Tony Stewart enjoyed a reversal of fortune at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
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“If that’s not a flip-flop from last year, I don’t know what is,” Stewart declared over the radio after taking the checkered flag for the second consecutive week.
Stewart’s good fortune in 2011 is a stark contrast to his team’s performance in last year’s NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Last year, when the Chase kicked off with the Sylvania 300, Stewart led 51 laps before running out of fuel with two laps remaining. He relinquished the lead to Clint Bowyer, finished 24th in the race and fell to 10th in the standings.
On Sunday, Bowyer led for 49 laps when he was forced to pit for fuel, with two laps remaining. Stewart assumed the lead and held on to the point for his second win of the season and his third victory at NHMS. Bowyer finished 26th.
Stewart, who pitted for the final time on Lap 229, ran for 71 laps on his last tank of gas. Over the past two races, the two-time champion has not only shown his ability to manage fuel consumption, but has proved he’s both lucky and good.
“We’ve had one of those seasons up to the Chase where we couldn’t do anything right,” Stewart said. “I mean, we couldn’t get it clicking. We couldn’t get through all the bad luck.
“It seems like every week something would happen and we’d have to try to dig ourselves out of a hole the rest of the day. I’m hoping and praying that we’re through that bad-luck string now and things are hopefully going to click the next eight weeks.”
Stewart also gained the points lead with his second win in the Chase. Kevin Harvick, the previous leader, finished 12th and trails Stewart by seven points. Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five in the race.
While Stewart likely regrets earlier comments about wasting one of the 12 positions in the Chase by taking one after his rough opening 26 races, he acknowledges his No. 14 team’s turnaround was about more than just nuts and bolts.
“When you talk about momentum, that race car doesn’t know anything about momentum,” Stewart said. “It knows what you put in it, it knows how we drive it. It doesn’t know stats, it doesn’t know anything other than just what’s put in it.
“Momentum deals with people. It’s not just these first two races of the Chase, it was the two weeks leading before it, too. We haven’t finished outside the top seven now in the last four weeks. That’s huge for us. It’s huge for our guys.”
Biffle, the last driver to win the first two races of the Chase in 2008, believes the victories will further motivate Stewart’s team.
“It’s certainly a helluva momentum builder to win the first two races of the Chase,” Biffle said. “We were able to do it a few years back. It just means so much to your team, gives you so much confidence going into all the races, the next races.
“It was great for us. I’m sure it’s good for that team. They’ll continue to probably put down some good races.”
In this corner
Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson hooked horns and wheels Sunday with 20 laps remaining in the race.
Both drivers were running in the top 15 when they made contact through the corners, leading Busch to exclaim over the radio, “Get your freaking head in the game.”
While Busch raced on to 11th, Johnson struggled to finish 18th. Busch gained three spots and is sixth in the points standings. Johnson dropped two positions to 10th and called Busch “stubborn” after the race.
“It was just racing hard,” Johnson said. “He was being stubborn for that position, which was kind of the name of the game out there. And I had gotten inside of him the lap before and had some contact and he was running it really, really tight through the corner; and as we got off into (Turn) 3, he was so tight next to me getting in, it took the air off the spoiler, and I was out of control before we ever really got to the turn.
“We hit a couple of times. One of the times we hit, it whipped the wheel out of my hand and bent the right-front suspension, and then we were kind of dead in the water after that.”
It would have been a nightmare for NASCAR if a driver outside the Chase would have won Race 2 of the playoffs.
Although Clint Bowyer fell from the point after running out of fuel with two laps remaining, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers, two former Chase drivers that are on the outside looking in, finished third and fifth, respectively.
Biffle released heated comments over the radio directed toward Jimmie Johnson halfway through the race when the No. 16 Ford had trouble getting around the No. 48 Chevrolet. Biffle made it clear he wasn’t changing his racing style in the Chase.
“My role being a non-Chase guy is to try to win the last eight (races) that are left,” Biffle said.
There are few things worse in racing than teammates colliding. That’s what happened in Turn 2 on Lap 156 when Carl Edwards plowed into the back of Matt Kenseth and sent the No. 17 Ford spinning.
Edwards apologized immediately over the radio, but Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, acknowledged he was having brake issues prior to the incident.
“When you race people all the time, you’re gonna have accidents and bump into each other every once in a while,” Kenseth said. “That was no big deal. I was having a little bit of brake fade, and I backed up extra early; I just didn’t expect it or I probably could have saved it, but that was no big deal. Those things happen.”
Kenseth dropped to 16th after a caution period, but recovered to finish sixth — his first top-10 at Loudon since this race in 2007. Kenseth gained three positions and moved up to seventh in the Chase standings.
“We lost some track position (due to the spin), but, overall, it was the best-driving car I’ve had at Loudon since they introduced the (new car),” Kenseth said. “So I thought it was a great day for us.”
Edwards, who finished eighth but dropped to fourth in the points standings, was just thrilled to leave Loudon with a top 10 — his best run since 2008.
“I’m glad we don’t have to run this one in the Chase again, that’s good,” Edwards said. “Dover is great for us. Kansas will be great. I feel pretty good after our test at Phoenix, so we’ll go and if Matt doesn’t retaliate, we’ll be really good.
“I feel really dumb for running into him, but I’m glad it worked out for both of us. It was a decent day for us. We’ll take it and move on.”
After a miserable 31st-place run last week at Chicagoland Speedway, Denny Hamlin appeared to be on the road to redemption at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The No. 11 FedEx Toyota was running sixth when Hamlin was forced to pit for fuel with three laps remaining in the race. He finished 29th, the lowest among the 12 Chasers for the second consecutive week.
“We thought we were good, and that’s just strategy racing nowadays,” Hamlin said. “We just came up short right there. The only thing I can think of is we were on a little bit of a cleaner racetrack that last run, but that was the worst fuel mileage we got all day, and I was backing my corner up quite a bit.
“Either we weren’t getting the fuel mileage we thought or we didn’t get it full or I just used too much. We’ve got to work through it. Another tough day for us, but we’re just figuring out what we need to do to be a little bit more competitive.”
For Hamlin, who remains 12th in points, the experience had to feel eerily similar to Phoenix International Raceway last season when he suffered the disappointing blow of running out of fuel late in the race. He had entered the penultimate Chase race with a 33-point lead, only to see his advantage cut in half after running out of fuel and finishing 12th.
6: Teams (those of Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Brad Keselowski, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan and Jeff Gordon) that completed the race with just four pit stops
6: Positions Jeff Gordon gained with his fourth-place finish
15: Race leaders on Sunday, which ties the record from July 1996
16: Top-10 finishes for Stewart in 26 starts at New Hampshire
121: Races without a win for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winning crew chief Darian Grubb was asked what his driver meant when he said he unloaded “dead weight” this week. Grubb, who was on the hot seat after Stewart went 0-26 before the Chase answered, “Maybe he’s talking about me,” Grubb said. “I don’t know yet.”
Rumors have persisted that Stewart and Grubb would part ways after this season. Although former Stewart crew chief Greg Zipadelli has one year remaining on his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, he continues to be the leading candidate to take the role.
As for the “dead weight,” Stewart in his postrace media availability refused to answer the question concerning what it references, leaving many to wonder.