Jimmie Johnson had a very quick car on Sunday at New Hampshire, but he did not really have the right track position to be able to take advantage of that speed for most of the race. However, when crunch time came along, Johnson was right there to capitalize on his good car.
Juan Pablo Montoya started from the pole in his No. 42 Target Chevrolet and began to assert control over the race from the beginning. Montoya led the first 36 laps before the first round of pit stops under a debris caution.
Kasey Kahne won the race off of pit road over Montoya and the pole sitter never led another lap all day Sunday. Montoya would hound Kahne for over half the event in second place before dropping back through the pack. Johnson, who started 10th, ran very well early in the race, but had a uncharacteristically bad pit stop under green on lap 107. This stop dropped Johnson back from third at the time to ninth.
Tony Stewart‘s team was thrown off-sequence on their pit strategy after the first round of stops under caution because the team failed to get the No. 14 full of fuel. As a result, Stewart was forced to stop roughly 20 laps early for routine service. Normally, this would hurt the team for at best, one round of stops before a caution flies and brings the field back together.
However, Sunday’s race was simply not a typical race at the 1.058-mile oval. After the restart from the debris caution on lap 40, there was a full 200 laps of green-flag action. This resulted in two consecutive full cycles of green-flag pit stops and a good chunk of a third. Stewart’s early pit stops would allow him to gain on his competition while they were running around on worn tires.
This off-sequence strategy briefly gave Stewart the lead after the first round of green-flag pit stops. However, Kahne was right on his tail with tires that were 20 laps fresher. As a result, Stewart couldn’t even give Kahne much of a battle when the No. 9 caught him. Stewart would drop back through the pack until he was forced to pit for his next scheduled stop, then the cycle would repeat.
Kyle Busch, who struggled with the handle on his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota at the beginning of the race. However, after the first round of stops, the No. 18 came to life and allowed Kyle to move up through the pack. On lap 152, he was able to use lapped traffic to run down leader Kahne and pass him fairly easily. Kyle held this lead to the next round of green-flag stops.
Once the stops had run their course, Busch was back in the lead, but with Jeff Burton not too far behind. On lap 201, Burton made his move for the lead on the frontstretch, passing Kyle without too much of a problem. Burton then began to open up his advantage.
Finally, on lap 240, the caution came out for oil on the track. It was a few laps too late for Stewart, whose forced off-sequence pit strategy had forced him to pit for four tires and fuel a few laps before the yellow flew. Luckily, since Stewart was only one lap down in 16th after the stop, he simply took the wave around and got back on the lead lap.
Burton won the race off pit road and maintained his lead over Busch and Johnson, who gained multiple places on pit road (he had entered in sixth). Montoya, who had ran in the top five all day up to this point, lost the handle on his car after the restart due to contact with Denny Hamlin. This contact hurt the splitter on the No. 42, not dissimilar to Hamlin’s own situation last Sunday in Sonoma.
Later on, Montoya got in a bumping match with the lapped No. 83 of Reed Sorenson. This led to contact in turn 3 on lap 282 that put Montoya hard into the wall and out of the race. Replays made it look like either Sorenson got loose underneath Montoya, or that he intentionally turned right into Montoya’s left-rear corner. Regardless of the reason, Montoya was out and was credited with 34th.
This gave the leaders the option to pit. Burton decided to stay out while the entire rest of the lead lap pitted for four tires. This resulted in Burton keeping the lead, but being a sitting duck for the upcoming restart. Sure enough, Johnson, who won the race off of pit road, passed Burton for the lead on the restart while Burton dropped back through the pack and eventually spun out Busch unintentionally to draw the fourth and final yellow.
On the final restart, Kurt Busch executed a bump-and-run on Johnson to take the lead with eight laps to go in turn 3. Johnson was not happy about this move and did not let the No. 2 get away. With three laps to go, Johnson executed his own bump-and-run at the same spot to get along side Kurt and reclaim the lead entering turn 1 with two laps to go. From there, Johnson was able to hold on to win his fifth race of the season, and second in a row.
After the race, Johnson was candid about his actions pertaining to Kurt Busch late in the race.
“We got going on that restart and Kurt [Busch] knocked me out of the way and I thought, I don’t care if I win this race or not; I don’t care if I finish this damn thing, I’m running into him and get by one way or another,” Johnson said in the post-race press conference. “So I tried once and moved him, but [thought] I’ve got to hit him harder. The second time I moved him out of the way and got by him and was able to get going.”
Stewart, despite his pit-road woes on Sunday, was able to pass Kurt Busch (using the bumper as well) on the last lap for second.
“Yeah, these guys did an awesome job on this Old Spice/Office Depot team today,” Stewart said after the race. “We didn’t get fuel in on the first stop there and that caused us to keep having to come in because we were at the end of our fuel window every time we were coming.”
In regards to the contact he had with Kurt Busch late, Stewart was apologetic.
“It was my fault sliding into Kurt [Busch],” Stewart said. “That cost him a second. But we just both sailed off in there and neither one of us was going to let the other one have an advantage going into [turn] 1 there on the last lap. It was my fault.”
Kurt Busch held on for third, with Jeff Gordon in fourth. Points leader Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. Ryan Newman finished sixth, followed by Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Joey Logano was ninth, while the real surprise of the day, AJ Allmendinger, rounded out the top 10.
Next week, the Sprint Cup Series returns to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night, July 3rd.