It pays to stick around until the end. Once again, this lesson was evident at Loudon, New Hampshire as Clint Bowyer- a racer who barely made the Chase in 12th- picks up the win.
The question down the stretch was going to be one of who could stretch out the gas mileage and who might fall prey to running out. Bowyer has led much of the early to mid-race, but he was worried out performance on re-starts, and had problems with his carburetor. Ironically, Bowyer believes that inability to run all out may have saved him at the end. The Kansan- who picked up his first career Cup win here at the outset of the 2007 Chase, ran out of fuel himself while celebrating the win, which vaults him into second behind leader Denny Hamlin.
Stewart’s foible opened the door for a runner-up finish for Hamlin. The winner of six prior races this season, appeared at times headed for disaster. Hamlin started deep in the field, and was hit by Carl Edwards in a mid-race mishap, where Edwards apparently couldn’t hold his line. Hamlin came on strong at the end, and gains a little breathing room in the points.
For a time, Jimmie Johnson was the points leader, as he broke the top five early on, and Hamlin labored in traffic. In one of many late race incidents, Johnson got hit by Kyle Busch, who himself was trying to avoid a wreck involving Busch’s brother Kurt and Jeff Burton. Johnson’s munched up car limped home 25th, and now he finds himself 7th in the points.
It was as good a race at New Hampshire as this observer has seen in some time. There were good battles for the lead, strategy became a big factor, and a number of non- Chasers accounted well for themselves. Jamie McMurray was strong much of the day, so was his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann was solid all day long, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished top five.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I truly believe this Chase will be unlike any other seen since its implementation in 2004. Johnson is favored, but showing signs of mortality, and drivers who needed to start out well in New Hampshire accomplished their mission.
Denny Hamlin will be stout. Kevin Harvick will keep up his “m.o.” of running up through the field to be there at the end. Former champions like Jeff Gordon. Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart will put veteran moves on display- including coolness under pressure, and then the young guns Kyle, Denny, Carl and Clint will all add intrigue, and maybe even pull this one out.
Only one New Hampshire winner has gone on to capture the Cup. That may not change this year. At the same time, this race gives drivers and fans the beginning to NASCAR’s playoff that it needs. It’s a good beginning- in my opinion- and here’s hoping the aggressive driving keeps up.