Stewart-Haas shines, Junior's fall continues and more N.H. lessons
Ryan Newman and team owner/teammate Tony Stewart finished 1-2 at Loudon
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s road to the Chase got tougher as he fell to ninth in points
For the third time, Kyle Busch lost the points lead one week after seizing it
LOUDON, N.H. -- It was the kind of weekend that lightens moods and quickens the pace on a Monday morning. The Stewart-Haas Racing shop figures to be to a happy workplace after Ryan Newman milked enough fuel mileage at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to win in the No. 39 Chevrolet for the first time this season and team owner/teammate Tony Stewart chased in just behind, just like they started the race.
Newman, who gained one spot to a slightly-more-secure eighth in the Sprint Cup driver standings, said he was never concerned watching Stewart attempting to catch him.
"I wasn't nervous," he said. "I'd rather have Stewart behind me than anybody else. I have a lot of respect for him. I know the way he races. If we were side by side coming to the checkered, we'd have smoke coming off the fenders, because that's the kind of guys we are. We're not going to crash each other, but that's the kind of guys we are."
Stewart, still winless in 2011, but entering his most historically fruitful portion of the schedule, remained in the 11th points position with his second runner-up finish of the season.
"I was happy, period," he said. "I mean, you know when you're in that situation as an organization, it can't get any better than that. I can promise you, I didn't leave anything out there. That was as hard as I could run till the end. I couldn't get the rest of the way. I couldn't get any further than that."
Five things we learned at Loudon, N.H.:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s situation grows more perilous. Earnhardt Jr.'s slide down the points standings continues. He was third in points after finishing second at Kansas seven races ago and remained there for three weeks. But subsequent results of 21st, 41st, 19th, 30th and 15th on Sunday -- impacted by a late pit road penalty -- have dropped him to ninth, just seven points out of 11th place. The menacing part of that equation for Earnhardt Jr. is the fact that he is now the only winless driver currently in the top 10 after Newman's first victory. Earnhardt Jr. will qualify for the Chase for the Championship automatically if he can mark time for seven more regular season races, but his trend line is currently suggesting otherwise. Two drivers with the most wins from points positions 11-through-20 will qualify as wild cards and Daytona winner David Ragan (14th) provisionally possesses one. Among the winless drivers Earnhardt Jr. would then need to beat to a win would be Stewart, who has 17 wins at the next seven tracks before the Chase begins. Stewart currently holds one wild card by standing 11th in points.
"Yeah, that's pretty tight," Earnhardt Jr. conceded, "so we'll have to keep an eye on that."
2. Kyle Busch can't hold a points lead very long. He assumed the points lead in the second race of the season after finishing second at Phoenix. Busch finished 38th the next event at Las Vegas because of an engine issue and tumbled to 14th in the standings. He took the lead back after finishing third at Martinsville. Busch slipped to second the next race after finishing 16th at Texas. He wrested away the points lead again by winning from the pole last weekend at Kentucky. On Sunday, Busch rammed the wall because of a tire failure, finished 36th and plummeted four spots in the standings. Still aspiring to win his first Sprint Cup championship, perhaps Busch should hope he doesn't pass for the points lead until the checkered flag at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
3. Brad Keselowski is having trouble cashing the golden ticket. Keselowski entered Sunday's race just three points from 20th place and a provisional wild-card berth because of his win at Kansas. The victim of one of several tire bead failures on Sunday, Keselowski fell to 25 points out of the boundary.
4. Jimmie Johnson is ready for the playoffs (even if his team isn't) and he's not in a good mood about things. Perhaps Johnson's inner processor computed "Loudon, N.H." and simply engaged Chase mode. After all, the track has hosted the first playoff race since the system began in 2004 and Johnson has dominated the format, winning five titles consecutively and finishing second and fifth once each. Although New Hampshire slides to the second slot in the 10-race playoff this season, Johnson's autopilot served him well on Sunday, as he overcame multiple missteps to salvage a potentially miserable day into a fifth-place finish and three-spot jump to second in the points standings.
Johnson led 19 laps early in the race by eschewing a pit sequence under caution, but a long green-flag run forced him to refuel under green, dropping him to 35th and a lap down. Johnson had recouped to seventh on Lap 207 of 301 but was stung by recurrent pit crew problems again on Lap 218 as he was penalized for a missing lug nut. Johnson surrendered a ninth restart position and fell into the field, then spun on Lap 240 when he claimed Juan Pablo Montoya cut down on him. Johnson restarted 30th, made contact with Bobby Labonte with 35 laps left but inched through the field to close out fifth finish of seven or better in his last seven races.
"I was just driving my guts out, man. Anything that could have gone wrong today did," he said. "It started out with a bad qualifying effort on Friday and we paid the price for that on pit road and track position at the start; and then we had some issues on pit road. And then [Montoya], I don't think of the three times he's wrecked me it's been intentional, but he's out of Mulligans and I've had enough of 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and you're spun out. It's happened way too often to the No. 48. Hopefully we can get that corrected moving forward and still among all that stuff going on, we rallied back to fifth. And we did it the hard way, by passing cars."
5. Bruton Smith will unrepentantly wield the Kentucky Speedway traffic debacle for his advantage. Smith was an amusing, quixotic eccentric when he titled against NASCAR's power structure, but with that adversarial relationship largely gone since Brian France's ascension to the league chairmanship, the billionaire is revealed more each year as a hypocritical opportunist. In an awkward news conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, Smith eventually expressed sympathy for the scores of fans that never even made it into Kentucky Speedway's first Cup race because of woeful traffic mismanagement, but also strongly signaled that he would press for government-funded upgrades to I-71 although Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear asserted that Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s traffic plan was the real issue. At worst, Smith had three years and data from 11 Nationwide races, 12 truck races and 11 Izod IndyCar series races to assess the impact of a crowd of 107,000 last weekend. (He claims the crowd was nearly 150,000). Smith also not so subtly hinted he could jilt all those ticket-buyers by taking the Kentucky date to Las Vegas if he wasn't appeased. Smith said unused tickets will not be refunded because "we don't want to." NASCAR could fix the whole thing by not awarding Smith the Kentucky date again next season. At least Smith would have an adversary his own size to wrestle again.