NASCAR Sprint Cup: 9 Important Lessons We Learned at Loudon
The fiery red of fall foliage is making its presence known just as the fiery competition within the Chase contenders is beginning to unveil the drivers with a serious chance at the title run as we saw at Loudon.
The one-mile flat track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway may well be one of the toughest tracks on the Chase schedule.
The track looks simple enough, but having proper balance and grip to enable drivers to roll their cars through the corners is much trickier than it appears.
Track position is important, making a poor qualifying position problematic with the difficulty in passing at Loudon.
Just as the twists in points were stunning at Chicagoland because of fuel mileage, the trend continued wreaking havoc with the run of some drivers.
NHMS is known for long greens, but the intensity of competition with the new points system makes for a brewing lack of patience within the driver pool.
Each of the Chase races will carry increasing importance, pressure to win, and finishing in the top five is going to become mandatory for the driver who will capture the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Let's take a look at some lessons we learned at the Sylvania 300 in Loudon.
1. Will There Be a Sixth One?
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, is thought by, not just a few, that a sixth consecutive title is likely in the cards for the driver of the Lowe's No. 48.
Johnson has only one win this season, which is highly uncharacteristic, and the pressure has shown with some of the radio communications between the driver and his perfectionist crew chief, Chad Knaus.
A funny thing usually happens during the 10-week Chase and Johnson finds his moment in the sun, as he shines especially on the intermediate tracks and makes his way to Victory Lane.
The tight points present a whole knew scenario that Johnson has never had to deal with. The rules are different now and his dominance may be in jeopardy.
At Loudon, Johnson was feisty with Knaus as he found himself unable to gain traction to propel him to the front. The usual mastery of the Chase appears in disarray.
Johnson started 10th and finished 18th, which caused him to drop to 10th in the point standings.
One has to wonder about that sixth title with the tension that is evident,
2. Sometimes Things Aren't Fair
With track position being so very important, qualifying becomes equally important because of pit stall selection and, of course, the driver's starting slot on the grid.
All but five drivers had qualified for the Sylvania 300 under a cloudy threatening sky. Along comes a misty rain, and with Juan Pablo Montoya the next to qualify, they are held by NASCAR.
Out came a fleet of jet dryers and NASCAR attempted to wish the rain away.
Montoya who had been fast in the first practice would be happy for the qualifying to be cancelled, as opposed to making a run on what could be a precarious track.
Montoya spoke from his car on ESPN2 saying, "I don't want to be a guinea pig." Unfortunately for the driver of the No. 42, he had to go out for a qualifying run on the newly dried track.
The residue from the jet dryers and the possible dampness on the track made his run somewhat wicked and he qualified 31st.
It was a mad Montoya in the garage as he ranted about having to qualify the way he did.
For the remaining four drivers, the track didn't seem too much of an issue especially for the last driver, Ryan Newman, who captured the pole.
Sometimes things just aren't fair.
3. Hitting Your Teammate Is Never Good
Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford, hit his teammate Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford, and caused him to spin.
Knowing that is always a bad move and that his team owner, Jack Roush, would be unhappy with such behavior, Edwards jumped on his radio saying, "I truly was doing everything I could to stop."
Edward's performance had been somewhat lackluster until near the end of the race and he obviously knocked Kenseth back several positions.
Fortunately the end result had Edwards finishing eighth and Kenseth in sixth. With both drivers in the Chase, one may wonder just how hard the driver of the No. 99 was really on the brakes.
4. Momentum Is a Very Good Thing
Tony Stewart is the owner/driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet. Heading into the Chase he was winless and 10th in the point standings.
Many including Stewart had doubts that he could contend for a win, let alone a title. Stewart even wondered if he wasn't taking up a slot that someone else deserved.
The Chase began at Chicagoland and Stewart took the checkered flag. Apparently momentum is a very good thing because he won the second race of the Chase at Loudon and is on top of the points.
With eight races to go, he feels he at least is in the ball game and has a chance to run for that third championship title, especially having shed that mysterious "dead weight" he spoke of from Victory Lane.
5. Flat Tires Can Be Really Costly
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to be getting serious about the Chase having moved to third in the points after the first Chase race at Chicagoland.
The driver of the No. 88 had a top 10 car until there were 71 laps to go, when his right front tire went flat. He was back on the lead lap and gaining positions when in the final laps he had another flat.
After the race Junior thought the apparent cause for the flats was too much camber. He did finish 17th and fell to eighth in the point standings; 26 markers behind the leader.
Though the Hendrick driver was disappointed, he is still optimistic they are in the fight and able to unload a decent car and have top 10 runs.
His goal is to win a title, but he just really, really wants to win a race and end the 121-race winless streak.
6. Fuel Strategy Becomes Ongoing Game-Changer
Fuel strategy was a game-changer at Chicagoland and it continued to be problematic in the second Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Clint Bowyer was a prime example of how costly the lack of fuel can be. The RCR driver was leading the race and looked to be the winner when he ran out of fuel, and Tony Stewart passed him for the win.
The irony of the situation is that Bowyer won the race at Loudon last year when he passed Stewart, who had run out of gas.
Fuel management is going to play a major role in the Chase. It is already apparent just how quickly it can cause a driver to gain or lose those very precious points.
Bowyer is not in the Chase.
7. Where Is My Car?
Kurt Busch had an unsettling start to the Sylvania 300 as pre-race ceremonies were about to begin, but his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge had yet to arrive.
His car failed inspection because of the rear-end housing being off, making the body offset a bit too much. Busch was unsure how his car would perform after the technical mishap was corrected by his crew.
He had qualified fifth and looked forward to a strong run, but his day went downhill and, with final inspection before the race, it seemed the problems were more significant than the discovery.
Busch did his usual complaining all day, but his Penske team was unable to make corrections to give him a decent run.
Busch finished 22nd and dropped five spots to ninth in the point standings. The lesson here is not to push your luck with NASCAR, especially during the Chase.
8. A Sleeper Is in the Chase
Brad Keselowski drives the Blue Deuce for Penske Racing. His performance was nothing short of amazing after breaking his ankle and making amazing runs, including two wins heading to the Chase.
Keselowski started the Chase from the 11th position in points, which was the first wild card slot. His three wins were terrific, but because he wasn't in the top 10, there were no bonus points for the wins.
Heading to Loudon, the driver of the No. 2 was seventh in the points. At Loudon, he finished second and moved up three slots to third in the point standings.
Keselowski has a bit of a cocky attitude and exudes confidence, but it looks to be working for him, and he just may be the sleeper in the Chase field that will battle for the title.
9. Hamlin Flounders Once Again
Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Denny Hamlin, almost didn't make the Chase field this year after being the runner-up to five-time champ Jimmie Johnson in 2010.
Hamlin did make the Chase via the wild card, and started 12th in the points, a place he remains 66 points behind leader Tony Stewart.
Hamlin was having a better run than usual as he made his way toward the top 10 at Loudon, but just like most of his races, he was stricken by team strategy.
Mike Ford, crew chief for the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota, decided to roll the dice and told Hamlin to run hard, but things turned bad when his car ran out of gas in the final laps.
Hamlin finished in 29th position after starting 28th. It is fair to say his chance to contend for the title is no longer an option.