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Can Bowyer catch up to Johnson?
Crew chief Brian Pattie isn’t giving up on the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship without a fight.
With eight races before the Chase followed by 10 races to decide the title, Pattie believes the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team with Clint Bowyer will continue to be a formidable opponent.
And this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Bowyer has two wins to his credit, is no exception.
Although Jimmie Johnson has a 49-point lead over second-place Bowyer, the 5-Hour ENERGY crew leapfrogged over the No. 48 team in the 2012 season finale to finish second in the point standings to last year’s champion Brad Keselowski.
“Jimmie’s not unstoppable,” Pattie said. “Sure, you can’t take anything away from him. He’s the Tiger Woods of NASCAR just like the King (Richard Petty) was Jack Nicklaus. But we’re certainly not going to give it to him.
“We’ve saved all of our tests so we’ll be ramped up for the Chase.”
Pattie jokes that he’s already warned his wife she’ll be a single parent from August through November when the season ends. Not coincidentally, the team’s first test is scheduled for the week before Labor Day at Chicagoland Speedway – the track that kicks off NASCAR’s 10-race "playoff" system.
Over the first half of the season, Pattie has used the time to massage his inventory of Generation 6 cars in order to bring his best pieces to the track. Over the last few months he’s created new Camrys for Indianapolis, Michigan and Watkins Glen.
And what about his Loudon car?
“She’s a beauty,” said Pattie of the chassis that finished second at Martinsville on April 7. “She always finishes in the top five. She’s fast and smart and she’s never let me down.”
Pattie shares a similar sentiment towards Bowyer. While the pair has only been together since the start of the 2012 season, Pattie believes that Bowyer “is as good as he’s ever been” behind the wheel and the relationship has “been solid since Day 1.”
“We have a lot of fun together,” Pattie said. “I don’t have to preach to him that you must first finish a race to finish first. He knows exactly what to do. I don’t have to worry about him, which means I can concentrate entirely on the cars.”
Bowyer, who claims to be “a calculator in terms of managing risk versus reward,” should not give Pattie much to worry about this weekend, either. Bowyer has a stellar record at the track, including his two wins – one from the pole in 2007 where he led 222 of 300 laps. In his first two starts with Pattie and MWR, Bowyer finished third in July and fourth in September.
Plus, Bowyer was one of five drivers who tested at the "Magic Mile" in May along with Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano. Although Goodyear hoped to find a tire that would wear down over the course of a fuel run, engineers elected to bring the same combination of tires back this weekend that were raced last year. That’s fine with Pattie, who acknowledged that “Goodyear makes just too good of a tire.”
Still, Bowyer is one of just three drivers among the top 10 in the point standings without a win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch have yet to win as well. Even without a win, he believes that as the Chase approaches there will be enough cushion to gamble on victories.
“If you would have told me coming into the year that we’d be where we are now, I would have taken that,” Bowyer said. “I thought our cars were off the first 10-12 races of the year. Would I take not winning yet – probably not. We had a great shot at winning Martinsville, but in the middle of the race we got into a little wreck that probably cost us a victory there. We could have won Richmond. There’s races we could have won and we didn’t.
“You can’t take anything away from Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, because those guys execute and they perform flawlessly. That said, we are still in the middle of them in points so we must be doing something correctly.”
And while a victory would elevate Bowyer once bonus points from wins are calculated and the drivers are seeded before the Chase, Pattie doesn’t seem concerned.
“I’m just glad we’re not sitting eighth to 15th – that’s where the real battle is right now,” Pattie said. “For some of those guys, it might give them momentum entering the Chase or they might use all of their energy just trying to get in like (Jeff) Gordon did last year.
“For us, we’re just going to race and have fun. We know who’s in and who’s out. It’s just a matter of watching how they race. We’re still on kill. We know we got to get going and get a win. Brad Keselowski hasn’t won yet either. But we’ll get one. I’m not worried about it.”
Joey Logano is hoping to get back on the Chase track this weekend at New Hampshire.
After posting six consecutive finishes of 11th or better, a blown right front tire took the Penske Racing driver out of contention and to a 40th-place finish. Just one week earlier, Logano leapfrogged over teammate and defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski to return in the Chase Zone (the top 10 in the point standings) for the second time this season. Now, he sits 15th.
Although Logano’s first career Cup win came in just his 20th career Cup start at the "Magic Mile" – not far from where he grew up in Connecticut – he acknowledged, “New Hampshire has always been a frustrating race track for me."
“It’s my home race track, but I’ve never really liked it because it’s just a very hard race track to get your car to do the right thing,” Logano said. “You’ve got a very flat track. You’ve got a lot of transitions within the seams, but we were able to make it better.”
Not only was Logano one of five drivers that participated in the Goodyear tire test in May - the No. 22 Shell Ford returned with Penske teammate Brad Keselowski for additional seat time. The organization felt it was necessary to use one of their tests to improve the odds of both drivers making the Chase.
“We were both pushing for it,” Logano said. “We talked about it just because it’s an important race to get in the Chase and then it’s in the Chase, and they’re fairly close together, so it makes sense to do that. And I didn’t feel good about the tire test. We were there, and the 15 car (Clint Bowyer) was rocket-ship fast, and we felt we needed to come back and work on things. Hopefully, it’ll be decent. We’ll see.”
Not only is Kurt Busch’s momentum picking up as a driver, he’s earning new fans along the way…
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7.9: Average finish of Denny Hamlin at New Hampshire – the best among active drivers in the Cup series.
36: Sprint Cup races held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since the track first opened in 1989.
146: Different drivers have at least one start at the ‘Magic Mile’ with four drivers competing in all 36 events including Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Joe Nemechek.
Along with Dover, New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. considers New Hampshire one of his family’s home tracks. Watching his father Martin race at the ‘Magic Mile’ helped instill his love of the sport.
“New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a place I’ve had a lot of success at,” said Truex Jr. “I’ve won races there along with both my father and my brother. It’s a Truex track and it’s a really special place for me. I have a lot of special memories going there as a kid. There is nothing like watching your father work on his car and right across from him is Dale Earnhardt Sr.”