It seems like only two weeks ago that Tony Stewart was saying he didn't care if he made the Chase because there was no chance of him winning a race let alone the championship on his current form, and pretty much everyone agreed with him.
Actually - it was
just two weeks ago. But what's changed is that Tony Stewart not only made the Chase, he's gone on to promptly sweep the first two post-season races, jump to the top of the points standings - and leave everyone on pit road agape wondering at just what the heck is going on here. Could it be that the two-time champ is actually on track to make it a title hat-trick that no one saw coming?
"We've got a shot at this thing," a shocked Stewart finally admitted - to himself as much as the assembled media - after claiming the lead with two to go when Clint Bowyer ran dry in an exact reversal of what happened here 12 months ago.
The drama for one of the Chase contenders had started even before the green flag came out, when Kurt Busch's #22 failed pre-race inspection over an issue with the rear of the car. While the Penske team didn't appear duly concerned and calmly worked to rectify the issue, the delay and uncertainty seemed to get to Busch who was caught swearing on camera at an ESPN crew that got in his way.
"NASCAR wasn't 100 percent happy with what they saw on one of their gauges that kind of checks where the rear end is in the car, so we had to do a little work on it," explained Penske Racing Competition Director Travis Geisler. "It's a 'go' or 'no-go' type of gauge and it didn't go."
Seemingly not happy with the lateness of the #22's arrival to inspection in the first place, NASCAR didn't get around to re-inspecting and clearing the car for another hour - just 10 minutes before the scheduled time for cars to roll out from pit lane, and it left Busch in a seething mood once the race got underway that he vented over the team radio as the cars rolled round to take the green.
Ryan Newman was on the front row along with non-Chase driver Kasey Kahne, and the #39 duly led for the first 62 laps of the Sunday afternoon Sylvania 300 at the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. It was a remarkably nice day - blue skies and sunshine, which led some spectators to quip that they didn't even recognise NHMS in such dazzling conditions, and it certainly had an effect on the cars many of which were simply not handling how their drivers expected them to after all the cool, grey practice and qualifying sessions. Kyle Busch was one of those affected, and after dominating the Truck race on Saturday he was unable to achieve anything like that sort of form for the Cup event.
Newman's run in front came to an end with the first pit stops under green, which saw him relegated to fifth place 13s behind new race leader Kasey Kahne after the stops had worked their way through. Kahne stayed out in front through to the first caution on lap 86, which was not - as had looked likely - for Dave Blaney's engine blowing up two laps previously, but for a more mundane debris problem in turn 1.
Mark Martin and Juan Montoya opted not to pit under the caution and led Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Newman to the green flag for the restart on lap 91. Martin nicely kept himself out of danger up in front while behind him it was a cluster of two- and three-wide battles until things settled down and Kahne was able to give chase to the #5, although as strong as Kahne was it wasn't until lap 134 that he was finally able to dive down the inside of Martin to retake the lead. By that point Martin was in any case about ready to head to pit road for his delayed pit stop, Montoya having already made his excuses and made his stop a few laps earlier. That left Kahne in front of Gordon, Newman and Harvick, but it was no time at all before for the bulk of the field had to come in for their next round of green flag pit stops as well. By lap 156 Brad Keselowski had just come in leaving just Gordon in the lead yet to pit, when a caution came out for a spin by Landon Cassill in turn 2.
The timing of the caution - before the completion of this round of pit stops - resulted in only five cars being shown on the lead lap, so Kevin Harvick received the lucky-dog free pass back onto the lead lap and many others received the wave-around onto the lead lap as well by virtue of opting not to pit under the caution. Gordon was on to pit road, as were Martin and Montoya again as it was essentially a free stop and put them back on-sync with the other runners.
Once all this was sorted out it was Kahne back in the lead ahead of Jeff Gordon, David Ragan, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick for the restart on lap 162. Gordon used his fresher tyres to pass Kahne at the restart, and he had built up a 1.6s lead over Kahne when the third (and, it proved, final) caution came out on lap 173 when Matt Kenseth spun after contact from his Roush Fenway Racing team mate Carl Edwards - who had simply carried too much speed out of turn 1 and run into the back of the #17. Both cars escaped without serious damage.
"I feel really dumb for running in to him, but I'm glad it worked out for both of us," said Edwards. "If Matt doesn't retaliate, we'll be really good!"
"That was no big deal," said Kenseth, with no such thoughts of payback entering his mind. "I was having a little bit of brake fade, and I backed up extra early. I didn't expect it, or I probably could have saved it, but that was no big deal. Those things happen."
Jeff Gordon was now leading Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle, with the top nine all having stayed out. Harvick in tenth was the highest of those that had pitted for fuel but no tyres (which meant he lost positions at the restart to those behind him on fresher rubber), while Jimmie Johnson was all the way back in 19th after having stopped for four tyres as well as gas.
Now the race all started to focus down once again on fuel conservation, with the crew chiefs of those cars that had pitted soon on the team radios to say that they wanted to try running to the chequered flag on just one more stop - but it would be tight. Those that hadn't just pitted - like Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon - were looking at two stops, which meant that they would have to run hard to pull out the necessary margin over the others.
Things were getting tense: Jimmie Johnson snapped at his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus to quit the "annoying" cheer-leading radio communications, and Ryan Newman and his crew chief Tony Gibson were also having to make up and apologise to each other for bickering.
Newman's team mate and car owner Tony Stewart, meanwhile, was suddenly looking oddly strong in this stage of the race. He passed Greg Biffle for seventh on lap 195 and looked good on fuel too. Stewart finally had to pit for fuel on lap 228 at the same time as David Ragan; Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle had made their stops on the preceding laps and were on the very limit of making it.
Gordon's run in the lead lasted to lap 230 when he finally had to surrender a six second lead to come in. But he'd left it too late, and the car ran out of gas on pit road and took an age to get the fuel in and pumping properly, and suddenly his shot at a win was just so much vapour.
Kurt Busch was the last car to come in during this round of stops, and when he pitted on lap 246 it put the off-sync two-stopper Kahne back in front briefly. But Clint Bowyer had been planning for this moment and he smoothly moved into the lead down the inside four laps later, with Tony Stewart following him through into second place - and the two would go on to maintain those positions for the next 48 laps.
It looked as though Bowyer had this one clinched - that he had enough in reserve to hold off Stewart. But Stewart continued to apply the pressure, hoping for a slight error from Bowyer or possibly just driving the #33 over the edge on fuel. After all, last year Stewart has been on course to win when he
had run dry on the final lap and handed the victory to Bowyer. Maybe the gods would restore the balance of fortune this time around? It was worth a try.
Boy, was it ever worth a try. With two laps to go, Smoke's prayers were indeed answered and Bowyer's car ceased to have even fumes to run on. The car choked and crawled for pit lane and Stewart was released to take the white flag and then run the final mile to claim the chequered. For a man who just a fortnight ago couldn't find victory lane with a SatNav and a guide dog, suddenly Stewart couldn't miss it. For a second week in a row.
"If that's not a flip-flop from last year, I don't know what is!" Stewart said to Grubb over the car radio. He could relate all-too-well to the anguish Bowyer was feeling, but he couldn't dwell on that: "That's not the way you want to win, but we're in the Chase now, and we've got to get everything we can get."
A buoyant Grubb revealed that the #14 still had a good two laps' worth of gas on board to cover them in the event of a green-white-chequered that had never materialised. "It's just a huge day for the entire team to battle back from all the adversity we had in the middle of the year," he said.
It was Stewart's 41st win in 456 Cup starts, the eighth for his Stewart/Haas team with crew chief Darian Grubb. And he'd done it by leading just two of the 300 laps of the race - Jeff Gordon took the bonus point for most laps led with 78 in front, followed by Ryan Newman for his 62-lap stint in front at the start of the race and then Clint Bowyer for his so-near run of 49 laps in the lead at the end.
The win puts Stewart into the lead of the Chase championship points battle despite his lack of any wins bonus points coming in. He finally overtakes Kevin Harvick in the Chase, after the #29 struggled with fuel mileage and managed only 12th place by the end after having run in the top five for long stretches during the afternoon. Other Chase contenders had similar problems: by the time Bowyer's fuel ran dry with two to go, Denny Hamlin had also run out of gas a lap earlier and both Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had fallen out of contention with flat tyres in the final laps.
But Brad Kesewloski had run an impressive second half of the race to steadily gain in positions, and as others fell away he took advantage to finish in a comfortable second place ahead of Greg Biffle who also ran out of gas in the final seconds but held on to third, while Jeff Gordon - who had clearly been the strongest car out there for a big part of the race - had to settle for fourth place ahead of Red Bull's Brian Vickers. Matt Kenseth recovered from that mid-race spin to lead his Roush Fenway team mates David Ragan and Carl Edwards to a formation finish in sixth, seventh and eighth ahead of Juan Montoya who had made the best of that off-sync call during the cautions to finish in the top ten.
That makes for good news for Brad Keselowski who rises to third in the Chase race, despite also missing out on wins bonus points coming in (his three race win credits were 'burned up' in having to use the wildcard to make the Chase in the first place). Jeff Gordon's the biggest mover this week among the Chase contenders, rallying from the aftermath of a disappointing Chicagoland to climb six spots to fifth place. That puts him just ahead of a three-way battle for sixth in the points between Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Busch never had a race-winning car and was involved in a gripping battle for 13th with Jimmie Johnson when the two made hard contact on lap 279; Busch somehow managed to avoid spinning out, but Johnson came off the worst for it with damage to his suspension for the remainder of the race.
"He was being a bit stubborn ... Just racing really hard, which was just what he's supposed to do" Johnson said of Kyle. "I had gotten inside of him the lap before and had some contact and he was running it really, really tight through the corner and as we got off into 3, he was so tight next to me getting in, it took the air off the spoiler and I was out of control before we ever really got to the turn."
Johnson dropped back to 18th place by the chequered flag which bumps him down to tenth place in the Chase - the lowest he's ever been in the post-season battles he's been involved in. Suddenly the prospects for a sixth consecutive title for Johnson look very much diminished.
By contrast to Kyle's decent 11th place at Loudon, his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin had a second dreadful Chase outing and ended up in 29th after running dry with three to go, which means he's 66pts off Tony Stewart. It is, effectively, already all over for Hamlin, and he knows it. As for Kurt Busch, he never did really get back into the game after that pre-race upset in inspection. "It was a frustrating day," he admitted. "[The car] was certainly a handful. The front tyres felt like they were on skids, and the car was ploughing through the corners. We were late going through inspection, and that set the tone for our day."
But what about Tony Stewart - is he really the favourite now? Perhaps that's going a little too far, but he points out that the #14's current run of form goes back further than just the two wins: "It's not just these two races of the Chase, it's the two leading up before it, too ... We haven't finished outside the top seven the last four weeks. That's huge for us."
It's certainly huge for the Chase, because it's this type of form - timed for the right moment like this - that really does win championships in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.
"It's way too early to be counting chickens right now," Stewart insisted. But then, he would - it's the underdog card he's been playing all season long, and it might be the strategy that sees him stop the record-setting run of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson by the time the season ends at Homestead-Miami on November 20 after just eight more races.
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