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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon

The Key MomentRyan Newman managed to clear Clint Bowyer on fresher tires immediately following a lap 229 restart and never looked back, scoring his third career victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with ease.

In a Nutshell – Sprint Cup racing, thy name is track position.

Dramatic MomentTony Stewart did everything in his power to tear back through the field and add some tension to his teammate’s parade up front, but ended up a few laps short of being able to seriously threaten the No. 39 for the victory. Though Kurt Busch did give him a fight with around 50 to go.

Several cars ran out of gas in the final few laps; they just weren’t cars battling for the victory.

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

Granted, even after posting a 1-2 finish at New Hampshire, the Chase futures of Newman and Stewart are anything but certain; Newman is still eighth even after the win, while Stewart is relying on a wildcard berth in 11th as things stand. But was there really any doubt that Stewart-Haas Racing was going to at least make a run at this thing? For as quiet a season as the Rocketman has had in 2011, the No. 39 has been no stranger to the top 10 on a myriad of race tracks thus far into the season, and as for Stewart….well, name another driver with such a strong proven history of getting red hot in the summer and riding that into results that reverberate over the rest of the season. What’s more, it’s no secret that the flat track packages being utilized at Loudon this weekend were also being configured to prepare teams for the Brickyard 400 in two weeks. The significance of that track to Stewart cannot be understated, and with a win likely to go a long way in securing a Chase berth – even while SHR continues to work out kinks – it’s going to be all systems go for Smoke at Indy. Newman’s got his W, and now Stewart heads to his home track with a solid race package and a legitimate need to win. Get used to hearing and seeing plenty of Stewart-Haas Racing in the coming months.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s glass was both half-empty and half-full after a Sunday that did little to illustrate just which way the No. 88 team is heading after four consecutive weeks of heavy bleeding that saw them drop from third to eighth (and after this weekend ninth) in points. On the one hand, Jr. ran in the top 10 for a good chunk of the afternoon and crossed the line 15th at the checkered, his best result since Pocono. On the other hand, Junior and crew lost that same top-10 position thanks to a pit road gaffe on lap 241 after pitting for tires under yellow. Considering the team scored top 10s in both Loudon races one year ago, those are some valuable markers that were left on pit road for the No. 88 team as they head to Indianapolis, a track that Junior has not scored a top-10 finish at since 2006, or ever with Hendrick Motorsports. The bleeding was stemmed, not stopped, leaving more work to be done for the No. 88 team on a continued spate of tracks that are not their strong suit.

Joey Logano needs to make up his freaking mind already about whether or not he’s going to be “sliced bread” or the next Casey Atwood. He scores back-to-back top 10s at Sonoma and Daytona, and suddenly all talk of his days in the No. 20 being numbered is dramatically silenced. He underwhelms at Kentucky in both Nationwide and Cup competition after three years of dominance at the facility, and it’s back to business as usual. Now, this Sunday, Logano even without the assistance of the rain gods delivered a top-five finish at Loudon, moved to 18th in points and is now only one marker away from catching a struggling Juan Pablo Montoya and 17th. The significance of that? With only one driver outside the top 10 having a win that makes them eligible for a wildcard Chase berth, Logano is one fuel mileage call, one late-race wreck, one tire gamble away from becoming a postseason contender himself. The No. 20 team has scored four consecutive top-15 finishes in a row, results more consistent than any of his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing over the last month, and are coming up to tracks that Logano has averaged a top-10 finish at in his last two visits (11th at Pocono last month, ninth at Indy last year). This story gets tougher to handicap every weekend.

Jimmie Johnson is definitely on the good side of the Magic Mile, but this Sunday demonstrated more than being on a friendly race track. Sunday conclusively seemed to prove the golden horseshoe is still lodged in the No. 48’s rear. Johnson’s pit crew made mistakes yet again, including leaving lug nuts off and forcing the No. 48 down pit road for additional stops under yellow. Then the driver got in on the self-sabotage, spinning himself around in turn 2 on lap 240 and dropping the Lowe’s team outside the top 25. 60 laps later, Johnson finished fifth, his sixth consecutive top-10 finish in the Loudon spring race dating back to 2005, as if none of those mistakes ever happened. Chad Knaus may not like having a pit crew apt to screw up, but look at it this way; the five-time defending champs are nowhere near firing on all eight cylinders and they’re still second in points.

This story was more relevant on Saturday than Sunday, but of course Kevin Harvick got the handcuffs and Kyle Busch got the slap on the wrist in the ever-going battle between NASCAR’s two biggest jackasses. Cliffs Notes version; Busch and Harvick raced hard but clean on Saturday afternoon in the closing laps of the Nationwide event, but on the radio Harvick told his crew chief that his hands were essentially tied when it came to racing hard with Busch, as NASCAR had threatened to park him should he touch Busch. So how exactly is it that one driver with a checkered past gets the gauntlet dropped on him and another driver with a checkered past gets nothing at all in terms of consequences? It’s simple. Busch has been better behaved, by his own standards, in 2011; before wrecking out of Sunday’s race after only 60 laps, Busch was leading the owner points and win column in the Truck Series, had tied the all-time mark for Nationwide Series wins, and was leading the Cup points. Everything is going well, and that certainly makes it easy to grin and bear it from time to time. Add that to a sanctioning body with an IQ that rivals that of a Kardashian, suddenly Kyle Busch is a history-making asset to the sport while Harvick is a decade-old headache. Which one is going to take the fall in that equation?

TNT actually managed to mention Mike Bliss, Landon Cassill and JJ Yeley in the same broadcast. It’s hard to remember the last time a non-plate race saw that many backmarkers get at least some form of acknowledgment that they were out there racing. Hell, with Newman winning and the top five shuffling through much of the day, this was perhaps the most rounded cross-section of the field seen in a while. That’s both a bit of a knock on all of NASCAR’s broadcasting partners… and an encouraging sign of just what can happen when Kyle Busch is off the race track. Imagine that; less fellatio in the broadcast booth makes for a more watchable broadcast.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Denny Hamlin recovered from a spin on lap 171 and rebounded to finish third, his first top 10 since winning at Michigan. Hamlin is still in the top 10 in points.

Bobby Labonte shook off mid-race contact with Jimmie Johnson to finish seventh, his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500 and first on a downforce track since Las Vegas back in 2009.

Kasey Kahne shook off an incident on lap 225 that saw him spin teammate Brian Vickers into the fronstretch wall while trying to stay off Dave Blaney and finished sixth.

Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger both finished in the top 15, the first time the two-car operation accomplished that on an oval track since Charlotte back in May.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Montoya and Jamie McMurray each ran out of fuel in the closing laps, leaving the two EGR entries to finish 30th and 31st; EGR hasn’t had both entries finish outside the top 30 since the spring race at Dover last season.

Kyle Busch lost the points lead after melting the bead on a tire 60 laps into Sunday’s event, pounding the wall and ending the No. 18’s day prematurely. Busch finished 36th, his worst result since an engine failure at Las Vegas back in March.

Brad Keselowski lost valuable ground on the top 20 and a shot at Chase eligibility after blowing a tire himself and slamming the fence on lap 144; he finished 35th.

Vickers got dumped by his teammate (albeit unintentionally) and saw a top-10 run evaporate into a 34th-place crawl. Talk about a driver getting dumped on in recent weeks; the financial backing of the team he helped build is in jeopardy, his future is being questioned even before that announcement, and now this. Can’t help but feel for this guy.

Worth Noting

  • Welcome back to real Cup racing. Yeley ran a non-start-and-park entry for the first time since the Daytona 500 this Sunday, and delivered a 23rd-place result to carry the banner for Front Row Motorsports, and in doing so scored the best result of the year for the No. 38 team.
  • Scott Wimmer ran the distance in Robby Gordon’s No. 7 car, marking the first time since the Bristol night race of 2009 that Wimmer was running at the finish of a Cup race. He wound up 27th.
  • Matt Kenseth had a disappointing 20th-place run, highlighting an underwhelming day that saw Roush Fenway Racing fail to place a single car in the top 10. The same could be said for Richard Childress Racing. The last time RCR and Roush both failed to score a single top-10 result? Phoenix back in February.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch’s reign at the top lasted all of one week; after pounding the wall on lap 60 and ending his day outside the Top 35, the No. 18 dropped from first to fifth in the points. Ahead of Busch, it was a relatively quiet day for the top of the points ladder. Carl Edwards managed to inherit the lead after wading his way through a mediocre 13th-place run, with Johnson moving up to second after a surprisingly ugly top-five finish. Kurt Busch also moved up a position after leading much of the early part of the race before fading to 10th at the finish.

Kenseth and Jeff Gordon held serve with unremarkable afternoons in sixth and seventh. Race winner Newman moved up a spot to eighth, taking over the position previously held by Earnhardt Jr. Hamlin maintained the 10th and final spot, with the current wildcards falling to Stewart and David Ragan on the strength of his Daytona win.

Ugly days for both Regan Smith and Keselowski dropped the two race winners farther out of the top 20, becoming less and less likely factors to steal a wildcard berth into the Chase.

Overall Rating – We’ll give this one three cans of something cheap. It passed the time on a Sunday afternoon, and we were spared a late-race debris caution.

Next Up – The Cup Series takes a weekend off before heading to Indianapolis to tackle the yard of bricks. Loudon must love being scheduled as a glorified tire test.