Who’s in the headline – The latest iteration of the Chase is designed to be all about winning. NASCAR told Kyle Busch that he would be eligible for the Chase if he was able to win and get himself into the top 30 in points after Richmond in the fall. Busch has taken that decision to heart, winning three of the last four races and cutting the points deficit to 30th-place down to 58 points with seven races to go before the playoff field is set. Quick math would indicate he now only has to gain nine points per race to clear 30th and qualify for the Chase.
What happened – Carl Edwards won the pole and led the first 19 laps before fading into the background and ultimately finishing seventh. Busch passed Edwards on track to take the lead for the first time and led the next 47 laps. Brad Keselowski took the lead from Busch to lead his first of 100 laps on lap 67. Jeff Gordon, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano all managed to get credit for leading laps during green-flag stops to interrupt Keselowski’s string of laps led. Kevin Harvick passed Keselowski after a restart on lap 194 and was leading when the penultimate caution flag flew for oil on the track. Busch had pitted after hitting the oil, thinking he had a flat tire five laps before the caution flew. He made a move to thread the needle between Harvick and Keselowski to get back on the lead lap two laps before the caution to ultimately assume the lead as the rest of the lead-lap cars pitted on that caution. Busch pulled away from the field on the restart and led all of the way until the caution flew on the final lap for Alex Bowman bouncing off of the wall.
Why you should care – The only real impact of the events at New Hampshire is Busch moving closer to qualifying for the Chase. Busch gained another 29 points on the 30th-place position in the standings thanks to his second consecutive win. He has gained 70 points on 30th over the past two weekends. Busch will have to receive a major setback over the next seven races to fail to qualify for the Chase. The five drivers who were positioned to make the Chase on points last week are the same five after this week’s race.
What your friends are talking about – Thankfully, the folks at NBC were able to show the cause for some of the debris cautions. The fact that one was for a water bottle on the apron of turn 3 and another was a brake duct well above the groove might point out why we don’t always get to see the debris. Neither of those items were in any danger of impacting the racing. If someone made contact with either one of the items they would have a far greater problem than the damage caused by the debris. The sanctioning body continues to throw cautions that are simply unnecessary. One hope is that the NBC folks showing all of the ridiculous debris items will put pressure on NASCAR to keep the yellow flag in their pocket unless truly necessary.
Heading to Indianapolis this week there are some people crossing their fingers that the move to another new aero package isn’t a mistake. The Brickyard is a huge race for the sport and going into it blind with a new package could be a very touchy situation. Most fans remember the tire debacle from 2008. The last thing we need is another race that does not live up to expectations, no matter how low they are for Indy already. This high-drag package could put a strain on the tires, and we know what happened last time we went to 16th and Georgetown with an untested package.
Speaking of tires, Goodyear is laying down their best CYA spin about the Chase. Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s Director of Racing said this week that they have not heard anything from the sanctioning body about a change to the low downforce package for the Chase. He stated that the company would need 90 days notice to produce enough tires to supply the series with the necessary tires to accommodate the new package. The teams did test a low downforce package and softer tire at Chicago this week but until NASCAR makes the call Goodyear is not going to act. Let’s hope the suits in Daytona, if they are going to make the change for the Chase, let Goodyear know in time so we don’t have a drawn out tire discussion throughout the Chase.
Harvick won the ESPY for driver of the year this week. The broadcasting behemoth showed again that they’ve distanced themselves from the grass roots level sports that they originally were known for. Harvick bested a field that represented NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and Formula 1. The driver of the year should have been Donny Schatz, who set an all-time record for points in a season in the Outlaws. For a network who laid their foundation covering Australian Rules Football and NASCAR before the vast majority of sports fans knew about them, they should be ashamed that Schatz wasn’t even listed among the nominees, let alone the winner.
Who is mad – Jamie McMurray started the race in 11th position. He bounced around just in and out of the top 10 for most of the race until his engine soured with around 25 laps to go. McMurray is the highest driver in points without a win, but his misfortune cost him two spots in the standings and dropped him much closer to those pursuing him. While a win can cure the ills that face McMurray, right now he’s looking to get his cars in contention for victories rather than battling to score points, then he can start talking about qualifying for the Chase and being a legitimate title contender.
David Ragan went into Sunday’s race with high hopes. His car was fast in practice and qualified third for the race. From the drop of the green he slowly slid backwards in the field. Before lap 100 went on the board, Ragan was back in the teens. At one point he was in the high 20s before scratching and clawing his way back to an 18th-place finish. Michael Waltrip Racing had another subpar weekend, and Ragan’s struggles were indicative of the teams challenges all season. Ragan has had flashes of brilliance this season, but putting a whole race together has proven quite difficult.
Jimmie Johnson is going to have to hit the elliptical for an extra hour on Monday, because he was out to lunch for the entire race at New Hampshire. Johnson started the race in seventh, but was back to the mid-teens by the time lap 50 was on the board. Johnson continued to slide backwards and, while bouncing back into the high-teens briefly around the midpoint of the race he dropped back into the 20s and ultimately came home in the 22nd position. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the No. 48 team establish themselves as title contenders before experimenting in the middle of the summer, but that still doesn’t make it easy for a six-time champion to accept running middle of the pack.
Who is happy – Austin Dillon left the track in a foul mood on Saturday after having a dust-up with Denny Hamlin late in the Xfinity race. At the start of the Cup race he didn’t feel much better. He started the event in 24th and his car was ill-handling. The No. 3 team threw everything but the kitchen sink at Dillon’s ride and, when the checkered flag flew, he crossed the line in eighth place. The run was Dillon’s second top 10 in three weeks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the best of the four Hendrick Motorsports cars on Sunday, bringing home a fifth-place run. Greg Ives made a late-race call to repair some nose damage on Earnhardt’s car, which put him at the back of the pack. Earnhardt battled all of the way back through the field to secure a fifth-place finish for his eighth career top five at New Hampshire. Earnhardt was far from pleased with missing another chance to win in Loudon, but he does feel like he’ll be a contender when the series comes back during the Chase.
Aric Almirola was a Chase contender in 2014. While he hasn’t been contending for wins he has been solidly finishing most every weekend. Sunday was no different as he started the race in the 29th position. Patiently and methodically, Almirola plodded forward to ultimately come home with a 15th-place finish. The run is Almirola’s 11th top-15 outing of the year. At this point Almirola is in the Chase on points, but once Busch qualifies he’ll be on the outside looking in. Don’t count the No. 43 out of the Chase mix yet, with seven races to go before the cut off for the playoffs.
When the checkered flag flew
Busch won his 32nd career Cup race in 373 career starts. 32 wins ties Busch with Dale Jarrett and Matt Kenseth for 21st on the all-time list. One more victory will tie him with Fireball Roberts for 20th. Busch’s winning percentage is 8.58%, 25th on the all-time list. The only active drivers ahead of him on the list are Johnson and Gordon. The triumph was Busch’s second career win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. This is Busch’s third victory of 2015 and third in the last four races.
Brad Keselowski finished second at NHMS for his third top-two run of the season. The second-place finish is Keselowski’s third top-two at Loudon in 12 career starts. This was Keselowski’s 12th career second-place run. He is tied with Davey Allison and Neil Bonnett for 56th on the all-time list.
Harvick crossed the line in third for his 11th top-three of the season in 19 races. It is his first third-place finisher, with the remainder top-two finishes. This was Harvick’s fourth career podium at Loudon. Harvick has 90 career podium finishes in the Cup series. He’s tied with Jim Paschal for 24th on the all-time list.
Brett Moffitt came home in 33rd position to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.
Harvick, Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. Harvick, Johnson, Earnhardt and Kurt Busch are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events thanks to multiple wins. Kyle Busch will be locked in assuming he can make it into the top 30 in points, which would mean down to 14th in points would make it in.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 19 races without wins and their standing in points:
9) Jamie McMurray
10) Jeff Gordon
12) Kasey Kahne
13) Ryan Newman
14) Paul Menard
15) Aric Almirola
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $6,802,912, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,539,762 in 19 races.
In the Xfinity series, after 17 races, it has been $1,326,425 for the winners and $239,920 for last place.
After 10 Truck races the winner has $555,330 and the last loser has banked $101,595.
What is in the cooler
The new rules package looked like it was going to bring a new level of abuse on the brake packages at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Aside from Alex Bowman, who went full on Atomic Fireball thanks to a blown tire from a melted bead, the brakes didn’t really present a big problem. The race’s seven leaders exchanged the lead nine times over the 301 laps. Keselowski led 100 laps while Kyle Busch led 96. They were the only two drivers to lead more than one time. Three of the lead changes were actually on-track passes under green. The racing was typical Loudon, and the seven cautions were primarily for weak debris cautions or unnecessary spin/wreck yellows. As a result, we’ll give it three Granite Ledge Stouts from Canterbury Ale Works for being remarkably average.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – After a flat mile track, the traveling circus heads to the Racing Capitol of the World. NASCAR heads to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Crown Royal presents Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard. The 22nd visit by the NASCAR Cup Series can be seen on NBC Sports Network at 3:30 p.m. ET. You can also hear the action on your local Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.