Race Capsule: Chase Race 2 - Kenseth takes Dover, but others' mistakes matter more
Flag to Flag: Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was a very mundane race - well at least most of it was. Carl Edwards (5th) won the pole and led the opening laps, then the race-dominator Kevin Harvick (21st) assumed the point on lap 20 and led 216 of the day's 300 laps. The action really did not thicken until different Chase drivers' days, including Harvick's, hit the skids.
Just after halfway, Kyle Busch (37th) cut a tire and creamed the wall on lap 160. His team repaired the car and he gained two spots from rejoining the race, courtesy of Danica Patrick's (40th) and David Ragan's (41st) lap 205 crunch fest. Busch was not the first driver to cut a tire on the low-banked, one-mile, heavy-braking track. The high brake usage often melts beads and cuts right-front tires. That fate also befell Aric Almirola (43rd), Alex Bowman (42nd), Justin Allgaier (39th), and Tony Stewart (11th).
Jimmie Johnson (6th) cut a left-front tire and had to pit under green after the midpoint of the race, but cautions allowed the No. 48 team to catch up and salvage a good run.
The next problem to derail Chase drivers was fuel mileage. Matt Kenseth (1st) and Denny Hamlin (2nd) were among drivers that used pit strategy to gain track position, but they pitted later to ensure fuel to finish. Harvick pitted on lap 212 when those others stayed out, but tried to gain his lost track position back by not pitting for the rest of the race. That plan worked for Greg Biffle (4th), but Harvick's tank ran dry with under three laps to go. Harvick now enters Dover in a near must-win scenario, as he trails 12th-in-points Dale Earnhardt Jr. (25th) by 23 points. Only the top 12 of the 16 Chase drivers advance to the next playoff round in the Chase. By the way, Earnhardt Jr. also ran out of fuel, spoiling his decent run and making the No. 88 team nervous heading into the Dover race. Kurt Busch (19th) also ran out of gas at the end, spoiling a top 10 run.
When Harvick ran out of gas, Kenseth was there to secure his 5th win of the year and Joe Gibbs Racing's fourth-straight Cup victory and astounding 10th in the last 13 races. 2nd-place finisher Hamlin won last week at Chicagoland, so Kenseth and he are both assured a spot in the next Chase round. The rest of the top 10 were: Joey Logano (no laps led, but solid entire race), Greg Biffle (used pit strategy and stretched fuel to score just third top 5 of year), Edwards (came back from pit penalty to continue strong run), Johnson (came back from unscheduled green flag stop), Jeff Gordon (broke Ricky Rudd's consecutive starts streak and rebounded from early struggles), Martin Truex Jr. (ran in back of top 10 all day), Kasey Kahne (first top 10 since Dover in June), and Ryan Newman (again lurked quietly in this spot most of the race).
The rest of the Chase drivers unmentioned, so far, struggled. Brad Keselowski rebounded from getting a black flag for jumping a restart to finish 11th, an impressive feat considering how hard passing was Sunday. Jamie McMurray tried to gamble on fuel and briefly got into the top 5, but finished 14th and is now 11th in points, one marker ahead of Earnhardt Jr., who is one point ahead of Paul Menard. Menard sits just on the outside of the top 12 in points, after his quiet 15th place New Hampshire run. Clint Bowyer's struggles continue: he made a late green flag stop and finished 26th. His two bad runs, combined with the 25 point penalty for unapproved parts on his racecar last week at Chicagoland, leave Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team 39 points from 12th-in-points, making Dover a race they have to win to advance.
The late drama made notched this race up the scales and certainly the pressure is there for Harvick, Ky. Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the like. But as we have seen the last two weeks, anything can happen to anyone.
RaceTweet: Matt Kenseth steals New Hampshire Chase win, as Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., and Ky. Busch falter.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick - After his Chicagoland wreck, Harvick and the No. 4 team were pretty much in must-win mode at New Hampshire. They came 2.5 laps short, running out of fuel just before the finish, after leading 216 of the 300 laps. Crew chief Rodney Childers took to Twitter post-race, saying that their calculations showed they had enough fuel to make the end of the race and that Harvick had saved enough. He says either they must not have gotten the car full or something must have changed in the fuel cell. Likewise, the No. 4 team brought the heat at New Hampshire and just didn't close the deal. If they can execute at Dover, they will probably have the speed again to win.
North Korean Missile Dud: Kyle Busch - The July NHMS winner never got up front and cut a tire and finished 37th. Busch notoriously has never won a Chase race, but this season seems different, with JGR cars running so well. Busch seemed a lock to run really well at NHMS and fell short. Now, like Harvick, a popular pick to be one of the final four contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway is in serious doubt of leaving the first round.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Casey Mears - 18th place is not much to write home about, but Mears avoided getting lapped multiple times, unlike a lot of the smaller teams, finishing last on the lead lap. Justin Allgaier was having a nice top 10 run, but his cut tire doomed his day, in what appears to be one of his final races in the No. 51 car.
Ghost Driver: Kyle Larson - The No. 42 car started 6th and ran in the top 10 on the first run of the race - then Larson fell back to finish 18th and stayed in or near that spot almost the entire rest of the race. The plaid paint scheme on the Target Chevy was not enough to make it stand out or be relevant.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Jimmie Johnson - The cut tire and subsequent green flag stop should have ended the No. 48's chance at contention. But late cautions allowed Johnson a free pass back onto the lead lap at lap 212 and a chance to pass cars and finish 6th. They haven't been quickest, but Johnson is leading the Hendrick Motorsports quiet charge and comeback.
Wheel of Misfortune: David Ragan and Danica Patrick - Lap 205 saw Gordon get into Newman, who got into Patrick's car. She nailed the wall and then rolled down the track, so she was unfortunate enough. Then, figuring she would stop, Ragan looked low, but she backed into his path and Ragan took the rear off of her car. The contact also ripped the right door panel off of the No. 55 and sent foam all over the track. Both drivers got caught up in a racing deal and paid the price.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Matt Kenseth - Harvick appeared primed to win and Kenseth stole it away, just as he did at Pocono a few weeks ago. But this win means more and propels him to the next round, though the No. 20 is running well enough to get there anyway.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: The timing is the only surprise in the Tony Stewart retirement announcement. 2016 will be his last season in the No. 14 Chevy. The speculation has been rampant for over a year that Stewart was kicking around the retirement idea and that ticked up in August, when Clint Bowyer became available after MWR's closure announcement. But the 2016 season has to happen first.
Stewart will be on his farewell tour, but, if the stats from the past three seasons show anything, will likely struggle. Meanwhile Bowyer, who reportedly will bring sponsor 5-Hour Energy with him to the No. 51 Chevy of HScott Motorsports, will languish with a smaller team for a year and then drive the No. 14. Stewart has a Wednesday press conference scheduled to confirm at least some of the details.
Bowyer has no real good options and will have a throwaway season in middle of his prime, as Kasey Kahne did in 2011 with Team Red Bull, as he awaited the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports ride. But the driver getting the real shaft is current No. 51 driver Justin Allgaier, who seemingly has sponsor Brandt attached to him and has performed decently for the team. HSM started the No. 46 team with driver Michael Annett this season and his sponsor Pilot Travel Centers. Annett is confirmed back with the team in 2016 and he has struggled way more than Allgaier. Keeping Annett and letting the similarly-sponsored Allgaier walk does not seem to make sense. But having Bowyer and the money from his sponsor does. Where all the dominoes fall will be fun to watch, but one has to hate that Allgaier is getting the short end of the stick here.
Georgia On My Mind: David Ragan was the lone Georgia driver in Sunday's race and the Danica Patrick crash cut his day short. He finished 41st, but was having a slow day before that. Ragan also pitted with a flat tire not long before the wreck. The day just was not his. Ragan also is 26th in points, despite having a solid ride at MWR and having run some races for Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car.
Georgia drivers in the Xfinity Series race won by Ryan Blaney had a better fate at Kentucky Speedway. Chase Elliott was money on restarts, but slow on pit road and finished 4th, gaining a few points on leader Chris Buescher. He is 3rd in the standings, trailing by 25. Brandon Jones, who announced a full-time deal with Richard Childress Racing's NXS 2016 program, came to life near race's end, leading 16 laps and placing 5th. Ryan Sieg capitalized on late cautions to climb inside the top 10 and finish 12th. He says his RSS Racing team shop may soon move about 30 minutes north of Tucker to Sugar Hill to get more space in the offseason.
The New Hampshire Camping World Truck Series was dominated by Austin Dillon (winner) and Kyle Busch and Georgia drivers struggled. John Wes Townley crashed, finishing 26th and Korbin Forrister start-and-parked to 29th.
Garrett Smithley announced Saturday that he will make his NXS debut at Homestead in November in Derrike Cope Racing's No. 70 car. Smithley will also run his 4th NCWTS race again in the No. 63 Mittler Bros. entry.
NXS RaceTweet: Ryan Blaney was drove to the front and survived restarts to win again at Kentucky.
NCWTS: Cup drivers dominate and Austin Dillon takes the New Hampshire truck race.
Next: Dover International Speedway is on tap for the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series. The NXS cars run Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN and the NSCS teams run Sunday at 2 p.m. on NBCSN. The NCWTS races a standalone event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday at 10:00 p.m. on FS1. All races can be heard on radio on MRN and SiriusXM Channel 90.