NASCAR at Loudon 2014: Winners and Losers from the Camping World RV Sales 301
The Magic Mile conjured a championship performance out of Roger Penske's No. 2 Redd's Apple Ale Ford on Sunday. Brad Keselowski led 137 of the 305 laps (four laps were added due to a late caution) of the Camping World RV 301.
Keselowski was driving downhill. After any restart where his team chose four tires over two, it was only a matter of five to 10 laps before the No. 2 was back on the lead.
In the last 13 runnings of the Camping World RV Sales 301, there have been 13 different winners. With so many drivers desperate for a win and with Jimmie Johnson biting the dust 11 laps into the race, the door was wide open for someone to come in and clinch a spot in the Chase. Instead, Keselowski matched Johnson as the only other driver with three wins this year.
Read on to see who won and lost from this week's race at Loudon.
Winner: Redd Hot Brad
Pop quiz: Which Brad Keselowski performance was better: his most dominant win at Loudon or his cameo while drinking a beer (Miller Lite? Redd's Apple? Beast?) on the TBS original series Sullivan & Son?
(All things considered, he wasn't that bad in the cameo. He was far better than Shaquille O'Neal in The Lego Movie and Shaq's was only a voice performance.)
Keselowski left opening the champagne to somebody else on Victory Lane and was then handed a giant lobster. At least the claws were banded up. Is someone out to sabotage him? It may be the only chance at beating him from here on out.
"The Redd's Apple Ale Ford Fusion was hauling," Keselowski said during the TNT broadcast. "I'd say we're Redd hot."
Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.
But seriously, Keselowski's performance was the type that puts him in the top two for the Sprint Cup Championship. He may even be considered the favorite to win the Cup after his victories at Kentucky and New Hampshire.
"If we keep bringing cars like this every week, the sky's the limit," Keselowski said during the TNT broadcast.
Loser: Left Rear Tires
Jimmie Johnson didn't make it 20 laps one week ago in Daytona and didn't even make it 15 at New Hampshire.
He suffered a flat tire and pitted to replace it. TNT went to commercial, and by the time the broadcast returned Johnson was out of the car and done for the day. Again, it was the left rear tire.
The speculation was a flat as a result of low tire pressure. That may have been the case with the first issue, but the second time the tire exploded, according to Johnson.
"I promise you it wasn't low tire pressure," Johnson said during the TNT broadcast. "I've been running two days out here and haven't had a flat."
Johnson's three wins in 2014 assure him a spot when the Chase starts in September, but the race at Loudon was more of a prep for the September race in the Chase. The No. 48 team wanted to fill notebooks with information for the return when it really matters.
Johnson had to take notes from the garage, while the other 42 cars got a better sense of this track for Round 2.
Winner: Rebounding Rookie
Kyle Larson started the 2014 season very strong. He was in the top 10 in points, though he hadn't even won a race. The last few races have seen him lose his grip.
In his previous three races, he had an average finish of 35th, which slipped him all the way down to 17th in the Sprint Cup standings.
At Loudon, Larson started 13th, was as low as 35th and was high as first before finishing third at Loudon. It was just what he needed to get back inside the Chase grid. Larson said prior to the race, per Pat DeCola of NASCAR.com:
It makes you stress out a little bit just because each week it gets closer and closer to the Chase. Now we have fallen to where we have to fight really hard again. It makes it nerve-racking, but we are all pretty close. I think there are six or so guys that are pretty close in points. I have to have a couple of good runs and hopefully get back up there. It would be nice to get a win soon for sure.
Sunday's effort was a major statement for this team as it goes forward.
Winner: Second Fiddles
One of the more confounding and confusing moments occurred when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was interviewed by TNT after the race. He was sitting down and rubbing his upper lip as if he were stuffing it with dip. He appeared to be very fragile to the point where it looked like he may have been crying.
Earnhardt finished 10th after starting 28th. So he's not a loser, per se, but his post-race candor was on the one hand refreshing and on the other unfortunate. Anyone listening to him (and especially watching him) felt his frustration. That makes him a winner, at least in some folk's eyes.
Sporting News' Bob Pockrass tweeted Earnhardt's quote, "The 2 & the Gibbs guys, they were all real fast ... It's just real frustrating all day long to be playing second fiddle."
Jimmie Johnson was out on Lap 11. Kasey Kahne was a non-threatening 11th. So what exactly is Earnhardt referring to?
"That's the hardest I've ever worked for a 10th-place finish," he said during the TNT broadcast. "The guys worked real hard. I had to drive so perfect every lap. I wish we were better. We'll keep working. I'm disappointed. I remember when I used to like this."
By "used to like this," he meant finishing in the top 10.
He must be second fiddle to Jeff Gordon in this regard. How that played out Sunday is up for speculation, but perhaps it had more to do with the lead-up. This will be an interesting storyline to follow next week.
Loser: Jeff Gordon's Wild Ride
Jeff Gordon saw it all Sunday. His day was one of the more manic depressive days a driver could have. Early in the race, he was near the top. Then he faded all the way back to 26th. At that point he may as well have been written off.
"It's un-driveable," Gordon said of his car during the TNT broadcast.
For such a sour car, he crept up into the top 20, then the top 15 and then the top 10. Soon, he even took the lead after a late caution.
But anyone who took the lead was only keeping it warm for Keseloswki. It was almost as if every time Keselowski gave up the lead, he simply yelled, "Fives, brb," and had the lead back in the requisite time.
Were it not for a caution with four laps to go, Gordon may have finished in the top five. He had enough fuel to get 301 laps, not 305. He ran out of gas and fell to 26th overall.
On paper that makes him a loser in the end, but the way he battled and seesawed all afternoon makes his 26th-place effort about as good as they come.
Winner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Kyle Busch drove a solid race. Everyone else was driving for second place as Keselowski toyed with this field like a sadist. Busch was the first of the rest, finishing second with an ever-dwindling cache of fuel in the caboose.
Busch and his No. 18 team have New Hampshire figured out to an extent, as much as any crew can truly have a track figured out.
Busch has even finished second in two of his last three races.
Matt Kenseth, in his constant search for a win in 2014, finished fourth, and Denny Hamlin, in contention for much of this race, finished eighth.
If Busch can muster some consistency in the top 10 and Kenseth can snap his season-long losing streak, Joe Gibbs Racing will be set up well for the Chase.
NASCAR returns to Loudon in September for the Chase, and Gibbs appears to have three cars qualified. With such a strong effort in Loudon now, that only makes these three that much more dangerous when it's time to eliminate some of these drivers.
There could be a war between some drivers and Goodyear tires. With the tight turns of Loudon's Magic Mile, many teams adopted for lower tire pressure on the left side. It worked for some and didn't work for others.
Aric Almirola, winner of last week's Coca-Cola 400 (yes, the rain-shortened one), crashed his car in qualifying and had to start 43rd with a backup car. Almirola, to his credit, managed to finish 23rd. He told NASCAR.com after qualifying:
I honestly have no idea (what's going on with these tires); I just don't know. That was our third or fourth run on that same set of tires, so I honestly cannot give you an answer. I don't know. That was probably my fourth lap on the track, too. So, it's just weird.
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had little good to say about Goodyear after their day ended 294 laps short.
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of speculation and finger pointing back to our team," Johnson said in USA Today. "We'll try to dig in and learn more. I promise you it wasn't low tire pressure. I've been running two days out there and haven't had a flat."
Goodyear, in the same article, denied culpability, instead pointing the blame at the Lowe's Chevy for not following tire specs.
Either way, the tires were a problem for several drivers including last week's winner and the co-leader in wins in 2014.