Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch – Busch has been on a roll in the second half of the season, only finishing outside the top-10 once since picking up his first win of the season at Pocono in late July. After stumbling last weekend at Chicago to finish 15th, Busch and his No. 18 team came into New Hampshire looking to redeem themselves and that’s exactly what they did.
Starting on pole, Busch led the first 39 laps of the race before Martin Truex, Jr. took over. When Truex was involved in a crash near the end of stage two, Busch re-took the lead by avoiding the mayhem ahead, scoring the stage win and never looking back, leading 148 of the final 151 laps to score the win and automatically advance to the Round of 12.
“It feels great,” said Busch. “This is what it’s all about, you know? We’re supposed to do these things and it feels even better when we can do those things and, you know, we’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities I feel like this year, but today we were able to execute all day long. We were able to get the things that we needed done and can’t say enough about our M&M’s Caramel Camry, you know? This thing was fast, so thanks Interstate Batteries, NOS Energy Drink, DVX Sunglasses, Cessna, the fans and support this area, this race track and everything and for us to be able to run up front all day long with the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) car, that was good. We kind of kept pace with him. I know he had his issue over there on the backstretch. That was a close call for a lot of us, but thankfully we were able to get through that one.”
Toyota Drivers – Along with Busch ending the day in Victory Lane, four Toyota drivers finished the day in the top-six and all but one lap in Sunday’s race was led by a driver with Toyota power under the hood.
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth had another solid run at New Hampshire, scoring his fifth straight top-five finish at the Magic Mile to give himself a hefty 43 point buffer heading to next weekend’s elimination race at Dover.
“After our first run, I felt like we had a third-place car,” said Kenseth. “I thought the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and the 18 (Kyle Busch), you know, could get away pretty good. But I think if we could have gotten in front, it would have been a different story. I just couldn’t restart very good today. That first set of corners, getting through the gears and getting through (Turns) 1 and 2, I’d really struggle and then by the time I was in the 3 and 4, everything was good as long as I could keep that position through 1 and 2, you know? I could actually attack the next time and get them back, but them short runs at the end just kind of got us.”
To say that Martin Truex, Jr. had a rollercoaster of a day would be an understatement. Truex came into New Hampshire with a ton of momentum after winning the playoff opener last weekend at Chicago and looked to be in position to make it two weeks in a row. However, after leading 109 of the first 149 laps, Truex would be swept up in a crash near the end of the second stage, sending him to pit road for repairs.
Even with a damaged car, Truex still drove back into the top-10 in short order and a pit strategy call from crew chief Cole Pearn even got him back in the lead for a few more laps. In the end, Truex would fade to fifth, but still showed it would take more than a fender bender to keep his team down.
“I could not see anything and I was just approaching the smoke and I’m like, ‘Oh no, where am I going to go,” said Truex. “I mean, literally I couldn’t see anything and my spotter said go low. By then, it was kind of too late and I was already like to the smoke and I couldn’t commit. I just kind of like just kept slowing down and the 33 (Jeffrey Earnhardt) just came by me on the outside and hit me and spun me down through there, so just unfortunate, you know? We were coming to the green-white-checkered to win the second stage, which would have been another bonus point, which would be helpful and, of course, you know we had damage and had to fight from the back of the pack the rest of the day, so proud of our effort to run fifth after all that, but it definitely hurt our day.”
Following Truex would be his Furniture Row Racing teammate Erik Jones, who scored the top finish among non-Playoff drivers on Sunday. The rookie has been stout throughout the season and New Hampshire was just another example of that. Starting eighth, Jones kept his car out of trouble all day and brought home a sixth place finish, his 12th top-10 finish of the season.
“I thought we were about a third-place car all day and just kind of missed the adjustment there on that long green flag run and lost some track position, got behind a little bit and then never could quite get the car back the way it was,” said Jones. “Just unfortunate – we just couldn’t close out quite as good as we were running, but a top-10 day, so strong day again for us, but just couldn’t quite close it out.”
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson – While Truex and Kyle Busch have won the first two playoff races to automatically advance to the next round, two other drivers have also clinched a spot in the Round of 12 by accumulating enough points to move on with their top-five finishes at New Hampshire.
Kyle Larson was the lone driver not driving a Toyota to lead a lap on Sunday and once again notched a runner-up finish, his eighth of the year, to move to 81 points above the cut line heading to Dover and advance to the next round.
“I felt like on really long runs I was fairly equal to those guys in front of me,” said Larson. “But, on the short run there, I could get pointed to the exit, but I couldn’t get the throttle down. I’d get loose. So, he just was really good. I think the No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) was also really good, but he had his trouble. The No. 20 (Matt Kenseth) was also good. We were next best. So, we finished second again with our Target Chevy. That’s a lot of second-place finishes this year, but I’m fine with second. Top 5’s will get us to Homestead, so hats off to everybody on our Target team. The pit crew was great all day. I think we gained spots every time. Normally I’m struggling on short tracks, but this year we were pretty good.”
“I mean, obviously you want to win. And, second is the first loser. But, second is also not bad; especially when you get to the Playoffs. Winning is very important, but also consistency is just as important. We got a fifth last week and a second today with even better Stage points, so that was pretty much the day that we needed. Obviously, a win would have been great, but second was just as good.”
Likewise, Keselowski also ran strong at New Hampshire, scoring a fourth place finish, his 12th top-five finish of the season, to leave with more than enough points to advance on in the playoffs. Leaving New Hampshire, the 2012 series champion has a 62 point buffer on 13th place, so no matter what happens next week, he moves on.
“It was great execution,” said Keselowski. “The pit crew was really solid today and a pretty good setup too. Paul Wolfe and the engineers did a good job putting the right stuff under the car. I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup, just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up, but this type of track aerodynamics are a little less important and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”
Kevin Harvick – Harvick came into New Hampshire with a healthy 41 point advantage over the cut-off line. Unfortunately, the 2014 series champion will not be leaving with that points advantage intact.
On lap 149, contact from Austin Dillon sent Harvick spinning off of Turn 2 and in his effort to keep his Ford off the wall, Harvick stood on the gas to try and get the car righted, but the smoke billowing off of his tires would block the track and cause calamity behind him.
Harvick would be impacted by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, locking the two cars together and ending both of their days as they required assistance to separate them.
Now Harvick has just a 25 point lead over the cut-off heading into next week’s elimination race. While that’s still a decent lead, anything can happen when it comes to Dover, so he’s not out of the woods just yet.
“I know as I got sideways there I tried to get thing whoa’d down and pointed in the right direction and it snapped back the other way,” said Harvick. “I tried to lock it down and it was too far up across the race track. I knew I was probably worse off at that particular point, so once it turned back right and I was in trouble I should have just tried to keep it left, but I couldn’t really tell where I was with all the smoke and everything that was happening, but just got hit from behind and spun out.”
“We couldn’t get them unlocked from each other for whatever reason. The cars were locked together, so our Mobil 1 Ford was stuck and we couldn’t get her to back up anymore. I ripped reverse out of it trying to get it to go backwards and it was just stuck together.”
Kurt Busch – While Harvick’s day was bad, Busch’s day was even worse. Entering New Hampshire already in the danger zone by sitting 12th in points, Busch will have an uphill climb if he wants to be able to move on in the playoffs after Dover.
With a 19th place finish at Chicago and Sunday’s 37th place finish, Busch now sits 17 points in arears and is in a virtual must-win situation next weekend at a track where he has won just once in 34 starts.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Busch. “It’s tough when you’re running where we were. We were just trying to limp it to the end of stage two and I heard, ‘Car spinning off of two’ in my ear. I saw smoke up ahead. A lot of times they’ll come back up, and I tried to leave the high side or the low side and then, boom, as soon as the smoke cleared I’m looking at Harvick’s door, my teammate. We’re both running for the Playoffs and it’s a shame that the handling is off and we’re both running where we were, but we were still going to fight all the way to the end, but now we don’t have a chance. I cannot understand the bad luck that we’re having.”
Kasey Kahne – Kahne looked to have a decent day going at New Hampshire, qualifying ninth and running in the top-15 for the majority of the day. However, as he was threatening to break into the top-10 on lap 264, a part failure in the rear suspension of the car sent him behind the wall for repairs.
Though the team got his car repaired and back on track, the damage had already been done, leaving Kahne 35th at the end of the race, 21 points behind in the playoff standings.
“Something broke,” said Kahne. “I think they said trackbar, but that is all I know I didn’t talk to Darien (Grubb, crew chief). But, that is what he had said while we were in the garage. We were working hard. We got really loose that first run and then got control of the car. And then it was really tough to pass, but we worked our way back up and were passing for 12th when that happened. Who knows how the final restarts go and all that, but we were making gains. I think we had a top-10 car if the restarts went the right way otherwise a top 15 and we move on to Dover.”