Who’s in the headline: The old adage of only having to lead one lap seems to be the way Matt Kenseth does business. It rang true again this weekend as Kenseth started 18th and took over 250 laps to get to the point. Once there, he endured three restarts over the final 31 circuits and strolled to victory in a New Hampshire race dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing chassis. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. went back-and-forth at the front through the first 257 laps of the race until both ran into unrelated issues that killed their chances. That opened the door for Kenseth; however, as we stand Monday morning this win is tainted by the fact that the No. 20 Toyota failed post-race laser inspection. The car will be taken to NASCAR’s R&D Center for further evaluation and penalties will be forthcoming.
What happened: Jimmie Johnson started on the pole but only managed to lead the first lap of the race. Busch and Truex Jr. quickly took control, trading the lead seven times save one lap led by Brad Keselowski over the next 256 circuits. A couple of them were even on-track passes for the lead. Kenseth, meanwhile spent the day trudging forward, making the car better each stop before emerging up front once Truex broke a shifter and Busch’s momentum was broken by pit stops. Kenseth then survived the final three restarts of the event and scored his second win of the season, locking himself into the Chase. During a flurry of late-race activity, Tony Stewart used aggressiveness on restarts to surge into second place, showing a renewed fire for the final 19 races of his Cup career. Behind them, there was intense racing throughout the pack, albeit predominantly on restarts.
Why you should care: At the front of the pack, the results didn’t matter much under the sport’s current Chase format. Kenseth now has two wins, Busch already has three and Truex has one but is almost 100 points ahead of 16th and the odds of more than 16 winners have become incredibly small. There were two important results behind their battle. One, Stewart is now 67 points ahead of 31st in points with seven regular season races left, effectively clinching his Chase spot. Two, despite missing the event, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains as one of the 16 drivers currently in the field, albeit barely over Kasey Kahne and Trevor Bayne with his status for Indy up in the air as of Monday morning.
As for who’s got the best package come September? JGR appeared to make a statement at this Chase track after Team Penske captured three of the last four races in Cup. The four-car team plus Truex led 299 of 301 laps on the day.
What your friends are talking about: The predominant story of the week was Earnhardt sitting out yet again with concussion-like symptoms. It is admirable the sport’s Most Popular Driver is raising his hand and begging out rather than putting himself and those racing around him in danger. It also put his Chase hopes in danger, too but the greater issue here is long-term health.
Fred Lorenzen came out this week and announced he’ll be donating his brain to research to help understand the long-term effects of auto racing wrecks. The worry for Earnhardt is not only the fact he’s having symptoms but they’re happening at least a second time. Many football players have shown that once a player gets a concussion, subsequent ones come more easily and with less impact. The long-term ramifications for Earnhardt could be dire if he continues to suffer more head issues.
As a side note from Earnhardt’s situation Doug Duchardt, the General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports announced that Jeff Gordon would pilot the No. 88 at Indianapolis next weekend if Earnhardt has not been cleared by NASCAR concussion protocol. While the story would be neat and it is understandable why Axalta would want to bring Gordon back to relive the heyday of their success at the Brickyard, it is a missed opportunity. There are so many talented young drivers who have not had a shot in the Cup Series at all, let alone in Hendrick equipment and would beg for this type of chance. It isn’t like owner points matter with the Charter system and the TV coverage will be just as great on the No. 88 with Ryan Sieg or Blake Koch behind the wheel as it would with Gordon driving it. The decision makes sense from a marketing standpoint, but it would have made so much more sense for HMS and NASCAR’s future if they’d put a young driver behind the wheel.
We’ve long heard the mantra out of Daytona: the fans should know who won the race when they leave the racetrack. That is the excuse given for every race but two in the history of NASCAR. OK, it might be more than two but that is all that comes to mind right now. Aside from Wendell Scott and Ricky Rudd, everyone else who has won a race in NASCAR has kept the victory no matter how egregious their post-race failings were in the technical inspection process or elsewhere.
Unfortunately, fans currently don’t know who won the race at New Hampshire. The sport, following Kenseth’s post-race inspection failure will now wait until Tuesday to “certify the details” of what, exactly is wrong with the car. In the modern world where drivers often hear about things from Twitter before they are told by the NASCAR officials, it is time to dump this antiquated thinking. Technical inspection is generally over within an hour of the race ending. The equipment at the racetrack is sophisticated enough that 95% of violations are picked up and correctly identified at the venue. NASCAR needs to adopt the philosophy that is pertinent at every local short track in the county: fail post-race inspection and you are disqualified. No trophy, no purse money, no points. If that happens once or twice, you’ll be surprised how much more strictly the teams make sure they’re within tolerance.
After last week’s controversy on pit road where Truex passed Kevin Harvick on his way to his pit stall under caution, NASCAR is considering making changes to their time over distance methodology for pit road timing. After having technology on the cars that utilizes GPS capabilities for years to show pointers during the race broadcast, pinpointing location and speed at any point on the track, there is no reason not to use it on pit road and stop all of the shenanigans that occur with timing lines. That same technology would also allow the field to be frozen immediately under caution. These are shifts that are a long time coming and hopefully will be implemented in 2017.
Michael and Jami McDowell began a trek years ago to adopt a child after they had added their first to their family. It was a goal to have two children, one adopted and one natural. God had a different plan and the McDowells added two other children before the adoption route came to fruition. In the past couple of weeks, Jami went to China to meet their adopted son Lucas. The McDowells continue to be a beacon of God’s work in the sport and their faith and devotion have long permeated NASCAR in a positive way, making them beloved within the garage. Whether you’re religious or not, this latest act is just another where they’ve showcased love toward their fellow man.
Ford Peformance is planning on securing more young talent in the future to ensure they do not have a void like the Chevrolet camp seems to be experiencing right now with Earnhardt Jr. out of his ride and the Bowtie brigade looking to temporarily fill the seat. Toyota has been stockpiling drivers for some time and while they lost Kyle Larson to Chevrolet, they still have Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Cameron Hayley, Ben Rhodes and Rico Abreu. In addition to Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher, Ford also has Bubba Wallace Jr. and Corey LaJoie who are all under 25. LaJoie just won the K&N race on Saturday in Loudon after a three-year absence from Victory Lane and was top 10 in an underfunded XFINITY ride before wrecking. While Chevrolet has some talented drivers at the national level, they are falling behind regionally and Ford is trying hard to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.
Who is mad: Chase Elliott ran in the top 10 for 273 laps on Sunday. He then had some incidental contact while racing, developed a tire rub and hit the wall hard after Alex Bowman crashed in the same turn following his own fender rub. Elliott ended the race in 34th position, seven laps down to the leader. In the grand scheme of things, he will still most likely make the Chase and probably win a race to do it, but it is just disappointing to run so well at a difficult track all day and then have it taken away less than 30 laps from the finish.
Speaking of Bowman, the JR Motorsports part-time driver thrust into the relief driver role for Earnhardt qualified 20th and accounted for himself well. Bowman worked his way into the top 10 before contact with Kurt Busch caused a tire rub that eventually resulted in a tire failure and contact with the wall that ultimately left him last on the lead lap. While the result doesn’t show it, Bowman had a good run where he improved all day and should have ended with a top 10. Add in some additional contact-turned-dispute with Ty Dillon in the XFINITY race the day before and there was plenty on this young driver’s mind Sunday night.
Kasey Kahne was running inside the top 10 when mayhem broke out on the restart that ruined the days of Bowman, Kurt Busch and Elliott. Now, instead of being seven points to the good in the battle to make the Chase, he’s eight points in arrears. Hendrick Motorsports has quietly struggled this year, currently looking to be the fourth-best team in the sport, and Kahne has been the worst of the bunch. He’s managed to stay right around the Mendoza line for the Chase but being caught up by other people’s aggressiveness when you are having a good day can’t sit too well with him.
Hendrick Motorsports, for that matter must be extremely disappointed. After winning the pole, HMS saw all their cars finish outside the top 10 for the third straight race, virtually inconceivable for a team that’s won six titles in the last decade alone.
Who is happy: We have had Stewart in the Who is Mad section quite a bit the last couple of years. Right now, it is time to celebrate his happiness. Stewart is sounding more and more like the old Smoke on the radio during races, talking smack and backing it up on the racetrack. While part of his success on Sunday was due to restarting in the favorable groove on every one of the final restarts, he had to have the car and talent to be in position to take advantage. Had Stewart maintained finishes like these in the first eight races missed this season, he’d be near the top 10 in points and in the discussion for going out on top in his final year. Provided Smoke isn’t peaking too early, we just may see him write the final chapter in Homestead that eluded Gordon last year.
Greg Biffle finished fifth on Sunday. That is his first top 5 since, you guessed it, Loudon last fall. Biffle has notched consecutive finishes of eighth, sixth and fifth. He’s 22nd in points and it would take a miracle for him to leapfrog six people over the final seven races of the regular season, but it is not an impossibility that he could steal a win over those seven rounds. Biffle is on the downside of his career and Roush Fenway Racing is a shadow of its former self; however, Sunday was a good race for RFR with Biffle fifth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tenth. The prospect of Biffle winning the title is an extreme longshot, but it would be great to see him in the Chase again after what he’s been through over the last few years while RFR has struggled.
Danica Patrick seldom receives any mentions in this column because, frankly, she’s been invisible most of the year. However, Sunday was one of those days where, when push came to shove, Patrick got up on the wheel, mixed it up with the boys and wrangled a 14th-place finish. Bash if you want that Kevin Harvick was fourth, Stewart was second and Kurt Busch was right in the mix for a top 10 before his issue, but the bottom line is Patrick was running in her customary 20s when it came down to go time. Charging toward a top 15 during the final stages of the race was impressive. Patrick will probably never be a championship driver in the Cup series but proved Sunday she could out-wheel some good drivers when the chips were down.
Inside The Numbers
- Matt Kenseth scored his second win of the season on Sunday in his 597th career start.
- The victory was Kenseth’s 38th of his career which puts him alone in 19th on the all-time list, one behind Tim Flock.
- Sunday was Kenseth’s third triumph in 33 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
- Tony Stewart finished in the runner-up spot on Sunday for his second top-2 run of the season and second consecutive top 5. The second place was Stewart’s ninth top 2 at Loudon in 34 career starts.
- Stewart’s 44th career second place result which ranked him 13th on the all-time list, two behind Jimmie Johnson and three behind Kevin Harvick.
- Joey Logano rounded out the podium at Loudon. Logano’s 38th top-3 run tied him with LeeRoy Yarbrough for 57th on the all-time list. He is one behind Strerling Marlin for 37th.
- The finish is Logano’s fourth finish in the top-3 spots in New Hampshire in 16 career starts.
- Ryan Blaney came home in 11th on Sunday to win Rookie of the Race honors.
Kenseth’s second win of the season locks him into the Chase, assuming he attempts the remainder of the races and doesn’t have a cataclysmic collapse to fall outside the top 30 in points. He joins Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Johnson with multiple wins who are essentially locked into the field. Assuming there aren’t a remarkable six new winners in the final seven races of the regular season current single-race winners will all make the Chase as well. They include Harvick, Kurt Busch, Logano, Truex, Denny Hamlin and Stewart. The remaining five positions in the Chase are currently filled by these drivers and their point positions:
What is in the cooler: New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the scene of the last wire-to-wire win in the Cup series, although Truex tried to do that at Charlotte this season. The Magic Mile has often had some snoozer races. By comparison, Sunday’s race was above average in Loudon lore with the amount of racing that went on back in the pack, drivers moving forward and falling back under the new rules package. It earned four cold Jabberwocky Browns from The Flying Goose Brew Pub and Grille.
Where do you point your DVR for next week: Next weekend, the schedule points to another flat track, although this one is the most famous the world has to offer. Indianapolis Motor Speedway will play host to the Brickyard 400, letting stock cars tackle their 2.5-mile oval once again. While it won’t be the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, which took place over Memorial Day weekend, it still remains a special event on the NASCAR schedule.
The race can be seen at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN, live streamed on NBC Sports Extra, and heard on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network or on SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.