NASCAR: Round 27 – Loudon – Sep 19

The first race of the Chase: a critical moment, as the 12 drivers who had been riding high during the season to date have to make every weekend count. A single stutter can end up wrecking the whole season’s work, while consistency can be key to claiming the Sprint Cup in November. So getting a good start – or at least doing no harm – was on a dozen drivers’ minds today.

Tony Stewart laid down an early marker, claiming the lead on lap 2 from polesitter Brad Keslowski as running got underway on the slightly dated, rather small Loudon circuit in Hampshire, where the huge NASCAR car always look sluggish and huge and unwieldy around the track with Juan Montoya moving neatly up to second place.

Further back, prime Chase contenders Denny Hamlin was getting jostled around, and one of his early contacts was with Jimmie Johnson, sending the 48 a little sideways on lap 6 as they tussled over 18th position just behind Jeff Gordon. Kyle Busch was complaining of his car handling loose, and he was passed for eighth by his brother Kurt – who was having a good early run – on lap 15.

Clint Bowyer had just moved back up into second position when Scott Speed got into the wall and brought out the first caution on lap 26, and Bowyer then beat Stewart out of pit lane at the ensuing pit stops to claim the lead for the restart. He came under heavy pressure from Jamie McMurray at the restart which lasted through to the second yellow on lap 39 when Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard spun out harmlessly in turn 2; McMurray was still pressing hard when the green came out, and was even warned by race control that starting in second place really meant that he should get to the restart line in, y’know, second place and that handing back a jump start later really wasn’t going to work.

A good period of green flag running allowed Clint Bowyer to build up a lead of 3.5s over Carl Edwards who had overtaken McMurray for second, and the rising temperatures of the afternoon seemed to be suiting Bowyer increasingly well. Behind them Brad Keslowski was staying in touch and AJ Allmendinger was having a good run in fifth ahead of Jimmie Johnson, while of the Chase contenders Tony Stewart was in eighth with Kyle and Kurt Busch running 10th and 11th ahead of Jeff Burton. Denny Hamlin was finding the early going to be rather a log and still down in 17th, while Kevin Harvick seemed unhappy with his pit crew’s decision to opt for a two-tyre strategy so early in the race and was running 19th.

The next round of pit stops took place under green around lap 100, and once the stops had cycled through it was still Bowyer looking very comfortable in the lead ahead of Edwards, McMurray, Johnson and Stewart. Of the non-Chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr was having a conspicuously good afternoon – an increasingly rare sight these day – and after starting 32nd was now just outside the top ten, having been higher a few laps earlier but having lost several positions in pit lane after being blocked by Regan Smith. Unfortunately AJ Allmendinger’s early good run had ended up with him running out of fuel coming into the pits, which cost him a lap and left him in 25th desperately hoping for a lucky dog free pass under yellow.

By the time of the third yellow on lap 147, Denny Hamlin had finally shrugged off his earlier lethargy and was cracking the top ten. At the restart on lap 150 – the midway point of the race – the top ten were Bowyer, McMurray, Johnson, Edwards, Stewart, Burton, Hamlin, Keslowski, Gordon and Kurt Busch – nine of them Chase contenders, McMurray the only cuckoo of the nest. Not among them was Kevin Harvick, who was now getting increasingly steamed up with his pit crew after a slow tyre change cost him five places during the pit stops under yellow and now finding his car incredibly loose on top of it all. Kyle Busch was also complaining of the 18 being loose, and was losing positions as well.

Bowyer had got another great start while Johnson got loose and caused those behind him to check up to avoid any problems, but everyone held it together and there were no wrecks. Bowyer seemed comfortably in control and as the cars passed the 200 lap mark he was bearing down to lap Matt Kenseth who – running in 21st – was the lowest-placed of the Chase drivers. But before Bowyer could pass him, a fourth yellow on lap 206 for a blown tyre on the #5 of Mark Martin signalled another round of pit stops, fresh tyres and some handling tune-ups – and in McMurray’s case, a penalty for being too fast entering pit road that sent him back to 20th position.

Bowyer led the restart but Stewart was determined to muscle his way to the front and duly took the lead on lap 212 – not without some light bodywork damage to both cars – as things started to get physical: just behind them, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin made contact and Hamlin got spun going into turn 4 to bring out a rapid fifth yellow. Hamlin avoided damage, but the spin dumped him down to the back of the lead lap in 22nd after his check-up pit stop.

The next restart was only slightly more elongated before a sixth caution on lap 221 for contact and spins involving four cars: Jeff Burton had come down and pinched Kurt Busch, spinning the blue deuce while at the same time Jimmie Johnson got into the back of Kyle Busch spinning those two cars as well. With so many Chase contenders experiencing problems, it left the door open for the likes of Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Montoya to take up residence in the top ten.

Now things were coming down to fuel strategy: the leaders had all pitted under the fourth yellow on lap 208, but stretching fuel from there to the end of lap 300 would be a very tall order. Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer opted to stay out under this latest caution while others such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all came in. Johnson was also in after his spin, and after taking on four tyres he was down in 24th and the last car on the lead lap; it would get even worse later on when he identified one of his wheels as being loose and needed to pit under green to have it replaced, which put him off the lead lap altogether by the end. But there was better news for Jamie McMurray, who after serving his earlier speeding penalty had opted to stay away from the pits this time and was rewarded by taking the restart in fifth place.

Stewart was still in the lead and made a good getaway, while team mates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton were side-by-side for second before Burton came out on top, Bowyer starting to look like his early peerless pace was beginning to ebb away. But there was another caution just six laps later on lap 233 after Kenseth’s already depressing day was given another kicking, this time getting spun by Keslowski.

Another restart attempt on lap 236 lasted barely enough for McMurray to complete his recovery by snatching the lead from Stewart, just before Kurt Busch got loose and Joey Logano suffered the consequences, getting spun up into the wall and bringing out the eighth and final caution of the day on lap 241.

Not that the drivers knew this would be the last caution: many of them were relying on more yellows to make the distance on worryingly low fuel supplies. Many drivers started to drive conservatively, but there were no such signs of anxiety from Tony Stewart who reclaimed the lead after a couple of goes following the restart on lap 245. He pulled out over a second over McMurray, who in turn was soon overtaken by Clint Bowyer.

Should Bowyer hunt down Stewart, or should he conserve fuel? The advice seemed to change twice every lap, and a frustrated Bowyer told his crew that he couldn’t do both and just pick one. The team opted to have him shepherd the fuel and hope that Stewart up front would run out of gas first, while at the same time hoping that they would not run out of fuel themselves and fall prey to McMurray. Stewart pulled away from his rivals, going for broke: there would be no fuel saving as far as Smoke was concerned.

It was a tense closing 15 minutes as everyone wondered whether their engines were about to cough and go dry. One man without that worry was Denny Hamlin, who had last pitted several laps later than the others thanks to his spin on lap 215 and had had the chance to top-up on fuel. He was able to put his foot down and cruise past the others: Harvick for sixth on lap 262, Earnhardt Jr. for fifth on lap 275, then past Burton shortly afterwards for fourth and finally past McMurray for third on lap 290 and Bowyer in his sights. Ten to go.

The last laps ticked past, and for a moment it looked as though the fuel fears would prove unfounded. Then suddenly, at the start of lap 298, Burton was done: his car was empty and he crawled into pit lane. Stewart and Bowyer had pitted the same lap, would the same thing happen to them to? It would leave Hamlin with the opening victory of the Chase.

The white flag was right in front of Stewart to signal the start of the final lap when the #14 suddenly died, no longer even left with fumes on which to run. But Bowyer was still alive and kicking, and Hamlin had to push just in case the #33 had enough to get across the line. He ate up the gap between them, was just feet behind as they rounded the final corner – but unless Bowyer dried, he needed another lap to pull off the pass. Bowyer wasn’t dry; and Hamlin didn’t have that extra lap.

The chequered flag fell on Bowyer, who last week was battling to earn a pace in the Chase and this week is running second only to Hamlin in the points, suddenly one of the strongest contenders for the Sprint Cup. How sweet the moment must have been for him; as sweet as it was bitter for Tony Stewart, who cruised round under momentum and sheer will power to just cross the finish line before grinding to a halt, going from first to 24th in the space of a single agonising final lap. It was a bad week for him, then, and also for Jimmie Johnson – two of the favourites for the Sprint Cup, suddenly with it all to make it.

Hamlin and Bowyer were the big winners in the Chase; Burton and Kenseth along with Johnson and Stewart the biggest losers. who have seriously handicapped their season. But don’t overlook the likes of Kevin Harvick (who recovered from his earlier pit frustrations to finish a strong 5th), Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch (who never had a great car today, escaped some scrapes, but most importantly brought the car home in 9th) – consistency and perseverance are the keys to a successful print Cup campaign, and that’s what they showed at Loudon.

And now, on to Dover International Speedway in just a week.

Race results

 	 	 	 	 	
FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   2   33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  195/10  300   
2   22  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     170/0   300   
3   4   1   Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  170/5   300   
4   32  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  160/0   300   
5   27  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  155/0   300   
6   17  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  155/5   300   
7   7   00  David Reutimann    Toyota     146/0   300   
8   24  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  142/0   300   
9   9   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     138/0   300   
10  15  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      134/0   300   
11  10  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       135/5   300   
12  6   43  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       127/0   300   
13  12  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      124/0   300   
14  21  9   Kasey Kahne        Ford       121/0   300   
15  13  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  118/0   300   
16  5   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  115/0   300   
17  14  16  Greg Biffle        Ford       112/0   300   
18  1   12  Brad Keselowski    Dodge      114/5   300   
19  20  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  106/0   300   
20  16  56  Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     103/0   300   
21  19  19  Elliott Sadler     Ford       100/0   300   
22  11  6   David Ragan        Ford       97/0    300   
23  33  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       94/0    300   
24  3   14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  96/5    300   
25  25  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  88/0    299   
26  29  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     90/5    299   
27  37  83  Reed Sorenson      Toyota     82/0    299   
28  8   98  Paul Menard        Ford       79/0    299   
29  26  5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  76/0    298   
30  23  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     73/0    298   
31  30  36  Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  70/0    297   
32  40  38  Travis Kvapil      Ford       67/0    295   
33  39  37  David Gilliland    Ford       64/0    295   
34  41  34  Tony Raines        Ford       61/0    295   
35  31  20  Joey Logano        Toyota     58/0    256   Accident
36  28  82  Scott Speed        Toyota     55/0    213   Running
37  42  71  Andy Lally         Chevrolet  52/0    138   Brakes
38  18  13  Casey Mears        Toyota     49/0    93    Vibration
39  43  09  Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  46/0    89    Electrical
40  35  87  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     48/5    60    Clutch
41  36  55  Mike Bliss         Toyota     40/0    55    Brakes
42  34  164 Landon Cassill     Toyota     37/0    40    Brakes
43  38  46  Michael McDowell   Dodge      34/0    29    Engine
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   GAP     ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   --   Denny Hamlin        5230          27  1  6  11 12 
2   +10  Clint Bowyer        5195  -35     27  0  1  5  15 
3   --   Kevin Harvick       5185  -45     27  0  3  12 18 
4   --   Kyle Busch          5168  -62     27  2  3  8  15 
5   +3   Jeff Gordon         5155  -75     27  0  0  10 14 
6   -1   Kurt Busch          5144  -86     27  2  2  8  15 
7   -5   Jimmie Johnson      5138  -92     27  1  5  10 14 
8   +1   Carl Edwards        5135  -95     27  2  0  6  14 
9   -2   Greg Biffle         5122  -108    27  0  1  5  14 
10  --   Jeff Burton         5118  -112    27  0  0  5  13 
11  -5   Tony Stewart        5106  -124    27  2  1  7  14 
12  -1   Matt Kenseth        5094  -136    27  0  0  5  10 
===== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ======
13  --   Ryan Newman         3221  -2009   27  1  1  2  9  
14  --   Jamie McMurray      3220  -2010   27  3  2  8  10 
15  +2   David Reutimann     3132  -2098   27  0  1  5  6  
16  --   Juan Montoya        3132  -2098   27  2  1  5  13 
17  -2   Mark Martin         3098  -2132   27  1  0  5  7  
18  +1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3068  -2162   27  1  0  3  7  
19  -1   Kasey Kahne         3053  -2177   27  2  0  6  8  
20  --   Martin Truex Jr.    2987  -2243   27  1  0  1  6  
21  +1   A.J. Allmendinger   2947  -2283   27  1  0  1  5  
22  -1   Joey Logano         2936  -2294   27  1  0  3  10 
23  --   Paul Menard         2721  -2509   27  0  0  1  3  
24  +1   David Ragan         2647  -2583   27  0  0  0  1  
25  -1   Marcos Ambrose      2638  -2592   27  0  0  2  5  
26  --   Brad Keselowski     2629  -2601   27  1  0  0  0  
27  +1   Sam Hornish Jr.     2465  -2765   27  0  0  0  1  
28  -1   Scott Speed         2404  -2826   27  0  0  0  2  
29  --   Elliott Sadler      2377  -2853   27  0  0  0  1  
30  --   Regan Smith         2303  -2927   27  0  0  0  0  
31  --   Bobby Labonte       1949  -3281   27  0  0  0  0  
32  --   Travis Kvapil       1924  -3306   26  0  0  0  0  
33  --   David Gilliland     1774  -3456   23  0  0  0  0  
34  +1   Robby Gordon        1626  -3604   22  0  0  1  1  
35  -1   Kevin Conway*       1586  -3644   24  0  0  0  0  
36  --   Brian Vickers       1158  -4072   11  0  0  0  3  
37  --   Joe Nemechek        1068  -4162   25  0  0  0  0  
38  +2   Reed Sorenson       966   -4264   12  0  0  0  1  
39  --   Casey Mears         934   -4296   13  0  0  0  0  
40  +1   Dave Blaney         933   -4297   20  0  0  0  0  
41  -3   Max Papis           907   -4323   18  0  0  0  0  
42  --   Mike Bliss          876   -4354   13  0  0  0  2  
43  --   David Stremme       825   -4405   11  0  0  0  0  
44  --   Bill Elliott        800   -4430   9   0  0  0  0  
45  --   Michael McDowell    730   -4500   19  0  0  0  0  
46  --   J.J. Yeley          588   -4642   10  0  0  0  0  
47  --   Boris Said          448   -4782   6   0  0  0  1  
48  --   Landon Cassill      388   -4842   8   0  0  0  0  
49  --   Todd Bodine         313   -4917   7   0  0  0  0  
50  +2   Tony Raines         296   -4934   5   0  0  0  0  
* Denotes Rookie 
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