Posts Tagged ‘loudon’

Stewart-Haas blows away recent frustrations with a triumphant team one-two led by Ryan Newman, amid problems for Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Coming into this weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the word most commonly used by everyone to describe Tony Stewart was “frustrated.”

“Yes, he is frustrated,” agreed Stewart’s team mate Ryan Newman on Friday. “For that matter, I’m ahead of him in points and I’m frustrated, too.”

“I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question,” said a frankly surly Stewart in the routine round of pre-race interviews on Friday. “‘Are you happy when things aren’t going the way you like it to go? Makes you frustrated, doesn’t it?’ So yes, we’re frustrated.”

The weekend’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon was widely described as make-or-break for Stewart-Haas’s season and for any hopes either driver might still have of making the Chase. Partly that’s because New Hampshire has always been a strong venue for Stewart, who has won on the low-banked one mile “true” oval twice and only missed out in last year’s autumn race because of a mis-call on the fuel pit strategy.

As team owner, Stewart recently took action about Stewart-Haas’ malaise by shaking up personnel, axing one of the team’s senior stalwarts in director of competition Bobby Hutchens at the start of June. But it hadn’t seemed to do anything to improve the situation, with Stewart even starting to talk about not wanting to make the cut for the Chase at all if the team wasn’t in a position to win races and be genuinely competitive in the Cup championship play-offs.

“Ultimately, we want to be first or second in either order, so yeah, I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Newman said. “This is crunch time and this has usually been his time, but it hasn’t been this year.”

Against that background, Stewart-Haas’ front row lock-out in qualifying at Loudon on Friday afternoon raised a few eyebrows and came as rather a surprise, as both Newman and Stewart broke the old track record for the circuit in the process. Of course, claiming first and second place on the starting grid is a long way from genuine race success, but it was a leap in performance that got people wondering.

As the Stewart-Haas cars led the field to the green flag in the gorgeous Sunday afternoon sunshine and pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit summer temperatures, there was still a very long way (301 laps to be precise) between a fleeting qualifying success and lasting race triumph. And history was not on Stewart-Haas’ side, as it had been over five years since the last time the top two cars in qualifying had taken the chequered flag in the race in the same order (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch at Pocono in June 2006, since you’re wondering.)

Kurt Busch made an early attempt to break up the Stewart-Haas front row, but Tony Stewart saw him off and then took the lead from Newman and who would lead from there until the first caution of the race on lap 29 for debris just as Stewart was starting to put straggling backmarkers like Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell a lap down.

Already we were seeing good progress for Jimmie Johnson (recovering from a poor qualifying position that saw him start from 28th), AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski who gained four spots in the ensuing pit stops under caution. Less happy were Juan Montoya and also Kevin Harvick, who seemed stuck going nowhere at the bottom of the top 20.

But without a doubt the man having the worst of things was Kyle Busch who had a scare with the wall and a narrow save on lap 9 and then took two visits in pit lane under the caution – once for major set-up changes, the second for four tyres – that put him to the back. “We made some big changes there on that pit stop,” he explained. “We came back and got four just to make sure we got all the changes we wanted to.”

Despite all that work he seemed no happier in the next green flag stint, and on lap 59 his right front tyre blew and the #18 slammed into the wall at turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the day. “Just blew a bead, I guess, transferring too much brake heat through the wheel,” he said, referring to the tyre edge.

He denied that the crash had been due to any contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Nice try at making up a story,” Busch replied. “There’s contact with everybody out there. It had nothing to do with anybody else … Nothing else besides that.” The repairs to the car took some 76 laps and meant that Busch would finish in 36th place, dropping from the lead of the Cup points standings to fifth some 20pts off the new leader as a result.

In the meantime, Jamie McMurray had briefly led the race before being ousted by Newman, but it was really Kurt Busch who took charge between the two yellows. After Busch’s crash it was Mark Martin who led the restart on lap 65, but once again Newman was quick to take charge again with Tony Stewart once more slotting into second place through to the third caution (for debris) on lap 100.

Jimmie Johnson opted to stay out of pit lane for temporary track position while those that did come in opted mainly for two tyres, which did not seem to suit the Stewart-Haas duo nearly as well at this point and they slipped back, allowing Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne to take up the top three positions as Johnson started to fade on worn rubber and eventually come in for an off-sync green flag stop on lap 135.

Gordon’s lead was all the more impressive given that his #24 was having battery problems and was definitely the fastest car on the track during this midrace stage. “We knew we were losing the power to the engine from an alternator standpoint,” he said. “These new gauges have warning lights on them that the whole gauge lights up.” The problems meant he had to shut down the cooling system, including the cooling to the brakes.

Surprisingly Gordon opted not to switch out the twin batteries at the next round of stops that took place after Brad Keselowski cut a tyre in turn 3 on lap 144, a particularly useful caution for Jimmie Johnson as it gave him a much-needed wave around. Gordon would rue the decision to risk the batteries when he lost all power shortly after the restart on lap 154 and dropped to the back of the lead lap; he was saved when a rapid fifth caution materialised for debris on lap 161 allowing him to come in for the battery exchange under yellow.

Kurt Busch had taken the lead during the previous round of pit stops and kept it despite a strong challenge at the restart on lap 169 from Brian Vickers, but the race was quickly back under yellow with the sixth caution of the day after Denny Hamlin got helped into a spin by AJ Allmendinger. Again, the main beneficiary of the caution was Jeff Gordon, who got the lucky dog back onto the lead lap after his lengthy battery exchange pit stop.

Busch was still leading at the restart on lap 174 and this time the green flag racing lasted only ten laps before Mark Martin spun out of 14th position with a cut tyre in turn 2. Kurt continued to lead at the restart on lap 189, but Tony Stewart was now awake again and charging, passing Carl Edwards for second on lap 191 and then taking the lead from Busch down the inside on lap 194, his team mate Ryan Newman not far behind in fourth.

At this point teams were looking ahead to the end game and feverishly calculating fuel loads and possible tyre strategies: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been religiously taking four new tyres at every pit stop so far while Juan Montoya’s #42 team were planning on two tyres only from here on, while Busch’s #22 team were planning fuel strategies to see off the #99 of Edwards, while Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were now running 6th and 7th after their earlier problems although somewhat off-sync in terms of stops. But Tony Stewart was looking particularly strong, having found the best compromise between handling through the corner apex (albeit describing the #14 as a little tight) versus getting out of the corner cleanly and allowing him to put the power down early giving him maximum speed and chances for overtaking traffic.

A debris caution on lap 214 allowed everyone the opportunity to pit under yellow, with a wide variety of strategies emerging including Joey Logano opting to stay out altogether and assume the lead and Clint Bowyer gaining ten spots with a fuel-only approach. Jimmie Johnson must have wished he could have gone fuel-only too when his own pit stop ended up with a missing lugnut, an irritatingly frequent recurring theme for the #48 over the past year which meant he had to return to pit lane and fall to the back of the lead lap.

At the restart, Marcos Ambrose surged past Logano to lead lap 222 with Montoya looking strong behind them, but Brian Vickers’ strong day was about to come to a premature end when he spun on the front straight and hit the wall on lap 225. Vickers headed to the garage for lengthy repairs, Logano finally headed in for fuel, Mark Martin got the free pass and Clint Bowyer assumed the lead followed by Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.

Bowyer’s old tyres were no match for Newman’s fresh ones and the polesitter duly reassumed the lead, with Greg Biffle moving past Bowyer into second place. At this point the critical factor was emerging as fuel, with Biffle being told he was eight laps short of going full distance and Kurt Busch similarly advised he was five laps shy of making it to the chequered flag.

If it was a caution they needed then Jimmie Johnson duly obliged by hitting the wall on turn 2 on lap 240 after getting hit by Juan Montoya, bringing out the tenth (and ultimately final) yellow of the afternoon. “We had some issues on pit road,” said Johnson, “And then the #42 – I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional, but he’s out of mulligans and I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way to often.”

Greg Biffle decided there was no chance of being able to make it all the way to the end without a further stop and duly came in, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had been suffering a suspected tyre rub on his left front; unfortunately he then picked up a tyre violation that put him to the back of the leap lap in 33rd. Earnhardt had already been unhappy with the change of tyre compounds this weekend, which Tony Stewart had earlier praised as being “grippier” and the key to his team’s qualifying success but which met with less success on the #88.

“We struggled all weekend,” admitted Earnhardt. “In practice we just didn’t really have the speed we had last year. We’ve just got to figure out why. What’s the difference in this tyre and try to figure it out. I mean, every damn week they change the tyre … I guess [NASCAR] is getting on ’em about how they build them or something, and they had to bring a new one here. Some kind of new construction. I didn’t like it.”

Stewart-Haas had learned from last year’s autumn race at New Hampshire and knew that track position was crucial at this point of proceedings, so Newman stayed out in the lead ahead of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin as the race resumed on lap 245 with 56 laps to go to the chequered. Busch was looking strong going into the corners, but critically Newman was faster out of them which allowed him to get the power down and pull away out of trouble to keep the lead.

The focus from this point was on the continuing surge of Jeff Gordon who was back up to fourth, and a strong recovery by Jimmie Johnson after the lugnut and spin problems. There was also the relentless rise of Tony Stewart, back into the top ten after the restart and passing Carl Edwards (who had dropped back to fifth) 20 laps later.

Most people however were having to run with one eye on the fuel gauge: a rare exception was Newman himself who didn’t seem to be sparing the horsepower as he pulled out a lead of nearly 2s over Kurt Busch before the #22 was forced to give up the chase and fell to fifth in extreme fuel conservation mode – he would eventually run dry on the last lap and finish in tenth. That allowed Tony Stewart up another place, then past Gordon on lap 286 and finally swooping on Denny Hamlin for second place on lap 294. In the remaining seven laps Stewart put his foot down and did everything he could to close on his team mate who was now encountering lapped traffic and worrying about his fuel load, which allowed the #14 to cut the lead back to under a second.

“I can promise you, I didn’t leave anything out there,” Stewart said. “That was as hard as I could run ’til the end. I couldn’t get the rest of the way. I couldn’t get any further than that.”

And indeed, Newman had just enough pace – and just enough fuel – to make it home in first place with Stewart in second, recreating that qualifying order performance and blasting Stewart-Haas to their first 1-2 finish in the team’s three season history.

“One hell of a day, boys. One hell of a day!” yelled a proud and no longer remotely frustrated team owner over the radio. Labelling it “a perfect weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing,” Stewart went on: “I’m so damn proud I can’t see straight. I’m proud of my buddy there standing on top of his car. He deserved it. He did an awesome job this weekend.”

“We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, and that was our qualifying effort on Friday … We knew we were capable of it,” said an emotional Newman as he dedicated the win by the #39 – sponsored by the US Army – to military personnel and their friends and relatives. “We were so close so many times this year.”

Stewart wanted to give special thanks to his pit crew chief Darian Grubb who had been ailing this weekend. “They told him yesterday he’s got pneumonia,” Stewart said. “He’s battling through a weekend like this, never missed a beat on the box today.”

Denny Hamlin hung on to finish in third place, admitting that his own crew chief Mick Ford had been “screaming that we’ve got to back off. At that point, you have to think about the risk versus reward … As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race.”

Sadly there was one late-race casualty when Jeff Gordon’s fightback ended with a blown right front tyre on the final lap, which meant that he fell from fourth to 11th in the final seconds.

“What did not happen to us today?” said Gordon. “It was a pretty crazy day for us, but certainly a lot to smile about with how great our car was. My goodness, our car was so good … That long of a run on tyres, I should have been a little bit more conservative,” he suggested: “I saw Hamlin starting to check up trying to save fuel and we had a shot of getting to him, so I started charging the corner a little bit harder and we put too much temperature and that’s what blew the right front tyre.”

Gordon suggested that his earlier battery problems which had forced him to turn off the car’s cooling systems may well have played a part in the tyre failure at the end. “We had so many issues thrown at us today that I wasn’t really thinking a whole lot about what kind of temperature we were putting into the brakes when those blowers were off or when we had to turn them on and turn them off,” he said.

Instead, Joey Logano’s earlier off-sync pit strategy was rewarded with fourth place just ahead of the recovering Jimmie Johnson in the #48. “I’m arguing with myself whether I should be frustrated or proud,” said Johnson. “We finished awfully good with everything we went through today.”

Although he was understandably angry with Montoya – “It’s painful to get spun out on the race track” – Johnson’s main source of annoyance seemed to lie more with his team after yet another lugnut issue. “When it’s key times for stops, we have mistakes. I’ve been real patient all year trying to build. I’m running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they’re very talented guys, but we’re getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we’ve got to be right.”

Up front, Ryan Newman had richly deserved the win, leading the most laps of anyone – 119 of the race total of 301 compared with 66 for Kurt Busch and 48 for Tony Stewart. It’s his 15th Cup win in 351 starts, ending a 47-race winless streak, making him the 13th different winner in the 19 races so far in the 2011 season (there were only 13 different winners in the whole of 2010) and marks the first time that a team has claimed the top two spots in both qualifying and the race since Hendrick Motorsports managed it at the Daytona 500 all the way back in 1989 with Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader.

It’s not a magic wand for the team – as with Penske’s recent resurgence, the proof will only come if they can build on it and make this sort of strong showing a routine week-in, week-out occurrence on a range of circuits. Nor does it miraculously revive the Stewart and Newman’s Chase chances (Newman is provisionally in with eighth place and now has a win that may see him claim one of the wildcards if it comes to it, but Stewart is still on the outside looking in with 11th.)

But really, when it comes to sudden sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t come any more blinding than this 1-2 for Tony Stewart and his race winning driver Ryan Newman. They’ll be hoping it gives them just the momentum they need going into one of the biggest Cup races of the year, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks time.

Race results

1. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 301 laps 03:06:08s (48/2 pts)
2. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 301 laps + 0.773s (43/1 pts)
3. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 301 laps + 3.488s (41/0 pts)
4. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 301 laps + 8.125s (41/1 pts)
5. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 301 laps + 8.481s (40/1 pts)
6. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 301 laps + 8.504s (39/1 pts)
7. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 301 laps + 12.211s (37/0 pts)
8. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 301 laps + 12.486s (36/0 pts)
9. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 301 laps + 12.731s (36/1 pts)
10. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 301 laps + 13.082s (35/1 pts)
11. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 301 laps + 14.325s (34/1 pts)
12. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 301 laps + 16.529s (32/0 pts)
13. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 301 laps + 16.844s (32/1 pts)
14. #6 David Ragan Ford 301 laps + 17.943s (30/0 pts)
15. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 301 laps + 18.960s (29/0 pts)
16. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.169s (28/0 pts)
17. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.572s (28/1 pts)
18. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 301 laps + 21.871s (27/1 pts)
19. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 301 laps + 22.044s (25/0 pts)
20. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 301 laps + 22.302s (24/0 pts)
21. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.506s (23/0 pts)
22. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.848s (23/1 pts)
23. #38 J.J. Yeley Ford 301 laps + 25.965s (21/0 pts)
24. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 301 laps + 26.420s (20/0 pts)
25. #34 David Gilliland Ford 301 laps + 26.916s (19/0 pts)
26. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
27. #7 Scott Wimmer Dodge 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
28. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 300 laps + 1 Lap (17/1 pts)
29. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (15/0 pts)
30. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/0 pts)
31. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/1 pts)
32. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 299 laps + 2 Laps (0pts)
33. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 298 laps + 3 Laps (11/0 pts)
34. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 283 laps + 18 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 257 laps + 44 Laps (9/0 pts)
36. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 224 laps + 77 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 159 laps Engine (7/0 pts)
38. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 83 laps Brakes (6/0 pts)
39. #46 Erik Darnell Chevrolet 72 laps Brakes (5/0 pts)
40. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 46 laps Brakes (4/0 pts)
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 37 laps Brakes (0pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 17 laps Electrical (0pts)
43. #55 Jeff Green Ford 11 laps Brakes (0pts)

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

PO CHG DRIVER                 PTS  GAP   ST  P  W  T5 T10
1  +1  Carl Edwards           652        19  2  1  10 13
2  +3  Jimmie Johnson         645  -7    19  0  1  7  12
3  +1  Kurt Busch             641  -11   19  3  1  4  11
4  -1  Kevin Harvick          637  -15   19  0  3  6  10
5  -4  Kyle Busch             632  -20   19  0  3  10 11
6  --  Matt Kenseth           626  -26   19  1  2  6  10
7  --  Jeff Gordon            587  -65   19  1  2  6  8
8  +1  Ryan Newman            586  -66   19  1  1  6  9
9  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.     577  -75   19  1  0  3  8
10 --  Denny Hamlin           570  -82   19  0  1  4  7
11 --  Tony Stewart           570  -82   19  0  0  2  7
12 --  Clint Bowyer           542  -110  19  0  0  3  8
13 +2  David Ragan            524  -128  19  1  1  3  6
14 +3  Kasey Kahne            523  -129  19  1  0  3  7
15 -1  Greg Biffle            523  -129  19  0  0  1  5
16 +2  A.J. Allmendinger      515  -137  19  0  0  1  4
17 -4  Juan Montoya           511  -141  19  2  0  2  6
18 +2  Joey Logano            510  -142  19  1  0  3  5
19 -3  Paul Menard            506  -146  19  0  0  3  5
20 -1  Mark Martin            500  -152  19  1  0  1  5
21 +1  Marcos Ambrose         495  -157  19  0  0  3  6
22 +1  Martin Truex Jr.       485  -167  19  0  0  0  6
23 -2  Brad Keselowski        475  -177  19  1  1  2  4
24 --  David Reutimann        448  -204  19  0  0  1  2
25 --  Jeff Burton            445  -207  19  0  0  0  0
26 --  Brian Vickers          415  -237  19  0  0  1  5
27 --  Regan Smith            410  -242  19  0  1  1  3
28 +1  Bobby Labonte          400  -252  19  0  0  1  2
29 -1  Jamie McMurray         400  -252  19  1  0  0  2
30 --  David Gilliland        347  -305  19  0  0  1  2
31 +1  Dave Blaney            275  -377  19  0  0  0  0
32 -1  Casey Mears            267  -385  18  0  0  0  0
33 --  Andy Lally*            215  -437  16  0  0  0  0
34 --  Robby Gordon           193  -459  14  0  0  0  0
35 --  Tony Raines            123  -529  11  0  0  0  0
36 --  Bill Elliott           100  -552  5   0  0  0  0
37 +3  J.J. Yeley             77   -575  16  0  0  0  0
38 -1  Ken Schrader           73   -579  5   0  0  0  0
39 -1  Terry Labonte          68   -584  4   0  0  0  0
40 -1  Michael McDowell       68   -584  17  0  0  0  0
41 --  David Stremme          34   -618  7   0  0  0  0
42 --  Michael Waltrip        20   -632  2   0  0  0  0
43 --  Andy Pilgrim           18   -634  1   0  0  0  0
44 --  Chris Cook             17   -635  1   0  0  0  0
45 --  Boris Said             16   -636  1   0  0  0  0
46 --  Brian Simo             11   -641  1   0  0  0  0
47 --  Geoffrey Bodine        6    -646  1   0  0  0  0
48 --  T.J. Bell*             5    -647  2   0  0  0  0
49 --  Erik Darnell           5    -647  1   0  0  0  0
50 -1  Brian Keselowski*      3    -649  1   0  0  0  0
51 -1  Steve Park             2    -650  1   0  0  0  0
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Clint Bowyer’s victory at Loudon in the opening Chase race has been effectively wiped out by NASCAR finding that the #33 Chevrolet was guilty of technical infringements.

Bowyer and his team both had 150pts deducted – putting him back down in 12th and last place in the Chase – while crew chief Shane Wilson and car chief Chad Haney have been suspended for the next six races and Wilson also fined $150.000.

The penalty follows a detailed inspection at NASCAR’s Research and Development facility in Concord, North Carolina that followed normal post-race scrutineering at the track. Bowyer’s Richard Childress Racing (RCR) team had been warned the previous week about the car pushing the maximum tolerances to the absolute limit and that they would face a more comprehensive check post-Loudon.

Richard Childress says his team will appeal the penalty, which means that the suspensions and fine will be stayed pending the outcome of the appeal – although the points penalty applies immediately.

“RCR has a long-standing reputation of integrity on and off the race track,” said Childress in a statement. “We pride ourselves on working within the rules established by the sanctioning body.

“NASCAR informed us after the Richmond race that we were very close to their maximum tolerances. They also told us they were going to take our New Hampshire car to the NASCAR Technical Center after that race. It doesn’t make any sense at all that we would send a car to New Hampshire that wasn’t within NASCAR’s tolerances. I am confident we fixed the area of concern and the New Hampshire car left the race shop well within the tolerances required by NASCAR.

We feel certain that the cause of the car being out of tolerance by sixty thousandths of an inch, less than 1/16 of an inch, happened as a result of the wrecker hitting the rear bumper when it pushed the car into winner’s circle. The rear bumper was also hit on the cool down lap by other drivers congratulating Clint on his victory. That’s the only logical way that the left-rear of the car was found to be high at the tech center. We will appeal NASCAR’s ruling and take it all the way to the NASCAR commissioner for a final ruling, if need be.”

Bowyer needed a push by the wrecker back to victory road after the race, after his car ran out of fuel on the cool down lap.

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 

Jimmie Johnson has well and truly recovered from his mid-season slump, and produced a convincing display to produce a back-to-back victory at last Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Juan Montoya led the race for the first 34 laps until a yellow for debris in turn 3 brought the cars in for pit stops; Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch all opted to take two tyres and came out at the head of the field.

The race then ran for a stunning (and new record) 201 laps without a caution, which included two green flag pit stops. Kasey Kahne did remarkably well to stay in the lead for much of the early part of that time, initially coming under pressure from Jimmie Johnson and then from Tony Stewart after the first green flag pit stop cycle.

Finally it was Kyle Busch who bumped Kahne from the top slot on lap 153 with the help of some lapped traffic. Kyle kept the lead through the second pit stop and looked strong through to lap 201, when his pace seemed to fall off and he was beaten to the line by Jeff Burton.

By this time, longtime leader Kasey Kahne was reporting serious problems with his engine and was falling backwards through the field. The engine finally expired on lap 238, bringing out the second yellow of the day. At the restart, Burton led Kyle Busch, Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Montoya to the green flag.

Gordon and Montoya has a serious of collisions over the next few laps, with Montoya ending up the worst off of the two and falling out of the top ten when it was all said and done with the more serious bodywork damage of the two. An enraged Montoya then got into a fight with Reed Sorenson, and this time it ended up even worse for the Colombian with contact sending him hard into the wall at turn 4 on lap 282.

Montoya blamed Gordon for the debacle: “The guy that really messed me up was the #24” said Montoya following his fifth retirement of the season. “He was just getting me really loose in the corner cause he was right against my door getting in. So it got me loose, so I actually bumped into him so actually both of us got hurt.” He added, “[Gordon] just didn’t give me any room, he never does. He has it coming one day.”

At the restart, Johnson got the better run and took the lead from Burton, who then got loose and clipped Kyle Busch sending both cars spinning. Kyle recovered from a full 360 spin somehow pointing the right direction, but he needed to pit for new tyres and was left to rue what might have been as a final lunge managed some damage limitation by putting him back up to 11th by the end.

Back up at the front at the restart, a tap from Kurt Busch into turn 4 sent Johnson up the track and gave Kurt the lead. Tony Stewart held on to third and Clint Bowyer made heavy contact with the wall, but no caution came out, allowing Johnson to recover and fight back to retake the lead from Kurt on the penultimate lap of the race and go on to take the victory.

Jimmie hadn’t led the most laps or dominated the race, but he was always dangerous and lurking near the front of the field; when opportunities had presented themselves, he was always around to take them. While the final victory was a close run thing after his bump with Busch, he was nonetheless able to take the opportunity and clinch it when it came.

Race result

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  301
 2.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  301
 3.  Kurt Busch          Dodge      301
 4.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  301
 5.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  301
 6.  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  301
 7.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  301
 8.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet  301
 9.  Joey Logano         Toyota     301
10.  AJ Allmendinger     Ford       301
11.  Kyle Busch          Toyota     301
12.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  301
13.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota     301
14.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota     301
15.  David Reutimann     Toyota     301
16.  Greg Biffle         Ford       301
17.  Matt Kenseth        Ford       300
18.  Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet  300
19.  Elliott Sadler      Ford       300
20.  David Ragan         Ford       300
21.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet  300
22.  Martin Truex Jr     Toyota     300
23.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge      300
24.  Reed Sorenson       Toyota     300
25.  Carl Edwards        Ford       299
26.  Brad Keselowski     Dodge      299
27.  Scott Speed         Toyota     299
28.  Paul Menard         Ford       299
29.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet  298
30.  Bobby Labonte       Toyota     297
31.  David Stremme       Ford       294
32.  Kevin Conway        Ford       292
33.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet  292
34.  Juan Pablo Montoya  Chevrolet  280
35.  David Gilliland     Ford       268
36.  Kasey Kahne         Ford       236
37.  Andy Lally          Chevrolet  142
38.  JJ Yeley            Dodge      84
39.  Joe Nemechek        Toyota     68
40.  Todd Bodine         Toyota     31
41.  Michael McDowell    Toyota     24
42.  Dave Blaney         Toyota     20
43.  Max Papis           Toyota     11

Sprint Cup standings

POS  +/-  DRIVER              POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1    --   Kevin Harvick       2489    Leader  17  0  1  7   12 
2    --   Jimmie Johnson      2384    -105    17  0  5  8   11 
3    --   Kyle Busch          2328    -161    17  2  2  5   9  
4    --   Denny Hamlin        2304    -185    17  0  5  7   7  
5    --   Jeff Gordon         2302    -187    17  0  0  8   9  
6    --   Kurt Busch          2288    -201    17  2  2  7   10 
7    --   Matt Kenseth        2204    -285    17  0  0  4   8  
8    --   Jeff Burton         2159    -330    17  0  0  3   7  
9    +1   Tony Stewart        2158    -331    17  1  0  4   8  
10   -1   Greg Biffle         2126    -363    17  0  0  2   10 
11   --   Mark Martin         2047    -442    17  1  0  5   6  
12   --   Carl Edwards        2020    -469    17  0  0  1   6  
13   --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2017    -472    17  1  0  1   5  
14   +1   Ryan Newman         2005    -484    17  1  1  2   6  
15   -1   Clint Bowyer        2004    -485    17  0  0  1   9  
16   +1   Joey Logano         1921    -568    17  1  0  2   7  
17   -1   Jamie McMurray      1899    -590    17  2  1  4   5  
18   +1   Martin Truex Jr.    1872    -617    17  1  0  1   4  
19   +2   David Reutimann     1870    -619    17  0  0  3   3  
20   -2   Kasey Kahne         1846    -643    17  1  0  4   5  
21   +1   A.J. Allmendinger   1845    -644    17  1  0  0   3  
22   -2   Juan Montoya        1837    -652    17  1  0  4   8  
23   --   Paul Menard         1738    -751    17  0  0  1   2  
24   +1   David Ragan         1660    -829    17  0  0  0   1  
25   -1   Brad Keselowski     1643    -846    17  0  0  0   0  
26   --   Scott Speed         1631    -858    17  0  0  0   1  
27   --   Marcos Ambrose      1593    -896    17  0  0  0   2  
28   --   Elliott Sadler      1548    -941    17  0  0  0   0  
29   --   Sam Hornish Jr.     1499    -990    17  0  0  0   0  
30   --   Regan Smith         1432    -1057   17  0  0  0   0  
31   --   Bobby Labonte       1276    -1213   17  0  0  0   0  
32   --   Robby Gordon        1202    -1287   15  0  0  1   1  
33   +2   David Gilliland     1193    -1296   15  0  0  0   0  
34   -1   Travis Kvapil       1172    -1317   16  0  0  0   0  
35   -1   Brian Vickers       1158    -1331   11  0  0  0   3  
36   --   Kevin Conway*       1048    -1441   16  0  0  0   0  
37   --   David Stremme       713     -1776   9   0  0  0   0  
38   --   Joe Nemechek        689     -1800   16  0  0  0   0  
39   --   Max Papis           662     -1827   13  0  0  0   0  
40   --   Mike Bliss          621     -1868   9   0  0  0   1  




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