Yesterday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway provided as wild of a Chase opener as we've ever seen.
From beginning to end, Chase drivers starting mid-pack and working their way up the pack gave us all some exciting moments. Then, a stretch of 23 caution laps in the final 100 evened the playing field, as seven of the 12 Chasers were involved in at least one dust-up.
When the "Smoke" all settled (with one lap to go, he ran out of fuel), Clint Bowyer was your surprise winner. Though, in a way, he wasn't—other than Stewart, he was the class of the field all weekend, and led a race-high 177 laps. Meanwhile, Stewart had to settle for the 24th position as the last car on the lead lap.
Loudon always sets the tone for the little guys and underdogs of the Chase. For the past three years, the winner of this race has mounted an unassuming and somewhat unexpected run at the title. Sylvania 300 victories propelled Mark Martin to a runner-up finish last year, Greg Biffle to third in 2008, and Bowyer to his own third-place run in 2007.
Will this year provide more of the same? And how does the entire Chase field stack up heading into the AAA 400 at Dover?
Coming back from the spin to finish second was nothing short of a miracle. Granted, it was a miracle aided by the pitting decisions of some other teams, but by relaxing—something Hamlin stressed during Friday press conferences that he needed to do throughout the Chase—and setting reasonable goals for the last 80 laps of the event, things came together.
Hamlin wants to play damage control these next few weeks, especially at Dover, to ensure that he will reap the results of his performance over the last five races of the season. Hamlin has expressed a lot of confidence about the latter half of the Chase - it's just a question of not eliminating himself beforehand.
“Happy” was anything but all weekend, with a decidedly mid-pack car through every pre-race session. He wasn't too pleased with his crew losing him five spots on pit road at one point, either. But just like Richmond last week, the No. 29 team turned a hamburger run into prime rib with a little patience, resulting in a fifth-place finish.
While they can’t keep doing that for the rest of the season, they’ve shown that they can overcome adversity if they have to. Now, it's a question of not putting themselves in positions that deem it necessary.
It's been a downer stretch for Harvick these past few races, something that has to change.
I’m sure Rowdy would have preferred to win the Cup race over the Camping World Truck event, but a ninth-place run that kept him fourth in points isn’t quite undesirable, despite the circumstances.
Busch complained throughout the day as his car went in and out of the top 10, but crew chief Dave Rogers found a way to keep his driver on the wheel instead of fostering a repeat of their 2008 debacle. Busch and Rogers fought over the radio, with Rogers at one point snapping that the car drove worse when Kyle complained, but after the race both insisted that things were fine between them.
Worried? Don't be.
The ability to snap back and forth during the race is the best thing for both driver and crew chief, because it means they each have enough confidence in the other to let everything hang out. It's only going to help them if they can keep doing that when they need to.
The No. 33 team instantly went from Chase pretender to contender this weekend. They had a car near the top of the charts all weekend, led a commanding 177 laps in the race, and came through in the clutch by saving just enough fuel to coast to victory.
Bowyer has put himself in position to do exactly what he did in 2007: parlay a Loudon win to begin the Chase into a solid 10-week stretch. It'll be interesting to see if he can do that once again. We all know that RCR is good this year, having put all three of their cars in the Chase, but until Sunday we had never seen anything like this out of Bowyer's team.
It's now a question of whether or not they can maintain the momentum.
Yes, "Smoke" gambled and lost. Yes, he is now 11th in points.
But look at the charts for the practice sessions, and for qualifying, and how dominant he was. Stewart had even Bowyer beat for most of the weekend. I'm not convinced that his team is out of this championship race at all. If they had saved just a few more drops of fuel, we’d be talking completely differently about this No. 14 team.
Even so, they’ve proven their ability to put together a great race car, and everybody, in effect, gets one Chase mulligan.
The only thing that really hurt Stewart's finish that badly was the fact that the many late-race cautions put so many other cars back on the lead lap. If this race had gone like the Truck race did on Saturday, he might have still come out of Loudon with a top-10.
Gordon’s team made a lot of adjustments over the course of the weekend to take his car from mediocre to solid, and he repaid their efforts with his first laps led since Bristol and a sixth-place finish. It was a good stabilizing and confidence-building run for a team that had been posting so-so finishes since the beginning of August.
Gordon will need to do more than that to contend in the Chase—particularly, visit Victory Lane—but simply posting his first top 10 in five races is a start. Even Gordon, however, has admitted that winning the Chase will be tough for him, citing his struggles at a handful of Chase tracks and saying during Friday press conferences that the final stretch of the season has always been difficult for him.
Finishing 25th and the worst of any Chaser is a momentum-killer for now. Johnson got caught up in Kurt Busch's second incident, punting Kyle Busch in the process, and the resulting damage to his right front fender cost him a lap in the pits.
The No. 48 team usually responds well to adversity, but maybe this dose of bad luck is exactly what the sport needs to pull out of a ratings funk and finally crown a new champion. You don't wish bad luck on any competitor, but it seems like everybody in the garage has had enough of "Death and Taxes." (Has my nickname for them caught on yet?)
Losing control of your car multiple times in the turns isn’t the best way to start off a chase. But that’s exactly how Sunday went for the older Busch brother, who put Joey Logano into the wall. Busch admitted that he was trying to overdrive a top 10 car into the top five, not having showcased the raw speed that his Penske Racing teammates did at various points during the weekend.
Busch will need to lean extensively on his teammates, as they are the only other Dodge drivers in the field; not being able to match Brad Keselowski on top of the qualifying charts or Sam Hornish Jr. on top of the practice charts is a problem. The "Blue Deuce" is going to need to show a lot more at Dover than they did at New Hampshire to truly seem like a contender.
Carl actually ran up front for a good portion of the race, snagging five bonus points for leading a lap, but getting loose in the third turn and running into Denny Hamlin turned out to be more of a momentum-killer for the one who didn’t spin. Edwards fell out of the top 10 and had to settle for a solid, but not spectacular, 11th-place finish.
Unfortunately, it was the best that any of the three Roush drivers in the Chase could muster.
Edwards is now eighth in points, a good amount back from Denny Hamlin up front, and still hasn't won a race in almost two years. That's not championship-caliber. Not right now, anyway.
This weekend it was Biffle’s turn to be the forgettable Chaser. He started 17th and finished 14th. He managed to avoid the incidents that plagued so many of his championship rivals, but was unable to do anything to distinguish himself up front.
Biffle spent minimal time in the top 10 on Sunday, running about as quiet and anonymous of a race as a Chaser possibly could. That isn't going to win a championship, either. The folks at Roush Fenway may have built better cars for the championship run, but this can't be "better," because it isn't good enough.
Running out of gas was a real stinker for Burton, who had spent most of the latter stages of the race in the top five. It was a solid run for Burton, who should be establishing himself as a legitimate title threat alongside his Richard Childress Racing teammates right now.
But the costly mistake set him back to 15th and on the edge of the top 10 in points. The difference between Burton running out of gas and Tony Stewart running out comes down to this: Stewart had scored more points than anybody in the span of time coming into the Chase, and has proven he can win this year. Burton hasn't yet.
Backing into the wall is not the way you want to start a championship run. You can be sure that when it's time to send out Christmas cards this year, the majority of folks at Roush Fenway Racing will be reluctant to send any to Brad Keselowski after the way this year has gone.
The only solace that Kenseth can take out of a miserable weekend is that he finished ahead of two other Chasers. That’s really it. The oil pressure issues, the mediocre starting spot, the mid-pack finish; all of it was crap for the No. 17 team. You have to wonder if Kenseth jinxed the better RFR cars that he alluded to during Friday's press conferences.
That's all from me this week, folks. Enjoy the race on Sunday.