NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is on vacation this week. Senior Editor Amy Henderson filled in; look for Matt to return next Monday after Daytona.

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch put on a clinic of how to race at the finish, with Johnson using a bumper just enough to give the No. 2 a little wiggle with two laps to go – just enough to get by.

In a Nutshell: Johnson dominated all three practice sessions, then made little noise in the early going on race day. But in classic No. 48 fashion, Johnson found the front when it counted, winning his fifth race of 2010 and the 52nd of his career.

Dramatic Moment: The final laps between Johnson and Kurt Busch had the potential to turn into a wreckfest – and didn’t. Had either driver stepped over the line, both could have ended up in a steaming pile of car carcass. Instead, they were able to make the finish one of the best battles we’ve seen this year – all without the need for a fake caution or green-white-checkered.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Will he or won’t he? While it’s pretty safe to say that Bruton Smith is posturing right now to improve the situation with local law enforcement over track security, nothing he’s said this weekend would reassure New Hampshire race fans. When asked about a possible date switch, for the first time Smith did not deny that New Hampshire Motor Speedway might lose a Sprint Cup date, saying that fans “shouldn’t believe rumors,” then five seconds later adding that a date switch required NASCAR approval. As of Sunday, he does not have that approval, but Smith did not elaborate on whether he has asked for a date to be moved to Kentucky Speedway.

Which is too bad, because the crowd at NHMS is one of the biggest I’ve seen at a Cup race this year. There were a few empty seats low down on the frontstretch and a few more in turns 3 and 4, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t one of the best attended races, in terms of fan to seat ratio, that we have seen in 2010.

Roush Fenway Racing’s 2010 drought continued at NHMS with a vengeance. By lap 225, not a single RFR car was to be seen on the lead lap, and Carl Edwards, just two years ago considered the title favorite at midseason, lost a second lap under green by the time the checkers fell. Ouch. While the FR9 alone wasn’t going to be enough to turn things around, it should have at least slowed the bleeding a little. Instead, the Blue Oval teams are hemorrhaging worse than ever.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

After dominating the first part of the race, leading 110 laps, the FR9 in Kasey Kahne’s No. 9 gave up the ghost with just 63 laps to go. The new Ford engine is supposed to be durable, with a self-cooling element, but don’t tell that to this one. For Kahne, who entered the day 120 points out of Chase contention, it could be the kiss of death for any title hopes. The way the Fords have been running, maybe Kahne should find a ride in a Chevy…

Some Editor Adds:
Bobby Labonte left TRG Motorsports this week, hoping to find new life in Robby Gordon’s No. 7 Toyota. By the end of it, he needed a new car after wrecking in Friday practice, then slumped to 30th on Sunday.

Juan Pablo Montoya had a top-five car for most of the afternoon, but played a little too rough with Clint Bowyer and roughed up his splitter. A few laps later, a clearly crippled car was slim pickins’ for Reed Sorenson to play Target practice and hit the bulls-eye of his former sponsor.

Martin Truex Jr. never got to pay back Jeff Gordon – probably because they weren’t ever in the same straightaway. The NAPA Toyota slugged like a snail all day, finishing off the lead lap in 22nd.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

I bet Jeff Burton would like a do-over on that last pit call. He had the race won until the caution flew for Montoya at lap 282, and stayed out while the rest of the field pitted – perhaps the only way eventual winner Johnson might have gotten by. Had it stayed green in those critical laps, Burton had the upper hand at a track where he holds the all-time Sprint Cup win record. Burton’s decision wasn’t a case of luck – but Johnson’s benefit from it was.

Some Editor Adds:
Tony Stewart was one lap down at one point after his crew failed to fill up his car with fuel under their first pit stop. But he got the cautions he needed to rally back up to second place.

Marcos Ambrose learned what happens when you don’t shut off the engine towards the end: you can actually move up the finishing order, not down it. Off the lead lap most of the day, he put a Lucky Dog to good use and rallied to 13th at the finish.

Bowyer (seventh) was lucky Mr. Montoya got wrecked before he came around for a little return visit.

Worth Noting

  • The top 10 Sunday consisted of seven Chevrolets, a Ford, a Dodge and a Toyota.
  • Johnson now has back-to-back wins for the second time this season.
  • Gordon (fourth) now has three straight top-five finishes for the first time in 2010, despite not leading a single lap in any of them.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) now has three straight top-11 finishes for the first time since September 2008.
  • After winning seven of 10 races, Joe Gibbs Racing has finished no better than ninth in the last two.
  • Montoya’s pole was the third of his career – and his second at New Hampshire. I won’t call him a one-trick pony, but he sure has that flat oval figured out. On the flip side, he now has five DNFs in 17 starts, totaling seven finishes of 34th or worse to match his seven top-10s.
  • It’s rare that there are two drivers who have a shot at a weekend double, but this week that was the case, as Ryan Newman won the Whelen Modified Tour race at Loudon to join Kyle Busch for the chance at two trophies. Of the two, Newman came closer to capitalizing, finishing sixth on Sunday.
  • Hendrick Motorsports only has one winning car in 2010. At this time last year, they had three.
  • Stewart went from ninth to second in the final eight laps on Sunday. Is it time for Stewart’s summer resurgence?
  • AJ Allmendinger continues to shine. His 10th-place finish was the best for Ford at Loudon.
  • Though pit stops and inferior equipment took their toll in the race results, Casey Mears consistently outran his replacement in the No. 83 at NHMS – with inferior equipment (Sorenson did wind up 24th to Mears’s 29th). Perhaps a decision made in anger and haste wasn’t the best one….
  • Edwards (25th) has gone five races without a top-10 finish.

What’s the Points?

Despite having only one win to Johnson’s five on the year, Kevin Harvick continues to show everyone why the first half of the season is an exercise in consistency, easily maintaining the points lead with his fifth-place finish. Too bad NASCAR says in nine weeks that lead is worth as much as a $4 bill, and hands it over to someone else.

Johnson gained 35 points on Harvick with the win. Five wins is all well and good, but it’s Johnson’s three DNFs that keep him out of the top spot, leaving him 105 points behind. Kyle Busch hung on to third, while Denny Hamlin manages to hold down fourth by a mere two points over Jeff Gordon.

Meanwhile, back at the Ponderosa, Earnhardt Jr. is banging rather insistently on the door of the top 12 as the Chase looms closer, sitting just three points behind Edwards, whose freefall continues. If Earnhardt doesn’t want to be in the top dozen, Newman and Bowyer are also within 20 points of Edwards. Kahne might as well give his Chase chances a decent burial along with his Loudon engine; he slipped to 20th in the standings, and now sits almost 200 points behind the Chase cutoff.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): For a while, this was looking like a solid two-can day, owing to the lack of mixing it up for oh, about 200 laps. (At least NASCAR gets bonus points for not trying to fake it with debris cautions.) But thanks to Kurt Busch and Johnson (and indirectly to Montoya and Sorenson), the great finish means this one’s worth at least three Captain and Cokes.

Up Next: Next week, it’s back to Daytona for the former Firecracker 400 (Which is a WAY cooler name than the Coke Zero 400). I hope they have enough Bondo on hand in case another crater opens its yaw; and if that doesn’t happen, it’s still a plate race. That flagman better keep the red one handy.

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