Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Hampshire Storylines: Sylvania 300

Tony Stewart wants to be like Kurt Busch in 2004. Denny Hamlin wants to mimic the Jimmie Johnson of 2006 and 2010.

Everything can happen over the next nine races. There’s no need for any rushes to judgment, on the positive or negative side of Monday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Only one driver in the seven-plus year history of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has won the first Chase race and went on to win the championship – Busch in 2004. On the other end of the spectrum, a bad start doesn’t always mean a championship deathblow. Johnson finished 25th in last year’s Chase-opener, only to eventually win his fifth consecutive title. In 2006, he opened up the Chase with a 39th-place finish. Hamlin finished 31st at Chicagoland, the worst of the Chase contenders.

Race No. 2 in the Chase might be more indicative of things to come. In four of the seven Chase’s, the eventual championship finished in the top five – and Johnson won each of the last two.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the previous Chase opener, now hosts pivotal race No. 2, this Sunday afternoon, the Sylvania 300.


Smoke On Fire To Start Chase
Though winless throughout the 26-race regular season, Tony Stewart did NOT limp into the Chase. On the contrary, Stewart had three top 10s in four races coming into the Chase opener at Chicagoland.

His Monday win at Chicagoland (his third at the track) drummed up a number of notable bullets…

- It catapulted him from ninth to second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings. He’s now just seven points behind leader Kevin Harvick.
- He now has at least one victory in 13 consecutive seasons. Richard Petty owns the record for most consecutive season with a win, at 18.
- He is the 16th different winner this season, most through 27 races since 2003, and three short of the all-time record of 19.

Harvick The Closer Nabs Points Lead
Clicking off position-after-position at the end of Monday’s Chicagoland race, Harvick reiterated his standing as the series’ top closer.

It also padded what is the second points lead of his Chase career. Harvick now leads the points standings by seven points over Tony Stewart. Only once has Harvick ever led the points during the Chase – after the first Chase race in 2006.

This is the second time Harvick has led the points this season. The first was after the July Daytona race.

Junior Opens Up Chase With Bang
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last top-five finish came in early June, over three months ago. Entering the Chase, seven of his previous nine finishes were outside the top 20.

So momentum wasn’t a discussion topic. A top 10 would have been thrilling.

Instead, Earnhardt surprised onlookers with a third-place run – his best finish in a Chase race since a runner-up at Martinsville in 2008.

Earnhardt now sits fifth in points – up from 10th – just 13 points off the lead.

Chasers Look To Shrug Off First-Race Jitters
Though the top six finishers at Chicagoland were all Chase drivers, there were a number of Chase competitors who struggled.

Four Chase drivers finished outside the top 20: Matt Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd), Jeff Gordon (24th) and Denny Hamlin (31st).

Kenseth and Busch, with post-race Driver Ratings of 114.2 and 95.0, performed much better than their finish would suggest. They were victims of an empty gas tank, and their finish suffered for it. Kenseth had a double-whammy. Post-race, he was dropped to 21st after officials determined JJ Yeley pushed him on the final lap – NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rule Book infraction.

But Gordon and Hamlin each had rough go throughout. Gordon’s Driver Rating was 63.6; Hamlin’s was 52.3.

Red Hot To White Hot At New Hampshire?
It’s a good time to be Stewart Haas Racing.

Tony Stewart just nabbed his first win. Ryan Newman finished eighth to move up a spot in the standings. And now, the series heads to New Hampshire, where the two drivers started and finished 1-2.

Newman won the July New Hampshire race from the pole, thus far his only win of the season. It was his third victory at the Loudon track.

Spoiler Alert: Non-Chasers Excel At NHMS
After Monday’s race at Chicagoland, it seems doubtful that any driver will surprise and steal a win from a championship contender. The top six and eight of the top 10 at Chicago were Chase drivers.

Still, here are the last four winners of the New Hampshire Chase race: Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Bowyer again. None are Chase drivers.

- NASCAR Media Services

No comments: