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.