Biggest Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire
More points and more opportunity were on the line Sunday afternoon when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lined up for 300 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Sunday's event featured a chance for the 13-driver postseason field to make amends for bad outings at Chicagoland Speedway and a chance to slow Matt Kenseth's steady march to his second series title.
By the time it was over, some drivers did get back on track with a decent finish. But all of them again fell victim to seemingly unstoppable Matt Kenseth.
Find out who walked away from the second race in NASCAR's Chase with a smile and who left the Granite State bristling over what could have been.
Winner: Matt Kenseth
In case you've lost track, Sunday's New Hampshire win for Matt Kenseth now ranks as his seventh of the 2013 season. Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson will need three more in the final eight races to even match that total.
Kenseth never reached a point where he appeared on a downward trajectory in his career, but it's almost mind-boggling to think his move from Roush-Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing could have such a rejuvenatory effect.
There's no doubt it has, and there's no doubt that it's paying off big at the right time. Kenseth's New Hampshire win marked the first time since 2005 that he finished better than third at the one-mile track.
Loser: Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon likely wasn't going to win Sunday's race, thanks to the two-tire pit strategy his team used to grab the lead for 35 laps of the race's latter half. He would have likely needed four tires on the final stop, as the others needed two, but Gordon still stood to gain some much-needed track position through the exchange.
That was all going to plan when Gordon came to pit road, as the leader during a caution with just under 100 laps left and made a mistake decidedly more fitting of a rookie driver. Gordon slid through his pit box just enough to force his pit crew to drop his car off the jack, move him back and go to work again. He exited it in 22nd.
Track position lost, Gordon could only scramble back to 15th in the final running order.
Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
On a track where running position was so critical, thanks to limited passing opportunities, starting 17th on Sunday wasn't the best way for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to claw his way back into Chase contention after his blown engine at Chicagoland Speedway just last week.
But that battle got even tougher during the first pit stop when a pit miscue involving a jack dropping too soon led to Earnhardt requiring another stop.
Dropped to the back, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte had to use some impeccable pit strategy and aggressive driving to motor back toward the front. It worked nearly flawlessly, as Earnhardt found himself in the top-five late in the race before winding up sixth.
With Kenseth's win, a title shot seems highly unlikely. But Earnhardt managed to control what he could and made up ground that could have left Sunday's race feeling like a disaster. With some luck, he could sneak back into contention.
Loser: Kevin Harvick
Dominating and running up front hasn't been Kevin Harvick's style at New Hampshire since his 2006 win at the track—he's led just one lap at NHMS since 2009—so it wasn't shocking to see him straying from the lead pack Sunday. But it was head-scratching to see the No. 29 struggle badly enough to be the second-worst Chase team in the field Sunday as Harvick rolled home in 20th.
Harvick, who started eighth and had rolled off a seventh-place finish at NHMS in July, took a pretty decent whack in the point standings as a result of the disappointing effort. He's now sixth in points and 39 points behind leader Matt Kenseth with eight races left.
Winner: Jamie McMurray
Sunday's race started about as bad as possible for Jamie McMurray when he wound up stopped against the wall with damage to his No. 1 Chevrolet triggered by contact with his soon-to-be departing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. It had all the markings of so many races in McMurray's often bad luck-ridden career.
McMurray and his team managed to put the incident behind them quickly, however. Perhaps more important, they stayed on the lead lap. The team managed to fix his mostly cosmetic rear-end damage, and McMurray went to work. By the time it was over, McMurray notched only his third top-five finish of 2013 with a fifth-place run.
Loser: Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. has had a terrible two weeks. First, he lost his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, thanks to rule violations by his teammates. Then NAPA, his primary sponsor—and security blanket as Sprint Cup driver for the foreseeable future—announced it was leaving his team at the end of the season, thanks to fallout from the Richmond controversy.
The tables appeared to be turning early in Sunday's race when Truex and his No. 56 Toyota looked dominant. He led 98 of the first 152 laps, but then couldn't finish the job. Truex wound up 10th.
On a day when he looked like the driver to beat, that 10th-place finish had to be another gut-punch for the already reeling driver.
Winner: Joe Gibbs Racing
What counts as a win for Joe Gibbs Racing may feel more like a loss for fans hoping for a tight, multi-car battle for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. They still might get that—if only between Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
The duo has delivered consecutive 1-2 finishes in the first two races of NASCAR's title fight with Kenseth coming out on top each time.
Busch didn't lead a single lap at New Hampshire, but he's the closest thing going to Kenseth at 14 points out of the Chase lead. It was impressive for the two Toyota drivers to finish in the top two spots at Chicagoland Speedway. After New Hampshire, it's starting to feel like domination.
Loser: Kasey Kahne
What exactly happened to Kasey Kahne, as he exited Turn 4 on Lap 253, wasn't clear. The result of close-quarters racing with Brian Vickers inside the top-10 as the race moved toward its conclusion was plainly visible after Kahne half-spun and slapped the front-stretch inside wall, breaking several steering components.
Kahne was terse in a brief television interview—likely more peeved at the damage done to his championship hopes—before the team fixed the car and returned to the race. The return was mostly fruitless, though, as Kahne still finished 37th and fell to dead last in the Chase standings. With eight races left, he's 71 points behind.
Winner: Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton's looming and somewhat sudden exit from Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season has ramped up speculation about his future beyond the driver's seat. There's little doubt that his lack of performance in the No. 31 has created that, too.
That's why it was nice to see the 46-year-old Burton stamp out another top-10 finish Sunday at New Hampshire. The eighth-place run wasn't entirely unexpected, either, after he was third at NHMS during the July race. But it was more of a climb, as Burton started 25th Sunday before working his way to the top-10.
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