Friday, Newman and Gordon were the toast of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track where both drivers already have three victories. Newman’s No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was in qualifying trim for all of Friday’s lone 90-minute practice session and it paid off with a pole for Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at the 1.058-mile New England oval.
Gordon was nearly as good, qualifying third behind Newman and Kasey Kahne, Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Given that neither Newman nor Gordon initially were in the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, their fast speeds on Friday set up a potentially interesting storyline: Could one of them actually win the race and go on to capture the championship when it looked like they wouldn’t make the Chase at all?
“Well, it just feels good that we are picking things up,” Gordon said after Friday’s qualifying session. “It’s been an up-and-down season for us; there is no question about that. If you ever want to peak, you want to do it when the Chase comes around.”
Alas, the numbers turned for the worse for the two drivers on Saturday.
In the first of two practices at NHMS Saturday morning, Gordon was just 17th fastest, while Newman was 24th. It didn’t get a whole lot better during the final Happy Hour session, either, with Gordon 14th and Newman 25th. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said all three of the team’s Chevrolets were fighting front-end grip issues.
On the flip side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was very unhappy after qualifying 17th on Friday. In the first round of practice Saturday, though, Earnhardt posted the fastest 10-consecutive-lap average of 131.627 miles per hour. And in Happy Hour, Earnhardt had the fastest single lap, going 133.059 mph.
Also stepping it up was NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Matt Kenseth, second overall in Happy Hour at 132.938 mph. Kenseth also had the fastest 5-, 10- and 15-consecutive-lap averages in Happy Hour.
That’s bad news for the rest of the field, especially the other 12 Chase drivers hoping to knock Kenseth out of the top spot.
Kenseth has added incentive on Sunday: He’ll be making his 500th career Cup start and will drive a special silver No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing/Home Depot Toyota to commemorate the event.
“It's pretty cool that JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Home Depot and everybody signed off on doing it — I didn't really even know they were doing it, so that's pretty cool,” said Kenseth. “I guess it's a milestone — I would rather count wins rather than starts, but it is cool and it's amazing how fast time goes by, and I'm proud to have been able to be here that long. Certainly, a lot of things we want to accomplish.”