To the Point: Last week at Richmond, Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing crashed the Chase party in style by taking the win. With Jeff Burton also squeaking into the title hunt in eighth place, it marked the first two times in team history a Richard Childress Racing driver had made the Chase for the Championship.
Sunday, they proved that simply getting the invite won’t be enough.
Harvick dominated at New Hampshire Sunday, leading 118 of the final 123 laps to take the checkered flag first for the second week in a row. Finishing .777 seconds in front of second-place Tony Stewart, Harvick took not only the win but the points lead for the first time in his Nextel Cup career, starting his Chase out on the right foot. Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers rounded out the top-five finishers. Meanwhile, Chasers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson wrecked, putting their chances for a Nextel Cup title in serious jeopardy right off the bat.
Who Should Have Won: Harvick. Not much to argue about here. Leading 196 of 300 laps on the day, Harvick was virtually unchallenged for the majority of the afternoon, becoming just the third driver to win from the pole at New Hampshire since the track first held Cup races here in 1993. Gordon and Burton had their moments, but no one could sustain themselves over a long run like Harvick’s Chevrolet.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) Was Harvick’s victory aided by a little extra innovation on the part of his crew?
Sunday night, Bob Dillner of SPEED channel reported that the tires of both Harvick and Burton were found to have a bleeder valve that allowed air pressure to be released from the rim of the tire. Such a system, while technically illegal, could have given both drivers an important advantage on a track like New Hampshire, where tires deteriorate fairly quickly on the flat surface over a long green-flag run. Immediately, both RCR and NASCAR denied the rumor, with Harvick claiming it was intentionally planted by another team.
OK, well then the question for Harvick would be, who? Would someone really be that paranoid after one race to try and do something to throw Harvick off his game? That’s hard to believe, remember, last year Johnson and Busch’s use of shocks at Dover led to a rules change, although NASCAR maintained the cars were technically legal at the time, an admission that infuriated both media and fans. This time, perhaps it wasn’t worth the negative PR to admit the truth; with Dillner’s solid record in the garage area, it would be disappointing yet not surprising to find out this actually did happen a few months down the road.
2) Can Busch and Johnson recover from an early Chase gone bad? Who is in the deeper hole?
In July, Busch found himself spraying champagne in New Hampshire Victory Lane; this time around, he needed a drink for different reasons after only lap 2, involved with an accident with Jeff Green that would set the tone for the rest of the day. With his car damaged, Busch fell a lap down and was later involved in a second incident later in the afternoon with Clint Bowyer, resulting in a 38th-place finish. Right behind him was teammate Johnson, who lost a cylinder before getting involved in a wreck with Sterling Marlin to slam hard into the turn 2 wall on the way to 39th.
Of course, the crashes sent both drivers reeling, with Johnson falling to ninth in points and Busch falling one spot further to 10th. However, while Johnson has been in a tough position before, coming back from over 200 points behind to finish second in 2004, Busch has never had this type of hole to dig back from; in the end, such inexperience should doom his Chase before it even truly starts. If neither one can manage a top-10 finish at Dover, though, their chances for a title are as good as done.
3) Does the Chase need its own points system for the drivers involved?
Stewart was actually the one who brought this topic up, claiming correctly after Sunday’s event that non-Chasers are forced to race the Chase drivers around them too conservatively. With the Chase increasingly looked at the battle for who can have the least bad luck, changing the point system for the top 10 makes a lot of sense in order to increase the emphasis on winning. Certainly, that would keep a driver like Busch from being eliminated after week one, and it would almost automatically ensure that a point leader would endure pressure from those behind him all the way to Homestead in November. The more it’s talked about, the more I’m convinced. Are you?
4) So you’re telling me there were NO major pit road speeding penalties at New Hampshire?
After weeks of pit-road speeding penalties causing major controversy in some of the series’ biggest races, the 300-mile event Sunday, which included a full set of green-flag pit stops, ran with just one pit-road speeding penalty, incurred by backmarker Ken Schrader during a pit stop on lap 200. Did everyone else really slow down, or did NASCAR’s computers suddenly “dial it back” in the wake of fan and garage complaints of excessive and unfair penalizing? We’ll never know for sure, but with the way those penalties could affect the Chase, you’d have to believe they’ll be used less often.
5) Is it time for this track to be torn up and rebuilt?
It’s said every year, but the answer is yes. Sunday’s race was one of the more exciting in New Hampshire in recent years, but you could still look up at the stands during the TV broadcast and find that set of fans who were sleeping. With Homestead having made fantastic improvements to its facility just a few years ago, digging up the entire track and rebuilding from scratch, it wouldn’t necessarily hurt to do that here.
Stewart: After missing the Chase for the first time in his career, you’d expect Stewart to come out firing, and he didn’t disappoint Sunday. After a horrible qualifying run, Smoke steadily rose through the field from his 32nd-place starting spot, finishing a solid second to Harvick to mark his best finish since Watkins Glen one month ago.
Gordon: Although a 31st-place at Richmond sucked away much of Gordon’s momentum, it didn’t take long for him to find it. A solid second to Harvick for most of the day after starting on the outside pole, Gordon still led 34 laps before fading to third spot by the checkered flag. It’s the fourth time in the last five events Gordon has led at least 12 laps, a sign this team will be reckoned with as the Chase heats up.
Vickers: In a world where non-Chasers can fade into the background as quickly as the temperature begins to drop in September, Vickers got himself plenty of airtime Sunday. Running in the top five for most of the race’s second half, Hendrick’s only driver not in the Chase actually angered teammate Gordon for how aggressively he protected his position ahead of him as the laps wound down. Finally giving up his spot late, Vickers lost a few more down the stretch to wind up fifth, still his best run this season on any track less than 2.5 miles in length.
Elliott Sadler: Quietly, Sadler is laying the foundation within his new Evernham Motorsports team that should catapult him back into Chase contention in 2007. Without a top 10 all season before Sadler’s arrival, the No. 19 bunch has been treated to two of them in the first five races with their new driver, with Sunday the best run yet, as Sadler brought the car home to a sixth-place finish. Out of the Top 35 in owner points a month ago, the team is now 258 points clear of 36th due to Sadler’s solid performances.
Kasey Kahne: With the most momentum of anyone entering the Chase, Kahne was bound to cool off at some point, and it just so happened New Hampshire would happen to be the place. Pitting under green with a flat tire, Kahne fell two laps down and had to valiantly battle back over the course of the race to even finish in contention. In the end, he finished 16th, an excellent comeback but far short of what the No. 9 team expected here with Kahne’s four top-10 finishes in his last five New Hampshire starts.
Green: Four months ago, Green was known as part of one of the highest-rated single-car teams on the circuit. Now, he’s simply trying to keep this team together for the rest of the year. On lap 2, Chaser Busch slammed into Green’s car and sent it on a course head-on for the frontstretch wall. Green ended up finishing 43rd as a result, and now has put his team in jeopardy of losing a “locked in” Top-35 spot.
David Gilliland: Three months removed from being the hottest young commodity on tour, the 30-year-old Gilliland has done a lot of work to bring that reputation back in the wrong direction. In five Nextel Cup starts, Gilliland has finished no higher than 32nd while crashing five times, causing both a lot of bodywork and a lot of skeptical looks at the RYR shop. Certainly, the mentor Gilliland will have driving the No. 88 car can’t come soon enough.
Joe Nemechek: A track at which Joe got his first Cup win back in 1999, Nemechek expected to have another strong day at the speedway despite what had been a miserable season to date. Instead, within the first 50 laps he had already been spun into the turn 4 wall, continuing a remarkable season of bad luck which has left him without a top-10 finish this season. Nemechek came home 32nd.
Editor’s Note: For more on Johnson’s and Busch’s tough days, please read this week’s Five Questions section above.
Since the Chase for the Championship has begun, the points for the top-10 drivers had been reset entering the event, with all 10 men starting out within 45 points of each other in the overall standings. Because of that, Harvick’s win allowed him to inherit the point lead with ease, taking a 35-point lead over new second-place man Hamlin. Kenseth fell from first to third, 41 points behind, with Gordon and Burton rounding out the top five.
Mark Martin is sixth, 75 points behind, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. seventh and Kahne eighth. Rounding out the top 10 are Johnson and Busch, with both drivers a grand total of 139 and 146 points behind Harvick.
“We sure have momentum right now, we just have to keep doing what we are doing at this point. If we keep winning, we aren’t going to get out of the points. We know we have to score all the points we can when we can.” – Kevin Harvick
“Yeah, I’m not worried about points. I absolutely don’t care. We’re in the Chase. We’re racing [for a title].” – Mark Martin
“Not a good way to start the Chase by wrecking not once, but twice. I had no friends out there, for sure.” – Kyle Busch
“I hope I don’t eat the words I said early on when I said you can’t win the championship here in New Hampshire, but you can lose it today. As of now, it looks like things are out of our control to get back in this thing.” – Jimmie Johnson
Next Up: The first race in the Chase now complete, NASCAR will travel from the flat asphalt track in the Northeast to a Monster of a Mile in the mid-Atlantic. Coverage of the Dover 400 will begin Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on TNT and your local MRN affiliate.