*Key Moment* – Kyle Busch had another motor issue which relegated him to also-ran status and allowed Denny Hamlin to pass him for the lead with 206 laps to go. From that point on, barring a major mechanical failure or strategic blunder, Hamlin was just logging laps until he did a tremendous burnout.
*In a Nutshell* – Hamlin’s crew forgot to add extra air to his tires before he went out for qualifying on Friday which resulted in him starting the race from the 32nd position. From the drop of the green flag, Hamlin was on a mission to get to the front. Once he got there, he just drove away with the race.
*Dramatic Moment* – Hamlin had a serious amount of trash on his car’s front grill with 70 laps to go in the race. His temperatures were beginning to climb and there was a distinct possibility that he might have to pit before he could make it to the finish on fuel to get it off of the grill. Lucky for Hamlin, his teammate in the No. 18 was struggling; so Hamlin was able to pull up behind Busch’s wounded car and the debris blew off.
*What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week*
*After last week, in which there was only one on-track pass for the lead, we saw several this week.* In fact, there were five passes for the lead that took place with both cars on the race track at speed this week. Although hardly a record in stock car racing, there was at least a small amount of racing at the front of the pack. Deeper in the pack, there was plenty of racing with cars three- and four-wide and a large amount of traded paint.
*Hamlin’s car was simply that much better.* Hamlin started the race in 32nd (28th after two cars in his line had to drop to the back) but he was on a mission from the drop of the rag. Looking at the NASCAR box score that breaks down the race in segments for every car, Hamlin’s charge to the front is easy to see. Twentieth on lap 15, 16th on lap 30, 9th on lap 45 and 4th on lap 60. That is getting it done on a track that puts a premium on getting around on the bottom while there was only the competition caution on lap 42 to help him.
*Kyle Busch has been snake-bitten this season but is some of it of his own making?* Busch’s efforts succumbed to engine issues again this week. Last season, when Joe Gibbs Racing was changing from their own engine shop to TRD engines, Hamlin was the most vocal about making the change, while Busch was supportive and didn’t seem to see a need to make the change. This season, while engine woes have repeatedly plagued JGR, they have seemed to be most prominent with the No. 18. Whether it is just a throw away season or if there is really something to how Busch pushes a car, it seems as though he’s just harder on equipment than his JRG teammates.
*Fords stink* Ok, so they don’t stink all of the time and they have won a manufacturer’s championship in the last decade (just barely, but they did win it in 2002). However this weekend was not a shining accomplishment for the blue oval crowd. Matt Kenseth was the best-performing Ford on the track; he came across the finish line in 14th. The FR9 engine may give them an advantage on Intermediates and plate tracks; but on short and flat tracks, the Fords are not showing well this season.
*Johnson is just toying with them at this point.* Although Jimmie Johnson couldn’t do anything with Hamlin at New Hampshire, he had everyone else covered to come home second for the second straight week. Johnson commented during the weekend that his team was focused on finishing top three in the first six races of the Chase and then they’d evaluate where they are. Other teams focus on top 10s, the No. 48 focuses on top 3s. That’s why they’re going to be really hard to beat for the title in 2012.
*Caution flags for debris are still the most frustrating things in NASCAR today.* Four caution flags flew over the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and three of them were for debris. The first flag was a competition caution, but the other three were for the infamous debris that is so elusive for the television cameras. After seeing Danica Patrick run over a tennis shoe at speed in Montreal without it having a negative impact on her car, it is time for NASCAR to rethink the liberal use of yellows for debris. If the debris isn’t big enough to lift the cars wheels off of the ground when it is run over, lets keep the green flag out.
*The infraction list at Loudon might be the shortest in the history of NASCAR.* The Nos. 22 and 55 were sent to the back before the race started for unapproved adjustments. Other than that, the only offense of the entire race was that the No. 33 had a pit crew member over the wall too soon on lap 43 which caused them to have to go to the rear for the restart after the competition caution. Not a single “too fast entering,” not a solo “equipment outside of the box.” Either the teams are just tired of the season and are playing out the string, or no one is pushing it because penalties during a race when track position is everything are just too costly.
*Prize money still doesn’t make sense.* There are a myriad of things that are rolled into the prize money that is paid to drivers for their race finishes, but when Landon Cassill gets more money for starting 28th and finishing 27th than Joey Logano, who started 18th and finished 8th, it is just stupid. NASCAR shouldn’t even bother posting prize money per race because so little of it is dependent on what actually happens on the track.
*The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune*
*Kyle Busch* led 48 laps and looked like the only car on the track that could potentially hold off Hamlin but an engine issue caused him to lose the lead to the eventual race winner and finish the race in 28th, two laps down. Like the rest of Busch’s season, this race left him singing “What Might Have Been.”
*The vendor that sells speedy-dry to New Hampshire Motor Speedway,* because they didn’t use a bag all weekend on the race track.
*The ginormous lobster* that they make the driver and crew chief pose with in Victory Lane after winning the race at New Hampshire. Assuming it ended up on a plate somewhere with a large container of butter alongside, it was a bad day for the crustacean.
*”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune*
*The tire specialist on the No. 11* just might have lost his job if Hamlin had not made it up through the field to take the win after he went out on air pressures that were too low to qualify.
*Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, and Brian Vickers* all managed to lead laps after Hamlin made it to the front of the field. Although Vickers was the only one who actually got in front of Hamlin on a restart the rest of them just held on to get a bonus point during pit stops.
*Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb*, on the opposite end of the fork from the aforementioned gigantic lobster.
* Denny Hamlin is once again the leader in victories for the season with five.
* Hamlin has 12 top 5s and 14 top 10s in 2012.
* This was Hamlin’s second career victory at Loudon.
* Hamlin has 7 career top 5s and 10 career top 10s in 14 starts at New Hampshire.
* Hamlin has never had a DNF at New Hampshire and has only finished outside of the top 15 once in his 14 races there.
* Jimmie Johnson is now two-for-two in second place finishes for the Chase in 2012.
* Johnson has the most top 5s (14) and the most top 10s (19) in the series this season.
* Jeff Gordon’s pole was his 6th career pole at New Hampshire.
* Gordon has 16 top 5s and 21 top 10s in his 36 career races at Loudon.
* Stephen Leicht was the top-finishing rookie.
* Mike Olsen made his Sprint Cup debut in the No. 32 FASLane racing ride at New Hampshire. Olsen and Frankie Stoddard paired together became the first New Hampshire native duo to run a Cup race together.
* This win was the 100th Cup win in the history of Joe Gibbs Racing. Career winners for JGR – Tony Stewart (33), Denny Hamlin (22), Bobby Labonte (21), Kyle Busch (20), Dale Jarrett (2), and Joey Logano (2).
*What’s the Points*
Jimmie Johnson finished second in the race, four spots ahead of Brad Keselowski. As a result, he is now one point ahead of the Kes in the point standings in the top spot. This isn’t Johnson’s first rodeo and his comments after the race about focusing on top three finishes should have the rest of the competitors wondering if they are actually racing for second place.
Denny Hamlin vaulted into third by virtue of his winning the race and leading the most laps. Hamlin lost roughly seven spots on the last lap at Chicago thanks to running out of gas or he would be tied with Johnson, who is now seven points ahead of him, for the top spot.
Tony Stewart led early, slipped a little during the middle laps but came back for a solid seventh place finish. That leaves Stewart 10 points out of the top spot but still within shouting distance.
After Chicago, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne were tied for fourth, 15 spots out of the lead. After Bowyer finished fourth without leading a lap and Kahne finished fifth while leading a lap, they are now tied for fifth, 15 points out of the lead. Mathematically they’re far from out of it; but realistically, they can’t afford to slip any more and still have a shot.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now 26 points out of the top spot which is more than half of a race. For him and the other five drivers below him, the Chase is already slipping quickly out of reach.
In the total meaningless and generally irrelevant “battle” for the 13th position in points, Kyle Busch’s foul luck dropped him to 24 points ahead of Ryan Newman for that cherished spot.
Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 is now 119 points ahead of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 for the 35th spot in the point standings.
*Overall Rating:* After the complete and total boredom of the Chicago race to open the Chase, most anything had to be an improvement. While Loudon was far from an instant classic, there was plenty of excitement back in the pack at Loudon and more than one on-track pass for the lead. Denny Hamlin charging through the pack and taking it three-wide with Jimmie Johnson en route while Juan Pablo Montoya was bouncing off anyone and everyone who was near him definitely make things more interesting. Brian Vickers scored a top 10 in a spot start for MWR while Kevin Harvick ran into Kyle Busch after Busch’s motor started going south. In the end we’ll give this one three somewhat chilly cans of Michelob Light. One driver leading nearly 2/3 of the race is going to detract from the overall rating of any event but at least it wasn’t Jeff Burton leading every lap with restrictor plates on the cars. Also in the plus column is seeing the driver hold onto the giant lobster in Victory Lane. That is much better than the total dorkness of the cowboy hat/six shooter debacle that is post race at Texas.
*Next *p:* The traveling circus heads just down the road to Dover, Delaware, for another go with Miles the Monster. The treacherous concrete, self-cleaning mile can dramatically impact the title hopes of anyone caught up in a mess, even if it isn’t of their own making. Jimmie Johnson has won seven races at Dover, and four of the last seven, including the spring race. Expect to see another strong showing by Johnson and a possible defining race in this year’s run to the title.