On an overcast Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, NASCAR kicked off its second half of the 2014 season for the Camping World RV Sales 301, where Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Redds Ford Fusion crew looked to lock their into the Chase.
The race started with pole sitter Kyle Busch leading the field to green, setting the pace early on in the Camping World RV Sales 301. Tire problems struck early in the race for contenders Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson. Biffle got loose off the second corner on lap 4, which resulted in some contact with Kurt Busch. As a result, his tire rubbed against the left rear quarter panel, slowing his pace down greatly on the track. His problems were easily fixed and he was eventually able to finish fifteenth.
However, Johnson had a much worse day starting on lap eight when his left rear tire went down. After making his way down pit road for tires on lap seven, nearly five laps later, he crashed in turn one when his right rear went down with heavy left side damage. Fortunately, he walked away from the crash, citing that it wasn't low tire pressure that caused his cut tire.
After the restart on lap 20, Kyle Busch continued to lead the next 41 circuits before Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin took the top position. Keselowski would put the spurs to his No. 2 Ford on lap 74, taking the lead from Hamlin before the first cycle of green flag pit stops. The pride of Rochester Hills, MI dominated the race for much of the next green flag period, rarely surrendering it in green flag conditions.
By lap 113, he had even put all the drivers from 21st and below a lap down. However, the large lead vanished when there was a caution for debris on the track's third corner. While coming into pit road, Kurt Busch overshot his pit stall, forcing the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy to drive through pit lane a second time in order to make his pit stop.
In what was a theme throughout the race, teams tried to roll the dice for track position, doing the opposite of what Keselowski's No. 2 team would plan each stop. Kyle Larson's No. 42 Target Chevy crew assumed command of the race on lap 114 before Matt Kenseth dropped the hammer and grabbed the lead on lap 127. However, that was short lived, as Keselowski would drive his way from 10th to the lead in a matter of 25 laps.
The next yellow flag in a string of cautions came halfway through the race on lap 154, when there was debris spotted on the backstretch. During this round of pit stops, Keselowski's teammate Joey Logano won the race off pit road. On a lap 157 restart, Logano and the leaders climbed up the hill in the second corner, allowing Clint Bowyer to snooker his No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota into the number one spot, which he held for the next 18 laps. Much like Jaws, Keselowski crept his way into the picture, catching and passing Bowyer on lap 177.
Save for a couple of debris cautions and some late race pit gambles by Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, Keselowski was not to be denied from Victory Lane. Even after the see-saw pit strategies during the extended race, it was the 2012 Cup champion who would prevail at "The Magic Mile," while Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson scored a podium finish at Loudon, NH.
Although Keselowski's No. 2 Ford was the dominant car of the race, he noted that it wasn't as easy to make up track position with the opposite pit tactics.
"Well, I knew we had a great car, and you don't take it for granted," Keselowski said. "I think someone else asked me the same question: 'When you kept falling back in the pack did you think it was going to be easy pickings to get up there?'" No, I didn't. I knew it was going to be tough. It seemed like each and every time, it kept getting a little harder, guys keep working on their cars getting a little bit better. From our perspective our car was so fast you hate to do anything to it because something could happen. That was kind of how I was feeling about it, but thankfully we were able to get back up there and make the most of it."
Having come a long ways from their struggles last year, the current Chase Grid points leader gave praise to his Team Penske crew for the great turnaround and results thus far in the 2014 season.
"Yeah, it's gratifying in a lot of ways," Keselowski said. "I don't think it's just that we have three wins. I think that it's that we're leading laps. I think we were fast last year at this time, but we weren't executing. This year we're executing which is really important, as well, and we have a lot of momentum and I think we have a lot of potential still left in our team that we've got to keep working to get to because everybody is going to turn it up a notch when the Chase comes, and we know that, and we need to have another gear to grab to be able to run for a championship here in 2014.
I think we're close, but I want to keep pushing, and I'm committed to getting another championship. I know Roger (Penkse) and Paul (crew chief) sitting next to me are committed to it, and we want to make it happen. It's a good feeling for sure."
Meanwhile, runner-up Kyle Busch noted that his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota team had some ground to make up on short tracks, feeling that their program "decreased," although Sunday's finish wasn't indicative of such.
"Yeah, this weekend here was a positive," Busch said. "Like I said, Denny made a test and we were a little bit better at Kentucky. We made some changes to our race car and got better and were able to finish second there, as well. The last two races for us (at Loudon) we've been second, but it would be nice to get up there and lead some more laps, be a little bit more dominant and show that we've got a little bit better car than where we're running. We'll get there hopefully. It's not quite time to get ready to have to go for the Chase, but it's about that time, so we've got a few weeks."
Third-place finisher Kyle Larson noted the importance of the track position game, as his No. 42 team wasn't shy to call some risky calls early in the going.
"Yeah, I noticed when we made that call to get in the lead," Larson said. "I noticed clean air was a decent help, not as much as other racetracks because we aren't carrying as much speed, but when I was back in traffic I thought I was a little bit looser off the corners than I was when I was in the lead. Yeah, I mean, clean air helps anywhere you're at, whether it's Martinsville or Daytona."
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Other notable finishers included Carl Edwards (13th), Jeff Burton (20th), Jeff Gordon (26th), and Kevin Harvick (30th). Following the upcoming weekend-off, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit kicks off 17 straight weeks of racing, starting with the Brickyard 400 (Sunday, July 27th at 12 PM EST on ESPN).
Here's a look at the current Chase Grid after Round 19 at Loudon, NH:
- Brad Keselowski (3 wins)
- Jimmie Johnson (3 wins)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins)
- Carl Edwards (2 wins)
- Joey Logano (2 wins)
- Kevin Harvick (2 wins)
- Jeff Gordon (1 win)
- Kyle Busch (1 win)
- Denny Hamlin (1 win)
- Aric Almirola (1 win)
- Kurt Busch (1 win)
- Matt Kenseth
- Ryan Newman
- Clint Bowyer
- Paul Menard
- Kyle Larson