As the Canadian National Anthem was invoked prior to the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire, NASCAR drivers did their best to pretend they were from Canada. The 43 drivers hit the track on an overcast Sunday afternoon, and evidently raced as aggressively as an NHL player fighting during a hockey match.
The 300-lap spectacle was incredibly important, as the last race of the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is a week away. But that just made the 16 drivers inside of the Chase bring out more of a competitive edge than the sport has seen within recent weeks.
Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon each were involved in at least one incident during the race. Moreover, Hamlin and Kenseth were involved in multiple wrecks, which evidently not only put a dent in their race cars, but did so to their championship hopes as well.
With one race left in the opening round, no one can afford to make mistakes at Dover after the chaos that erupted in lobster-land.
At Chicagoland the previous week, the only driver to have a major mishap was Aric Almirola. The driver of the No. 43 Ford was a long shot entering the Chase, but performed well under pressure and was in the sixth position until his engine blew at the intermediate track. However, he was one of the few drivers in the Chase to have a mistake-free run at New Hampshire – gathering a sixth-place result. Due to the blown engine, he is still 16th of 16 drivers in the Chase, but sits a mere 10 points behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, who are tied for the 12th and final spot to advance to the Contender Round.
“We cut it down to a realistic possibility going to Dover,” Almirola said after the race at New Hampshire. “I think we’re nine or 10 points out of 12th, so that’s manageable.If we went to Dover 28 points out, we might as well go ahead and just throw in the towel, but that’s exactly what we needed. I said all week the best thing we can do if we can’t win, we need to go and try to run top five. We ran sixth and we’ve got to try and put pressure on those other guys.”
Almirola has an average finish of 15.4 at Dover, but had a top-15 run at the beginning of June. If he is going to advance to Round 2 of the Chase, a mistake-free race is not all the team needs. He will need to pilot his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford inside the top five, and will likely need to rely on other Chase drivers struggling.
For Denny Hamlin, things certainly did not get easier on Sunday. The No. 11 team had fuel issues at New Hampshire after racing inside of the top five within the first 100 laps. Once again, a mistake took away their hopes at contending for a solid finish.
Hamlin fell four laps down after the team went to work on pit road to fix the fuel issue. With reports of crew chief swaps to be announced at Joe Gibbs Racing in the coming weeks, Hamlin voiced his frustration to Darian Grubb, who was suspended for six weeks prior to Chicago. Subsequently, he was involved in a multi-car wreck, which sent him directly to the garage area for repairs. However, Hamlin is not completely out of contention to make it past the first round of the Chase as he finished fifth at Dover in June.
Jeff Gordon was set to lock himself into Round 2 of the Chase on points with a top five run at Loudon. But things didn’t go exactly the way he had planned. After avoiding disarray throughout the day, he found himself over 50 points ahead of Kahne and Newman. But Gordon, who led the standings prior to the points being reset for the Chase, blew a tire with less than 10 laps to go in the race – causing his No. 24 Chevrolet to slam the wall. He went from third to seventh in points in a matter of laps, but is still 15 points ahead of 12th-place. The only silver lining for this team is that he has three top fives at Dover in the last four races, so he should easily make his way into the second round.
As for Gordon’s three teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, they have been flying under the radar within the first two Chase races. None of them finished inside of the top 10 at Chicago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved in a wreck with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Sunday – something he needs to avoid at Dover. There is no room for more mistakes for Kahne, who finished 23rd at Loudon after quietly racing around the top 15. He has underperformed throughout the year, but if he can get a top 15 at Dover, he should advance to Round 2.
Greg Biffle had a mediocre race once again. He was two laps down – outside of the top 25 at one point. With the 15 cautions occurring, he was able to received two lucky dogs to put him back on the lead lap. Biffle finished 16th, but is still on the outside looking in as his inconsistent year continues.
Then, there is 2003 champion Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth is still winless in 2014, and has yet to show he has the speed to win one. However, consistency is a key part of advancing through each round of the Chase; something that Kenseth is known for. On Sunday, he was consistently racing inside of the top 10, but was involved in multiple incidents. Whether or not they were of Kenseth’s doing, he needs to avoid those situations. Instead of recording a solid finish, the No. 20 Toyota ended the day with a 21st-place finish. Making the mistake of not backing down proved to be costly for the veteran driver for Gibbs.
In one of Kenseth’s incidents, his teammate Kyle Busch rammed into his rear-end. Kenseth didn’t sustain much damage, but Busch’s front-end obtained severe damage. The No. 18 car recovered to finish inside of the top 10 for the second straight week in a row, but they will need to be careful at Dover after getting into a wreck early in the June race.
Even with plenty of negatives at New Hampshire, there were some drivers that had a mistake-free contest.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t have the quickest car on Sunday afternoon, yet ended the race inside of the top five. Although he won at Dover in June, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet must stay out of trouble as he attempts to win his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
AJ Allmendinger went a lap down within the first half of the 300-mile event. However, the No. 47 team came back strong in the second portion of the event. He ended the day with a 13th-place finish, and sits just one spot ahead of Kahne and Newman in the standings by a mere point. The 32-year-old struggled at Dover earlier in the year – finishing 21st. However, determination can come a long way for this organization. Following a finish outside of the top 20 at Chicago, most people wrote off Allmendinger, but he came back with a vengeance on Sunday as he steadily worked his way through the field like Almirola.
As the Sprint Cup Series gears up for the first round of eliminations, Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Ku. Busch and Almirola are the odd men out.
“Well the problem is you just can’t have things like that happen,” Gordon said on having a mistake. “We have a strong enough team. We went from being very comfortable going into next week’s race to now not being very comfortable. We just have to go and perform and try to make sure things like this don’t happen.”
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