In the Rearview: More changes, more unknowns
July 15, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
With 20 laps remaining Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it was no surprise that Tony Stewart was out front. The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has a trio of victories at the Magic Mile, and often has used a triumph in the Granite State as a springboard into one of his patented summertime streaks.
No, the real surprise was who was behind him -- Brian Vickers, Aric Almirola, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte, all in the top seven, an unlikely cast of contenders in the final stages of an event on a highly technical track. There was Vickers, a NASCAR Nationwide Series title contender in a part-time Sprint Cup schedule; Almirola, who’s shown promise but led only a single lap all year; Burton, the forgotten man at Richard Childress Racing; and Labonte, who a few weeks ago was watching someone else drive his car.
That Vickers won the race shouldn’t have come as a shock. Under crew chief Rodney Childers, that No. 55 car has been competitive almost every week -- remember that Michael Waltrip finished fifth in the same vehicle the previous weekend at Daytona, and that Vickers was a stout contender at Bristol early in the year. The others, though, haven’t exactly been regular players at the front, lending further credence to a level of tight competition that’s also reflected in the point standings.
As race tracks go, New Hampshire is an interesting beast -- it rewards setup as much or more than any facility on the circuit, and teams who hit on something can check out and leave field behind. While Labonte used a fuel gamble (ultimately, an unsuccessful one) to get to the front, and Almirola took two tires for track position, the fact they were able to hold their positions as long as they were speaks well in a season where every advantage or misstep is magnified.
How else to explain how Stewart can jump six spots -- six! -- and Kurt Busch five in one race at Daytona, almost unheard-of gains at this point in the season. Drivers are rising and falling like a barometer during hurricane season, to the extent that all of seven points separate the first four drivers out of the top 10. Beyond the few championship locks, it’s all so unpredictable that even Burton -- now 17th in points after his second top-five of the season -- believes he still has a chance.
“Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we are the class of the field, but we are definitely making progress and we feel like we are starting to build on something, and we understand what we're looking for now,” he said after finishing third. “… And we don't think we are out of the Chase. I know everybody else in the world does, but we don't. We feel like we can still do it. There's a lot of stuff that's going to happen between now and Richmond. It's so competitive, so tight. Today is a good example.”
Silver lining: It was a brutal result for Kurt Busch, who led a race-best 102 laps before being caught up in the logjam that sent him spinning into the wall. He finished 31st Sunday, giving back all of the positions he had gained the week before. If there was a solace, it was that he had an outstanding car at a track that demands it. The guys on the No. 78 team are turning out great vehicles every week, and it’s seeming more and more likely that Busch will be a player through Richmond. Watch out for these guys at Indianapolis.
Guessing game: Now that we know Ryan Newman won’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing, the speculation begins on where he will land for 2014. Richard Childress clearly seems interested, but that may hinge on whether any of Newman’s current sponsors follow him to what would be a fourth program at RCR. Austin Dillon is moving up from the Nationwide tour, but what that team will look like is still an unknown. Remember, when Dillon moved up from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Childress promoted the program as a whole.
That’s a relief: Did anyone need Sunday’s result as badly as Brad Keselowski? The reigning Sprint Cup champion may still not have a race victory, but he is back in the top 10 after just his second top-five since the whole Texas-rear-end-housing deal. Of course, given how tight everything is, he’s only eight points from again being outside looking in -- particularly perilous given that two drivers with race victories are right behind him. Keselowski still needs a victory before the Chase to bolster his position. Bristol, anyone?
Give ‘em a high-five: Nice job by TNT giving us a long, good look at Vickers celebrating with fans who had their arms stuck through the catchfence. It was a wonderful visual, and the gusto with which the driver traded high-fives with spectators gave us all a real sense of how much the win meant to him. A great way for TNT to bow out this season, since Loudon was the network’s last race before turning things over to ESPN.
Inside the numbers
11: The number of different winners in the last 11 Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire. Vickers’ victory kept alive a streak that dates back to Kurt Busch’s victory there in the summer of 2008. Of course, who knows if the streak would still be intact had Busch’s car not spun into the wall.
75: The number of Sprint Cup starts since Vickers’ last victory, at Michigan International Speedway in August of 2009. That win came with a Red Bull team that’s since shut down and sold off its assets to BK Racing. Vickers’ best finish in between was fourth, at Sonoma last season and Bristol earlier this year, both times in that Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55 car.
14: The number of top-10 finishes Burton now has in 37 career Sprint Cup starts at New Hampshire. The RCR veteran may have experienced some tough times this year, but he’s almost always stout at Loudon, where his four wins remain a track record. He led wire to wire -- yes, all 300 laps -- in a 2000 event that featured restrictor plates as a one-time safety measure.
They said it
“I’m bringing in another one of my friends to the organization, but also knowing that I’m losing a friend at the end of the year to the organization. The number one thing when Ryan and I spoke is that our friendship will not change. This was a business decision.” -- Tony Stewart, in announcing that Kevin Harvick would be with SHR next season, and Ryan Newman would not.
“We talk about how amazing it is to see Mark Martin out there being competitive over 50 years old, but to just go out there and do what he does as far as Morgan is concerned at 71, that’s amazing. And no, you will not see me out there doing that at 71.” -- Jeff Gordon, on Morgan Shepherd running New Hampshire and becoming the oldest starter in Sprint Cup history.
“I was also asked to do the painted section of the (Sports Illustrated) swimsuit issue. I was asked to do that the second year after I was in it the first time. I asked one of my most liberal friends if I should do it and she was like, ‘Um, that’s naked right? Last I checked that’s naked.’ ... That’s just pushing the limit a little bit.” -- Danica Patrick, on her personal guidelines for … well … um … you know.
It’s a wild, wild, Wild Card: Coming out of New Hampshire, Martin Truex Jr. and Tony Stewart own the top two potential Wild Card positions. Jeff Gordon is ranked a spot higher than Stewart in the standings (12th), but he doesn’t yet have a race victory to help his cause. Stewart won earlier this year at Dover, Truex at Sonoma.
Staying in line: In a rare show of stability, the top eight drivers in the Chase race all held their positions coming out of Loudon. The big mover was Keselowski, who jumped four spots to ninth. Gordon also inched up a pair of spots to crack the top 12.
Opposite directions: Keselowski’s teammate at Penske Racing isn’t faring as well. Joey Logano’s free fall continued with a 40th-place finish at New Hampshire, which followed a 40th-place finish at Daytona. He’s dropped from 10th to 18th in points over that span. “We may be down, but we aren’t out,” he wrote on Twitter.
After 14 consecutive weekends on the race track, NASCAR’s premier series takes a well-deserved week off to regroup for one of the most anticipated weeks of the season: the 20th running of the Sprint Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 28, preceded four days earlier by NASCAR’s return to dirt in the Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway. This coming weekend belongs to the Nationwide Series, which will prep for the Brickyard with a 300-mile event Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.