NASCAR: 5 Things We Learned from the Sylvania 300
What a first two Chase races we've had. From the overdue (Tony Stewart's first win of the season) to the outrageous (two consecutive fuel mileage races shaking up the points standings), we've seen just about everything there is to see already in the Chase for the Sprint Cup...and we're only a fifth of the way through.
Loudon, of course, was the tone-setter for the Chase from 2004 until last year as its first race, only to be leapfrogged by Chicago this year. But no matter—we still had a lot to learn from this race. We should probably go through that list now, eh?
1. Tony Stewart Runs Faster Without Dead Weight
In the media center after the race, Stewart said that he had dumped some "dead weight" earlier in the week, but refused to allow the media to ask him anything about it. He reiterated, however, that there were no personnel changes within the team. Folks are speculating that Stewart went through an ugly breakup with his girlfriend, and the clarity in his personal life is allowing him to run with a clearer head. (Also, if this doesn't sound like a storyline out of the movie Driven, I don't know what does.)
Either way, Stewart went from Chase long shot to title contender over the span of the past two weeks, and stands a better chance at challenging for the title than he's had in years.
2. Get Used to the Fuel Mileage Race
Two Chase races, two finishes decided by fuel mileage. At this rate, whoever wins the Chase will be the team with the smartest (and/or luckiest) crew chief. The teams that take risks early in the race but try to stretch fuel runs (Matt Kenseth at Chicago, Ryan Newman at Loudon) but end up falling just short on fuel are going to pay dearly in the running order and the points standings, suggesting a more conservative approach is necessary to win the title.
3. Jimmie Johnson Will Have a Hard Time Becoming 6-Time Champ
Let's be frank here—this isn't a knock on Johnson, Chad Knaus, or Hendrick Motorsports at all. It's just that when you're the defending champion, everybody has a bulls-eye on you. And it's not a matter of if somebody will knock you off, it's when. Consecutive championships are hard to come by; dynasties even more difficult. The odds of pulling off six in a row are just so stacked against Johnson that his 29-point deficit in the first two races will prove frustrating and difficult to chop down quickly.
4. The Chase-Loss Hangover Is Real
Already 66 points out of the Chase lead, Denny Hamlin has had the kind of season that most playoff teams do after they've come achingly close to the title in any sport but failed to convert. It's the runner-up hangover, and it hits in most sports—the Philadelphia Flyers didn't win a game in the second round of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs and Carl Edwards didn't win in 2009 after coming so close to the Sprint Cup title in 2008. But it's hitting Hamlin exceptionally hard. His Chase already seems to be through.
5. VIP Treatment Is Awesome
Thanks to the fine folks at Sylvania and my higher-ups here at Bleacher Report, I was a VIP guest of the race sponsors this weekend. From Carl Edwards' appearance at Friday night's Lobster Fest, to hauler tours led by Matt Crafton's and Paul Menard's teams (both sponsored by Sylvania in partnership with Menards), to access to the track during pre-race, the sponsor suite, and victory lane, there's no better way to enjoy an event than through the lens of its presenting sponsor. Thanks again to Heather Monaghan, Larissa Lee, and my fellow VIPs for making it a heck of a weekend. Once I get my photos loaded up I'll have a weekend retrospective ready for those of you who want to know more about it.