New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR's most unique ovals, a mile long flat track unlike almost any other on the Sprint Cup schedule.
On Sunday, NHMS featured one of Sprint Cup's most unique winners: a part-time driver.
Brian Vickers stole the glory in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301, becoming the first part-timer since Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500 to win a Cup race. It was he, not Mark Martin or Michael Waltrip, to bring the No. 55 Toyota to its first victory as a shared ride. In the process, he managed to win a race before teammate Clint Bowyer, currently second in Sprint Cup points.
Who else came out of Loudon happy, and who wishes that they could have changed their race's outcome?
At the end of the 2011 season, Vickers was viewed as somewhat of a has-been. His Red Bull deal ran out as their race team folded, and when numerous on-track altercations marred his return to full-time competition after recovering from blood clots, he was briefly unhireable.
Fast forward to today, when Vickers scored his first Cup victory since Michigan in 2009, the only year he made the Chase. Not only did he, over Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip, bring the shared No. 55 to its first victory, but many strong performances over the past two years in limited action have all but guaranteed him a full-time seat in 2014.
Despite leading for much of the race, Stewart, whose run to a third Cup title began with a win here in 2011, wouldn't quite make it to the finish. After last pitting on lap 203, the hope was that the No. 14 could make it to the finish, even if Stewart would be running on fumes.
He might have been alright if not for a green-white-checkered that put a top-five finish just out of reach. Instead, Stewart fell all the way to 26th.
Busch may have been disappointed by his second place finish on Sunday, but the weekend wasn't all bad. He still won Saturday's Nationwide race, while protege Erik Jones, at only 17 years old, finished second in Saturday night's Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa.
Busch now has nine top-10s in 19 races, better than any other driver in Sprint Cup. That fact, plus his two victories, should prove that he'll be a driver to beat in the Chase.
Busch entered the weekend ninth in points, closing in on Furniture Row Racing's first-ever Chase berth. Starting second and leading early in the race, he was poised to advance even higher in points at New Hampshire.
But it wasn't meant to be. A late accident with Ryan Newman sent Busch into the wall, his hopes for victory dashed. At race's end, he would be ranked 31st, falling to 14th in points in the process.
The chances that Almirola puts the No. 43 in its first-ever Chase are slim, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been doing a workmanlike job of driving it.
Loudon saw Almirola finish fifth, a season-best run and a strong rebound from last weekend's accident in Daytona. With 502 points, he's only 21 behind Kasey Kahne for 10th in the standings—though making it there would also involve outperforming stars like Martin Truex Jr. (11th), Jeff Gordon (12th), and Kurt Busch (14th).
It seems like things just can't go right for Labonte in 2013. Not only is his JTG Daugherty Racing car not all that fast, but his consecutive start streak in Sprint Cup came to an end in Kentucky when the team replaced him with A.J. Allmendinger.
Loudon could have provided a nice rebuttal to the struggle, as Labonte ran as high as seventh in the closing laps of the race. Unfortunately, he ran out of gas just before the finish, falling to 27th.
Toyotas swept the New Hampshire race weekend, with Vickers winning on Sunday, Kyle Busch winning Saturday's Nationwide race, and Timothy Peters taking the checkered flag at Iowa in the Camping World Truck Series.
Though the manufacturer only has one driver in the top five in Nationwide points (Elliott Sadler), Toyota driver Matt Crafton leads the Truck points, and five Toyota drivers—Busch, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., and now Vickers—have won Cup races this season.
Any time that off-track couple Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick have an on-track altercation, it's going to be news. A couple of months ago, it was Stenhouse wrecking Patrick at Charlotte; this weekend, it was the opposite.
One second, Stenhouse and Travis Kvapil were in front of Patrick heading into turn one—the next, both were in the wall. And with two weeks between New Hampshire and the next race at Indianapolis, don't be surprised if the incident draws some extra attention as a filler topic.
It's not often that a septuagenarian straps behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car. In fact, it had never happened during race conditions until Shepherd, who made his debut in 1970, returned to the series in New Hampshire.
A winner of 19 races at NASCAR's national levels, the last of which came in a 1993 Cup race at Atlanta, Shepherd is best known these days for running a privateer operation that once featured him changing his own tires and fueling his own gas tank. He completed 92 laps on Sunday.
If anyone thought that Hamlin still had an outside chance at making the Chase, they can probably go ahead and forget about it now.
Hamlin, who won the last Cup race at Loudon last September, had multiple issues, including a missing lugnut, that relegated him to a 21st place finish. At 25th in points, it would take a set of absolute miracles—including about three or four race wins—to continue his streak of seven consecutive Chase appearances.