Five things we learned at Loudon
Clint Bowyer could be in for another Cinderella run after his big win on Sunday
Denny Hamlin rallied from 22nd to finish an impressive second at New Hampshire
Tony Stewart ran out of gas and could be out of luck in the Chase for the Cup
"We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey."
- Kenji Miyazawa
If only that were physically possible, then Tony Stewart would have enough gas to go back and make it to the end of Sunday's Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire at full speed. Instead, it was Clint Bowyer showing the fire of a champion, going from the No. 12 seed to possible title contender with a victory that hinged on just a little extra Sunoco in the tank. It all came from passing Stewart one turn before the white flag lap, blowing by the No. 14 car as its driver watched his title hopes go up in the style of his nickname: Smoke.
How much will Stewart recover, just how vulnerable is Jimmie Johnson, and what do we take from Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s shocking day? After a ho-hum end to the regular season, we've got plenty to cover in an action-packed Five Points from Chase Race No. 1:
1) Clint Bowyer's got that Cinderella feeling.
Haven't we seen this movie before? A 12 seed dominates the opening act of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, coming out of nowhere to establish himself as an unlikely candidate to pull the ultimate upset?
Clint Bowyer should know all about it, seeing as he wrote, directed and starred in the original film. After pursuing a conservative, top-10 you-to-death strategy to squeak inside the Chase field, he won the pole and led 222 laps in September 2007 en route to a dominating New Hampshire victory, one that signaled an unlikely push for a title that ultimately fell short. Inevitably, that Cinderella slipper left him third in points but proved the baseline on penning a sequel three years later.
"I just had a feeling that this race felt like back in '07, and we did it again," he said, moving to second in the points standings after leading 177 of 300 laps on Sunday. "We were fast right off the truck, and everybody had a lot of confidence, a pep in their step. And we showed it from the time we unloaded to qualifying, practice, we were one of the fastest cars here."
That led to an outside-of-the-front-row start and a strong, consistent performance in which Bowyer never fell outside the top-5 except for green-flag pit stops. But while he spent a good chunk of the race out front, a first-place finish came from succeeding at one of the hardest things a driver could ever be asked to do -- conserving fuel. Staying out for track position after making his final pit stop with 92 laps remaining, Bowyer fought a handling problem, dropping to as low as fourth while needing to dial back his speed to 90 percent to make it to the end without pitting again. Watching his closest competition pull away, an exasperated Bowyer called out his crew on the radio, asking them to make a choice: should he run down the leaders or feather that throttle to get a little extra gas?
"It's hard to run somebody down and save fuel at the same time," he explained, trying to shrug off in-race apprehension that was obvious to everyone else. "[Crew chief Shane Wilson] informed me then that I better be saving fuel and not be worried about running him down, and we did that, and darned if he didn't run out of gas."
"He" would be Tony Stewart, joining top-5 runner Jeff Burton coasting to the end while leaving Bowyer the only one among the trio to pull a miracle by staying out. For comparison's sake, A.J. Allmendinger ran out of gas after 76 consecutive green-flag laps. Bowyer ran 92, the type of number that makes NASCAR want to confiscate your tank (although it's important to note 22 of those were run under caution, the slower speeds allowing drivers to typically extend their mileage.)
So what happens now? Can a guy with three career victories -- two in this race and one in Richmond back in May 2008 -- come out of nowhere and truly contend? While these Chase tracks play right into Johnson's hands, he's not the only one. Bowyer owns a second in his hometown track at Kansas from the last time he went on a Cinderella run, and has two consecutive top-10 finishes at the fourth Chase track out in Fontana. As long as he makes it through Dover in one piece, the third RCR Chevy with two threes on the side might be its best championship hope after all.
2) Could this be the start of a trend for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?
Entering a Chase he's not a part of for the second time in three years, NASCAR's Most Popular Driver has endured a most unpopular month with the press, critics claiming either his crew chief should be fired (best-case scenario) or that Hendrick Motorsports should actually fire him. But Sunday, it all magically came together as Earnhardt came up with his best performance at an unrestricted track since the August race at Michigan over a year ago.
With some ugly crew mistakes, Regan Smith blocking him on pit road during a stop, and a 32nd-place starting spot, Junior blitzed through the field after starting off slow, missed the wrecks, and then settled in nicely for a fourth-place finish by race's end. The crazy part is, if not for those self-induced mistakes, the No. 88 might have pressured Bowyer and Denny Hamlin for the win down the stretch.
"It felt like we had a top-10 car and we had the jack-stop break and had to go to the back," he explained, amazingly focused on what might have been despite his first top-5 finish in over two months. "Track position was what we needed, and at the end we didn't have it."
In hindsight, the early setback could have been the best thing for a man most insiders claim needs a father figure on top of the pit box. When Earnhardt started getting snippy after his crew dropped the ball, none other than owner Rick Hendrick came on the radio to calm him down, praising his driver's attitude while gently motivating him to get it together. Earnhardt was as good as the $30 million check he rode in on the rest of the way, giving exceptional feedback and overcoming the off-again, on-again drama with crew chief Lance McGrew on the radio to improve the car.
It'll be interesting to see whether this could be the start of a turnaround for the No. 88, and how interactive Hendrick will be in future races. But remember, the team had a similar top-5 setup for Loudon last Fall, in contention only to get spun out by David Reutimann in the closing laps and robbed of a solid finish. Dover will tell the tale here, perhaps the most disastrous track for the No. 88 during Earnhardt's stint with Hendrick. Remember the spring, when the driver kept pitting for a vibration that was never there en route to a 30th-place finish, 10 laps off the pace? That type of repeat disaster would destroy this newfound momentum before it starts.
3) Denny Hamlin flexed his muscles.
While Bowyer limped to the finish on fumes, Hamlin ended with plenty in the tank behind him, recipient of a runner-up finish that shattered the ceiling for the No. 11 Toyota following a Lap 215 accident with Carl Edwards coming off turn 4. Seemingly down for the count, Hamlin dropped from fourth to 22nd, experiencing the type of bad luck that's crippled his confidence in Chases past.
"Just can't hold his line, can he?" he said of Edwards on the radio, later claiming "he'll be sorry" with the type of attitude that made you wonder if a kamikaze move was but a moment away.
Instead, the opposite happened, maturity turned into lightning focus as the No. 11 charged through the field on the ensuing two restarts. By the last 25 laps, the Fed Ex Toyota was the fastest car in the field, Hamlin making quick work of his closest competition in charging up 20 spots. If there were two, maybe three more green-flag laps, he would have blown by Bowyer and won the race, a shocking conclusion to a day in which one car inadvertently hitting his stopped Toyota could have left him sitting in the garage 35th.
"I was really glad we just didn't get plowed by the entire field," he said. "I immediately set a goal and said, let's finish Top 15 and a few things happen and it was like, crap, let's get a top eight and then top six, holy cow, we can win this thing. It was one of those days [where] we just made a heck of a charge at the end."
That's the type of -- shall we say it -- Jimmie Johnson luck that followed the No. 48 during its four title-winning years, right? For now, his biggest challenger will hesitate on embracing it, knowing a 35-point lead over Bowyer just isn't enough to get excited about.
"It's good," Hamlin said, knowing the next track is the worst on the Chase slate for him historically. "It gives me somewhat of a buffer at Dover. We all know how Dover is for me. Every time I went there, I either wrecked or broke something or ran terrible with the exception of the spring [when he ran 4th]."
"If we can get past Dover, we've got a lot of really good tracks for us."
Was that Denny Hamlin saying walk before you can run? Amazing how far the No. 11 has come...
4) Jimmie Johnson will bounce back...
The reigning four-time champ couldn't have had it worse on Sunday, running comfortably inside the top 10 for most of the race until everyone ahead of him started playing a game of bumper cars. First, the contact between Edwards and Hamlin caused Johnson and Kyle Busch to make contact avoiding him; moments later, they both spun out once Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton made contact, sending the No. 2 spinning and everyone behind scrambling to simply survive.
That's where the luck of the draw made a difference. While Hamlin charged back into the race, Johnson spun out Elliott Sadler to avoid a wreck involving Joey Logano, the third strike that knocked out any chance at a good finish. Chad Knaus made a questionable call to keep the No. 48 out on-track despite further damage, and moments later a loose wheel they could have caught led to an ugly 25th-place finish, a lap off the pace.
Is one bad run enough to slay the Chase monster? Probably not. Sure, Johnson is 92 points behind the pace of leader Hamlin, but Dover is arguably his best track on the schedule. A victory there, which he would have had in the spring if not for an in-race penalty, plus a poor performance by Hamlin and suddenly order is restored atop the standings once again.
"Teams like the No. 48 are so good at rebounding," said teammate Jeff Gordon. "You can't ever count those guys out."
I'm certainly not.
5) But Tony Stewart? Not so sure.
The bookend to Clint Bowyer's mirth was the misery over in Stewart-Haas' No. 14 garage. The early leader, its driver/owner had spent most of the day working back into contention after a call to take four tires (not two) under the first pit stop of the day dropped him from first to well outside the top 10. On a track where passing is difficult if not impossible, it took 188 laps for him to return up front, finally asserting himself as the class of the field down the stretch for every lap but the last. What a hard pill to swallow, a mileage malfunction reminding us all of the reality that the fastest car doesn't always win.
"It sucks," he said upon exiting his Chevy. "[If I knew we'd run out], I would have settled for second. I'm not happy, that's for sure, but we went down swinging. It's hard to lose one that way, but at the same time it was fun racing Clint like that."
The two-time champ remains upbeat he'll get his team back into the race. But that type of deflating performance combined with a steep early hole -- he's 11th, 124 points behind -- leaves him as the type of darkhorse favorite-turned-failure we see every year after race one.
Race Grade: B. A whipping by Bowyer turned to an exciting game of track position over the final 100 laps. Drivers shuffling through the field while Chasers showcased more aggression than we've seen out of most of them in over a month. Seven Chasers were involved in accidents over a 50-lap stretch, with no one finishing lower than 25th, but a game of low-speed pinball could be a sign that this Chase, if not as close in the standings, might be more intense on the track than in years past.