any question.

Montoya might have been the centre of attention and action all afternoon, but it was the calm, quiet unassuming style of the oldest man in the field was what counted in the end. It might have taken Martin 26 attempts – and he might not like New Hampshire or have rated his chances at the start of the afternoon – but Martin was finally a winner ay Loudon for the first time in his career.

What a start to the Chase for Mark Martin – can he really ride the fairy tale all the way to a Sprint Cup triumph? Just another nine races to find out …

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  300
 2.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  300
 3.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     300
 4.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  300
 5.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     300
 6.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      300
 7.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  300
 8.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      300
 9.  Greg Biffle        Ford       300
10.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  300
11.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     300
12.  David Reutimann    Toyota     300
13.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  300
14.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  300
15.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  300
16.  Carl Edwards       Ford       300
17.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  300
18.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     300
19.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       300
20.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  300
21.  Joey Logano        Toyota     300
22.  Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  300
23.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       300
24.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     300
25.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      300
26.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  300
27.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     298
28.  David Stremme      Dodge      298
29.  Aric Almirola      Dodge      297
30.  Erik Darnell       Ford       297
31.  Scott Speed        Toyota     297
32.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  295
33.  David Ragan        Ford       287
34.  Paul Menard        Ford       287
35.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  283
36.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      263
37.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      162
38.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge       66
39.  Mike Wallace       Toyota      48
40.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota      41
41.  Michael McDowell   Toyota      36
42.  Dave Blaney        Toyota      23
43.  Tony Raines        Dodge        8

Sprint Cup standings

The early retirement is an extremely bad start to the Chase for Kasey Kahne, while Montoya benefits from the strong showing all day to climb to fourth place in the Cup standings. But it’s Mark Martin who continues to shine, and to lead the points.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10 
1   --  Mark Martin         5230            27  6   5   10  15  
2   +1  Jimmie Johnson      5195     -35    27  1   3   10  16  
3   +1  Denny Hamlin        5195     -35    27  0   2   10  15  
4   +7  Juan Montoya        5175     -55    27  2   0   3   13  
5   +2  Kurt Busch          5165     -65    27  0   1   7   15  
6   -4  Tony Stewart        5156     -74    27  0   3   13  18  
7   +3  Ryan Newman         5151     -79    27  1   0   5   13  
8   --  Brian Vickers       5140     -90    27  6   1   4   13  
9   +3  Greg Biffle         5138     -92    27  0   0   8   13  
10  -4  Jeff Gordon         5128    -102    27  0   1   12  18  
11  -2  Carl Edwards        5117    -113    27  0   0   7   11  
12  -7  Kasey Kahne         5069    -161    27  0   2   5   10  
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  --  Kyle Busch          3350    -1880   27  1   4   8   10  
14  --  Matt Kenseth        3259    -1971   27  1   2   4   9   
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3193    -2037   27  0   0   4   12  
16  --  David Reutimann     3175    -2055   27  2   1   5   8   
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2938    -2292   27  0   0   4   7   
18  --  Jeff Burton         2853    -2377   27  0   0   2   6   
19  --  Joey Logano*        2805    -2425   27  0   1   1   5   
20  --  Casey Mears         2763    -2467   27  0   0   0   3   
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2686    -2544   27  0   0   2   5   
22  --  Kevin Harvick       2680    -2550   27  0   0   3   5   
23  --  Jamie McMurray      2673    -2557   27  0   0   0   3   
24  +1  Martin Truex Jr.    2561    -2669   27  2   0   0   3   
25  +2  Elliott Sadler      2558    -2672   27  0   0   1   4   
26  -2  A.J. Allmendinger   2543    -2687   27  0   0   1   3   
27  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2486    -2744   27  0   0   2   7   
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2445    -2785   27  0   0   0   1   
29  +1  Bobby Labonte       2401    -2829   27  0   0   1   1   
30  -1  David Ragan         2378    -2852   27  0   0   0   1   
31  --  David Stremme       2368    -2862   27  0   0   0   0   
32  --  Paul Menard         2268    -2962   27  0   0   0   0   
33  +1  Robby Gordon        2106    -3124   26  0   0   1   1   
34  -1  Michael Waltrip     2100    -3130   25  0   0   0   1   
35  --  Scott Speed*        1934    -3296   26  0   0   1   1   
36  --  John Andretti       1875    -3355   25  0   0   0   0   
37  --  David Gilliland     1473    -3757   24  0   0   0   0   
38  --  Regan Smith         1114    -4116   13  0   0   0   0   
39  --  Joe Nemechek        1022    -4208   22  0   0   0   0   
40  +1  Dave Blaney          949    -4281   24  0   0   0   0   
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