Five things we learned at Loudon
Nothing, not even a late bump from one of his rivals, would deter Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's cool thought process helped him prevail for the second straight week
If it's late June, it must be time for Tony Stewart to start heating things up
New England's first race of 2010 was also one of its finest. Between poor pit strategy, a fender-banging fight for the lead, and a near-impossible comeback, there's plenty to focus on after 301 miles at Loudon's one-mile oval. It was a day that started with thoughts of a wreckfest, but ended by building on two important themes NASCAR sorely needs: credibility and respect. Racing, not roughhousing, took center stage one week after Infineon's road course devolved into a high-speed game of bumper cars.
With the dust settling and a reigning four-time champ back toward hogging the spotlight, here's five things to take away from NASCAR's first showdown of the summer:
1.) Even a late-race bump from his biggest rival couldn't stop Jimmie Johnson this time. It was the type of contact NASCAR's "Have at it, boys" philosophy was made for, the one that could have rattled Jimmie Johnson's cage. With seven laps to go, Kurt Busch's tap on the bumper of the No. 48 left him seemingly settling for second, a rarity for a reigning four-time champ who has made a career out of avoiding such contact.
"I was a little shocked," he said, thinking at first a chance to win the race was over. "Inside the car, I was so pissed off, I almost lost it."
"Driving into turn three, I had all intentions of passing him on the inside," was Busch's version of events. This from a guy who has a history of making things rough on the No. 48. "Your motive is always to pass a guy clean ... I just got into him in the left rear."
That answer seems questionable, but whether Busch told the truth is beside the point. The bottom line is, he didn't get his desired result of winning the race. Johnson showed the maturity that's won him races and championships through the years, realizing quickly he was still in second and had a chance to pull an "eye for an eye" routine.
"My thought process was [initially], 'Wreck his [butt],'" he explained. "But my end result was: 'You can't do that, you'll wreck yourself, you'll look like a fool.' You still have a chance to win the race, focus on your job. It made it easier for me to get off the brake a little earlier and nudge him."
That's exactly how it happened, Johnson ran his challenger back down, then pulled a little bump 'n' run to score his second win in a row. That ties him with rival Denny Hamlin with five victories on the year, evening their Chase battle while getting over the hump of winning with the new spoiler on an oval.
"Have we caught the Gibbs cars? I don't know that we have ever lost touch with them," said crew chief Chad Knaus of their rivals. "Are we as fast as we want to be? Absolutely not." Now comfortably in the position they want, that means this team won't rest on their laurels for a second. And with the incident with Busch proving they won't get rattled ... let's just say the championship clearly runs right through the No. 48 once again.
2.) Like clockwork, Tony Stewart is heating up in the summer. The vultures were circling around Stewart-Haas Racing in May, but the driver/owner knew he had history on his side: 33 of his 37 career victories have come after June 1. Turns out he had good reason to keep the faith. Since June 1, 2010, only Johnson has scored more points than Stewart's 638, moving him from 16th to 9th with an average finish of 4.8. All of a sudden, a season that looked destined for the trash heap is heading straight toward the Chase, punctuated by a second-place finish Sunday that came five laps short of an unlikely win.
It wasn't easy. A rare early mistake for the No. 14 crew, failing to fill the car with fuel under caution, left Stewart off sequence with the leaders. After a Lap 240 yellow for Kasey Kahne's blown engine, he needed the wave around just to get back on the lead lap.
"Fought all day," he said of a frantic finish, during which new tires and a handful of restarts gave him a chance to climb to second. "Nobody has quit on this deal. We have all dug deeper; it's hard to keep motivated and keep everybody pumped up, but I'm really proud [of where we are now]." Stewart attributes their latest success more to a change in philosophy -- the team has done more off-track testing in recent weeks in order to try and catch the field. But there's no denying that since catching a lucky break at Pocono and finishing third, the No. 14 team got infused with a little confidence injection they haven't relinquished.
"Everybody talks about momentum and it's a theory, I guess," he said to my question about the team's solid month. "Today is over, and we have to start tomorrow for next week."
That may be true, but it's a whole lot easier when you start off the joy of a podium finish as opposed to running 25th.
3.) The two Jeffs are getting snakebit in 2010. Jeff Burton's favorite quote is "putting yourself in position" to win. So how come those performances haven't paid off? Between he and four-time champ Jeff Gordon, they could have combined for seven or eight race victories in a year where they've both been haunted by uncharacteristic late-race mistakes.
This time, the blame falls squarely on Burton's crew chief. During a caution on Lap 283, Todd Berrier made the call not to bring him down pit road for fresh rubber. That left the No. 31 a sitting duck when everyone else -- including second-place Johnson, who made quick work of the No. 31 on the restart -- came down for at least two tires.
"All we had to do was drag one or two people with us on that restart and we would have been fine," he said afterward, refusing to point the finger. "[My team] gives me great race cars, and 99% of the time they make great calls. It just went against us today."
Those old Goodyears destroyed the handling in the closing laps, leaving Burton sliding into Kyle Busch in a move that ruined both their finishes. Ending the day in 12th, no apologies could bring back what should have been a trip to Victory Lane.
Gordon knows that feeling all too well, going 0-for-17 despite a hefty 712 laps led. On Sunday, after he ran fourth by flashing some speed early, contact with rival Juan Pablo Montoya ultimately cost him too much track position to go for the win.
"Just the type of racing you're seeing these days," he said. "Double-file re-starts get really hairy and wild and crazy. We've got to work on the restarts a little bit."
Those late-race missteps make the difference between labeling them championship pretenders or contenders.
4.) Roush Fenway Racing is in disarray -- and that leaves an opening for Dale Jr. A winless season for Ford's flagship program hit rock bottom this weekend. Dealing with the drama of a new crew chief for Matt Kenseth, owner Jack Roush seemed both irritated and exasperated at a Friday press conference during which he claimed NASCAR's testing ban, combined with poor simulation data, is really hurting his team's inability to catch up.
Whatever the reason, solutions need to come quickly. The organization was light years behind its rivals on Sunday, running 16th, 17th, 20th, and 25th with their four-car effort. Carl Edwards finished the worst, sounding like a cross between disheartened and depressed on the radio. That leaves him 469 behind point leader Kevin Harvick, 12th in the standings and clearly vulnerable to losing a spot in the Chase. Greg Biffle and Kenseth aren't too far ahead, and with this team slumping badly it's not out of the question to see one, two, or the unthinkable -- all three -- get knocked out.
That mess opens the door for the most unlikely of challengers: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Fresh off a third straight top-11 finish, the No. 88 had another impressive drive, working forward from 31st to be a fixture inside the top 10 by halfway. That eighth-place run caps a shocking turnaround to his season, occurring at what's some of his historically worst tracks. "I didn't expect it, but I'm really pleasantly surprised that it's happening," he said. "We've been working very hard, and sometimes it just bears fruit." And if the Roush Fenway cars keep stumbling all over themselves, a Chase bid for Earnhardt just might happen after all.
5.) Kasey Kahne can get busy focusing on 2011 -- will Montoya be next? Leading a race-high 110 laps at New Hampshire, Kahne's chance for the win went up in a plume of engine smoke -- along with any hope of a Chase bid. It's been a phenomenal effort by his lame duck No. 9 program, which put back-to-back top-5 finishes together to thrust their way back into the outskirts of playoff contention.
But ultimately, the off-track distractions have combined with on-track mechanical issues, dooming Kahne to four months of going through the motions while a pending marriage to Rick Hendrick awaits. Montoya's team isn't headed toward divorce, but a fifth DNF in 17 starts puts their Chase chances on a similar form of life support. The Colombian reminds me of the Greek God Sisyphus: every time he rolls the ball up the mountain, convincing us of an unlikely playoff bid something silly happens to knock him back down. This week, it was his own fault, aggressive contact with Jeff Gordon crippling his car until former Target driver Reed Sorenson hit the bulls-eye to finish him off. 183 points back with nine regular season races left makes the playoffs a virtual impossibility.
5a.) Marcos Ambrose is going to be just fine. Have to give a quick shout out to Ambrose, who spent the week recovering from one of the most historic blunders in NASCAR history after giving away a win at Infineon. But instead of falling to pieces, this Tasmanian put some stitches on the wound with a 13th-place, lead-lap finish at New Hampshire. That's the healthy, not the harmful way, to put that type of career-crippling decision behind you.
Race grade: A-. Imagine that, NASCAR. A race with no debris cautions during the final 100 laps naturally plays out into a nail-biting finish! The battle between Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson had fans on their feet, one of the season's best crowds saluting a great race. Even a long green-flag run didn't dampen the spirits of an event where you had up to ten teams late with a shot at winning the race.