From fuel gambles to restart rules, DW breaks down the Chase race at NHMS
Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was rather interesting for a lot of different reasons. Certainly Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing continue to steamroll the competition. Not only was it Matt’s 36th win, but it was his fifth of the season, making him the winningest driver to date in 2015. What’s even more remarkable, Matt has won four of the last eight races.
Kevin Harvick dominated the race leading 216 laps, but it all slipped through their fingers there at the end. Last week they had a tire rub following the incident with Jimmie Johnson but elected not to pit and it put Kevin in the wall plus a 42nd-place finish. Sunday they should have pitted inside their pit window, not on the outside looking in or even when it’s marginal, because after last week’s race, Kevin had a lot of ground to make up.
I think what’s happened to the No. 4 car is a clear example of the intensity and pressure of performing in the Chase. You only have three chances in three races to put yourself in position to move on to the next round. So Kevin and the No. 4 team are in an extremely deep hole and it would be a shame if they were unable to advance. They’ve basically had the dominant car for the last two years, until these two bad finishes which, unfortunately, come at the start of the Chase.
Basically they have put themselves in a position where they are probably going to have to win this weekend at Dover for a chance to advance. We know the performance of that car, driver and team is there, but having to do it at Dover, of all places, sure is a tall order.
Now the upside is that the No. 4 car has experience with this kind of pressure. We saw Kevin with his back to the wall last year in the Chase having to win to move on and he did. We even saw Kevin have to win at Homestead, our last race of the season, to win the championship and he did. So they’ve done it before, but the question becomes is there enough luck in the ‘Luck Bank’ left to do it again?
There’s also the outside possibility that a really high finish, even though it’s not a win, could do the trick, if those other cars mired in the back of the points with him had trouble. A great finish might propel him into the next round, but the only guaranteed way is to win the race Sunday. Again, it would be a shame if they couldn’t move on when you consider the performance they’ve had these last two years.
Yesterday showed renewed strength at Hendrick Motorsports. Three of their four cars finished in the top 10. Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon finished sixth and seventh. Unfortunately their third Chase car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 25th.
We had said from the start that this Chase battle was probably going to come down to Gibbs versus Team Penske. After two weeks, it’s clearly Gibbs with the advantage. They finished first and second, with Penske driver Joey Logano finishing third. Three Gibbs cars still are first through third in the Chase points. Joey’s third-place finish Sunday has moved him up to fourth.
Believe it or not, that was Joe Gibbs Racing 13th win of 2015 with all four drivers having won multiple races. They have won nine of the last 11 races, too. Their complete dominance continues as they have also won the last four consecutive races. When you have fast cars like they do, it gives you lots of options. Fast cars give you the opportunity to make up for a miscue on the track or in the pits. You can have things happen, but fast cars give you the ability to overcome them.
I have a saying, "Just because I disagree with you 20 percent of the time, doesn’t make me your enemy 80 percent of the time."
I say that because I think the controversy over the restart with Brad Keselowski was questionable. These last few weeks everyone has been up in arms about these restarts. Two weeks ago at Richmond was pretty blatant to me but it didn’t get called. Some of the competitors were very vocal about their protesting of it not getting called. Team owner Roger Penske was very outspoken about the officiating at Richmond. Ironically Roger’s No. 2 car driven by Brad Keselowski is the first car to really get nabbed with the sort of "new policy" if you will, of the enforcement of the rule.
The thing that bothered me about Sunday’s call was the No. 2 car was in the restart box. It wasn’t like someone took off before they got to the line. They were in the box and actually coming to the end of the box. Maybe Brad did go a dog-hair early, but here’s the difference, he didn’t pass the leader. Brad was still second and to me it should have been "no harm, no foul," but NASCAR saw it differently.
So now we are in a world of a whole new enforcement of a rule that up until this point has been pretty inconsistent in its enforcement. So that’s why I say sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. I mean I understand why NASCAR did what they did. NASCAR has been getting hammered by the drivers to do something about this, but Brad paid the price when NASCAR steps in.
This restart issue continues to grow and quite honestly, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it yet. It’s hard for the first- and second-place cars to come to the line equally and take off equally. Trust me, there are little games the leader can play to "set up" the second-place car for failure. It’s a very subjective rule that’s been open for interpretation for quite a while now. I hate to see something subjective like this possibly having a devastating effect on a team in the Chase.
If this is such a big deal and if this is something we are going to have to deal with, well, I have a suggestion. Why not put the leader in the front of the pack behind the pace car, everyone else is two by two behind the leader. That way no one can go until the leader goes. Just put him in front of the field and everyone lines up behind him. When he goes, then everyone else goes — problem solved.
Either that or we could go back to the way we used to do it and that would be single-file restarts. It would be fast cars to the outside, lapped cars to the inside. All passing would have to be to the right. We did it that way for decades, but it’s simply not as exciting as these double-file restarts.
Again, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this restart issue. One thing I do know is that Sunday was a real wake-up call to everybody. Unfortunately or ironically, it was Roger Penske that complained pretty bitterly at Richmond but it was his car that got busted Sunday.
I also want to congratulate Jeff Gordon for breaking Ricky Rudd’s consecutive start record and becoming NASCAR’s new Iron Man. I love the fact that it happened during his final season of racing. Just think, Jeff hasn’t missed a Cup race since Nov. 1992. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment because it means he’s crawled behind the wheel of that No. 24 car probably on days when he didn’t want to, didn’t feel good and probably a few when he shouldn’t have. Congratulations on adding another accomplishment to what one day soon will be your Hall of Fame career.
So we’re off to the land of concrete and crab cakes at Dover this weekend. Four drivers will be eliminated from the Chase when the checkered flag falls Sunday afternoon. I already spoke of the steep hill Kevin Harvick is facing, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Kyle Busch is back there too. His hole isn’t nearly as deep as Kevin’s to dig out of, but he is back there and can’t afford a bad day Sunday or his 2015 championship dreams will evaporate.
The Monster Mile is one tough joint to get around. It’s a self-cleaning track and we call it that because of the banking. If you have trouble up on the banking, you always end up down along the inside wall. It’s a treacherous concrete mile track. There will be all kinds of storylines to follow Sunday. At the end of the day however, 12 drivers will be extremely happy as they get to advance in the Chase, while four drivers and teams will leave Dover disappointed that their 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship hopes have come to an end.