Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson muscled past Kurt Busch with two laps to go at New Hampshire and held on to secure his fifth win this season, effectively ending any talk of a so-called slump. Five laps earlier, Busch has bumped Johnson up the track for the lead, but Johnson recovered to position the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy for the race-winning pass. Johnson celebrated his win with the traditional burnouts, and dedicated the victory to his pregnant wife Chandra, who is expecting the couple’s first child in a month.
“Trust me, I wanted badly to retaliate against Busch,” Johnson said. “Luckily, Chad Knaus calmed me, which I believe makes me the first driver to be served with a ‘restraining’ order since Jeremy Mayfield.
“It’s readily apparent that Busch used a lot more force moving me out of the way than I did on him. Kurt knew I had the better car, which is why it didn’t take much to get by him for the lead. Call it a ‘baby’ bump, if you will.
“Had I wrecked Busch in retaliation, that would have made me no better than him, and we all know that’s not true.”
2. Kevin Harvick
Harvick recorded his Sprint Cup series-best 12th top-10 finish this year, driving to a fifth in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. In his amazing run of consistency this year, Harvick has only one result outside the top 20 and no DNFs. He leads the point standings by 105 over the hard-charging Jimmie Johnson.
“In this sport,” Harvick said, “consistency often precludes greatness. If you’re going to use the word ‘consistent’ to describe me, please call me ‘consistently ornery.’ And tell Joey Logano that such a categorization ‘suits’ me just fine.
“Usually, the points leader after 26 races does not eventually win the Sprint Cup title. I want to change that. Ideally, I’d like to retain the points lead, pick up a few wins before the Chase, and upend Jimmie Johnson’s four-year reign, thus becoming the ‘exception to the rule .’”
3. Kyle Busch
Busch had a top-five run ruined when Jeff Burton got loose on lap 289 and slid into Busch, sending the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota spinning up the track. Busch kept his car off of the wall, but track position was compromised, and after pitting for repairs, he restarted 14th. He eventually finished 11th, and remained third in the point standings, 161 behind Kevin Harvick.
“The ‘new Kyle Busch’ simply gets angry,” Busch explained. “The ‘old Kyle Busch’ would have got even. Despite his flaws, I think everyone prefers ‘old Kyle.’ I know Burton was on old tires and meant no harm, but ‘Old Kyle’ would have ‘O.K.-ed’ retaliation anyway.
"‘New Kyle?’ He’s content to tolerate perceived injustices, sarcastically comment on them, and let them simmer until ‘Old Kyle’ engulfs ‘New Kyle.’”
4. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin struggled with handling issues at Loudon, falling a lap down midway through the race after being lapped by race-leader Jeff Burton. Benefiting from the “Lucky Dog” free pass on lap 238, Hamlin returned to the lead lap and recorded a respectable 14th. He is still fourth in the Sprint Cup point standings, and now trails Kevin Harvick by 185.
“We tinkered with a new setup for this race,” Hamlin said, “hoping to find an edge. Obviously, it didn’t work as we planned, which would seem to indicate that my strength lies more in ‘tweaking’ Kyle Busch than it does in tweaking my car.
“Now that Jimmie Johnson has matched my five wins and reclaimed the role as Cup favorite, it’s imperative that Joe Gibbs Racing step up its game. That means Kyle and I need to work together. And believe me, nothing says ‘teamwork’ better than a death threat.”
5. Jeff Gordon
Gordon finished fourth at New Hampshire, posting his eighth top-five result of the year, as Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson took the win. Gordon, still winless this year, is fifth in the point standings, 187 out of first.
“What do you get when you cross a 46-race winless streak with the mounting pressures to break that streak?” Gordon said. “A ‘dry hump,’ of course.
“I guess Martin Truex, Jr.’s revenge never materialized. After admittedly ‘driving through’ the field at Sonoma, I was surely expecting, and prepared for, a ‘drive through’ penalty at New Hampshire. It never came.
“Now, it seems I’m on Juan Pablo Montoya’s hit list, as well. And he’s not alone in his desire for payback. Everybody wants a piece of me, so it would only make sense that I drive the Target car at Talladega.”
6. Kurt Busch
Busch nudged Jimmie Johnson for a short-lived lead with seven laps to go at New Hampshire, moving Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet up the track. Unfortunately, that left Johnson ample time to regroup, which he did, calmly passing Busch with two laps remaining and pulling away for his fifth win of the year. Busch held on for third place, and maintained the sixth spot in the Sprint Cup point standings, 201 behind Kevin Harvick.
“I think this is exemplary of NASCAR’s ‘have at it, boys’ policy,” Busch said. “And Johnson played it perfectly. When you get ‘Busch-ed,’ you should ‘Busch’ back.
“But I have to tip my hat to Johnson. He won, fair and square, and did so without wrecking me, which I’m sure would have been applauded as much as his win. Dedicating a win to your pregnant wife is such a touching gesture. The Johnson’s are expecting a ‘bundle of joy,’ as opposed to a ‘bundle of La Joie,’ which I believe is a bag of marijuana.”
7. Tony Stewart
Stewart claimed his fourth-consecutive top-10 finish, and fifth of the last six races, with a third in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in New Hampshire. He slipped underneath Kurt Busch with a lap to go to claim the runner-up spot. Stewart moved up one spot to ninth in the point standings, 331 out of first and 138 ahead of 12th.
“Busch and I have clashed on numerous occasions,” Stewart said. “This time, I got the upper hand. The last time, Busch got the back hand.
“I have to credit Busch for his pass on Jimmie Johnson. It was a bold one, but I’m sure Kurt Busch knew he was a sitting duck after bumping Johnson for the lead. As you know, there’s a lot of pregnant wives of drivers, and I’m sure Busch could himself relate to the pains of his labors, because he had to have a ‘gut feeling’ that Jimmie would come back.”
8. Jeff Burton
Leading during the final caution in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, Burton was the only lead lap car to remain on the track, while others pitted for tires. The decision quickly proved costly and wrong, as Jimmie Johnson easily overtook Burton’s No. 31 Lenox Industrial Tools Chevy. Then, Burton got loose battling Kyle Busch for second, and made contact with the No. 18, sending both spinning and out of contention for the win. Burton finished 12th, and held on to eighth in the point standings.
“My fall from race leader to has-been was swift,” Burton said. “And I take full responsibility for the chain of events that sent me from ‘somebody’ to ‘nobody’ in a hurry. I guess that would be called ‘contrition of anonymity.’”
9. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Earnhardt finished eighth at New Hampshire, and solid finishes in his last three races have put him on the cusp of the top 12 in the Sprint Cup point standings. Earnhardt is only three points behind Carl Edwards in 12th, and has momentum heading to Daytona on Saturday.
“I would be extremely satisfied to crack the top 12 in points,” Earnhardt said. “At this point, moral victories are just as good as actual ones.
“We need to continue building momentum, but it will take time before anyone will be calling me a threat to win the Sprint Cup. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was Junior Nation. But Junior Nation was conceived in a day.”
10. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig at the helm, finished a lap down in 17th at New Hampshire, continuing a slump that has seen Kenseth post only two top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. Kenseth, however, is still seventh in the Sprint Cup point standings, 285 out of first.
“That’s my third crew chief this year,” Kenseth said. “Carl Edwards may threaten it, but this No. 17 Crown Royal actually backs it up when we say we plan to ‘rearrange faces.’”