Good racing and New Hampshire are two terms that are rarely mentioned in the same breath. But it happened on Sunday. It was if every driver knew they had to beat Jimmie Johnson and were going for it. Three wide a lot of the time and the result was a fuel mileage race. Not what anyone had in mind after a race that had been fairly exciting, but that’s the way it goes at flat tracks like New Hampshire International.
It was obvious from the get-go that Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart had the best cars. The big surprise was that the event that everyone expected–a Jimmie Johnson beat down was not going to happen. The talking heads on Speed and ESPN had almost anointed Johnson the champ before the race, but it was not to be on that day. Johnson finished 25th. Dodge’s only hope, Kurt Busch finished 13th. The three Ford finalists floundered. Carl Edwards finished 11th, Greg Biffle was 17th, and Matt Kenseth finished 23rd. But Richard Childress Racing had a field day with Clint Bowyer winning the fuel mileage race (running out during his burnout), Kevin Harvick finishing 5th, and Jeff Burton ending up 15th. The Hendrick cars faired no better with only Jeff Gordon finishing in the Top 10 in 6th. Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin, who appears to be in the driver’s seat finished second and increased his lead over the field. Kyle Busch’s 9th place finish was respecatable.
So we head into race two of the playoffs with Hamlin atop the standings and the champion in waiting far down the list. Johnson has been in this situation before only to triumph. Trouble is, this season is different. RCR is more potent and the Toyotas have their game in order. Couple that with Ford’s Roush-Fenway Racing showing lots of potential down the stretch, regardless of their showing on Sunday, and it’s a more difficult task. I think they are up to the challenge.
So where does that leave us? No matter what happened yesterday, many fans are convinced that Johnson will prevail and I’m in their camp for several reasons. They’ve been there, Chad Knaus is a brililant crew chief and we all know what Johnson can do, but watching what he and Jeff Gordon have done over the last part of the season leaves me wondering. A lot will be determined at Dover. Johnson is good there and if can get past another master at the concrete track–Greg Biffle–he may come on during the last half of the Chase. History tells us that it’s not what happens in the first few races, but what happens over the long haul, and that seems to play into the Johnson-Knaus playbook. So we wait and watch.
There were a lot of surprises on Sunday and there may be more as we go forward. My pick is still Johnson, but I’m not counting Hamlin and Kyle Busch out just yet. Call me silly, but I still think it will come down to Johnson and the younger Busch. We’ll know more in a few weeks of course. I just know this. The gas mileage gamble probably cost Tony Stewart the championship. My kingdom for a gallon of gas…