Last week, the focus of some drivers was just to make it into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The drivers that were expected to make it in locked in their spots.
This week, however, for many drivers it was all about winning. The 2010 Chase is set, and the first track in the quest to determine the new champion was the “Magic Mile” in New Hampshire. A track that is extremely flat, extremely handling-sensitive, and has always included a little drama at race’s end.
This year, it was no exception. So many drivers could win the Chase, and a majority of them were contenders heading into this race. Meanwhile, 31 other drivers were hoping to just take a victory so the focus could come off the championship for just a bit.
So many stories, so many scenarios. Under overcast skies, the 2010 Chase began with the Sylvania 300.
It was Brad Keselowski taking the pole and leading the first lap. But, his lead would only last that long as Tony Stewart got the best run out of turn 2 and took the top spot away. Stewart would lead until lap 26 when Keselowski managed to get the advantage at the line. At the same time, the race’s first caution came out when Bobby Labonte got tangled up with Scott Speed, who then went sliding into the inside wall.
A few of the drivers mid-pack decided to play some strategy and went for only two tires on the ensuing round of pit stops. That would allow both Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray to get out front, while Stewart was caught mid-pack as his team went with a four-tire stop.
On the restart, McMurray got the jump, however had to yield because he was in the second spot. Rules state the leader must take the green first, so he had to let Bowyer back by. Bowyer would lead through the race’s second caution for Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard getting together in the second turn.
That incident would be the only one for over the next 100 laps, which included a round of green flag stops. The dominant car the entire time was Bowyer, who at times stretched out to over a four-second advantage.
The caution came out again on lap 148 when debris was spotted in the first turn. But, Bowyer just would not go away as he held on to the top spot through it all.
Bowyer still held the advantage until lap 208 when the caution came out for Mark Martin, who blew a tire entering the first turn. That incident would set forth a run of caution flags that was non-existent during the first two-thirds of the race.
The race restarted on lap 213, but just two laps it was a tangle between Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards that slowed the race again. Luckily, Hamlin recovered and continued on. But, after the lap 219 restart, it took only five more laps to slow the race again. This time, it was a multi-car incident that slowed the action. Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton got together in the second turn, with Busch going for a slide. Meanwhile, behind him Jimmie Johnson got into Kyle Busch and they spun out as well.
The last two cautions involved six Chase drivers, which really showed what the Chase would be all about as the season continued.
All the drivers recovered and the green came back out on lap 229.
Just as quickly, Keselowski got into Matt Kenseth and sent him into the outside wall in the first turn. Yet another Chase driver involved in an incident. It was Chase chaos, and only the first race to determine the championship.
The race went back to green on lap 238, this time it was McMurray out front and he would hold the spot through the race’s final caution for a four-car incident in the second turn.
After the restart, Stewart would be the car with the advantage and he began pulling out on the field. At the same time, there was concern in his pit, as well as the pits of second-place McMurray, plus the team of Bowyer. The reason…fuel.
Stewart and Bowyer both pitted on lap 208, meaning they each had to go 92 laps to get the victory on the tank they had. Stewart tried to save fuel, and McMurray began falling back into the clutches of both Bowyer and Hamlin, who were running third and fourth. Bowyer was able to make the pass and move into second. But, he also began to worry about fuel as the crew at one point said he was good, but the next said he was short.
Little did they know a problem earlier in the race would help them out. Bowyer was not good on restarts, but the reason was because his carburetor was not functioning properly.
How did that help?
As the laps clicked off, the pace had slowed tremendously as the leaders tried to save fuel. But then, the first victim of fuel was found, and it was the leader, Stewart.
Coming off turn 4, with the white flag in the air, Stewart’s car began sputtering and it slowed, as he was out of fuel. Bowyer then went outside and took the white flag. At the same time, he had to be concerned about fuel and then had to worry about Hamlin in his mirror.
But, out of the fourth turn, Bowyer held on to take his first win of the season, capturing the checkered flag in the Sylvania 300. Stewart, meanwhile, coasted the entire final lap and had just enough momentum to cross the line, credited with a 24th-place finish.
Bowyer’s victory came at the same track he got his first win at back in 2007, and also leaped him from 12th to second in the standings.
This was just the first race in the 2010 Chase. What’s next?
Well, next Sunday NASCAR goes from the “Magic Mile” to the “Monster Mile” in Dover, Delaware. The asphalt is gone as the track surface is concrete and the banking goes from a barely noticeable seven degrees to a monstrous 24 degrees.
Will the Monster claim victim to the Chase drivers? Only way to know is to watch the AAA 400 next Sunday. Coverage begins at Noon ET with NASCAR Countdown. The race is slated to go green an hour later on ESPN.
RESULTS: 1-Bowyer 2-Hamlin 3-McMurray 4-Earnhardt Jr. 5-Harvick 6-Gordon 7-Reutimann 8-Newman 9-Kyle Busch 10-Hornish
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Edwards 13-Kurt Busch 15-Burton 17-Biffle 23-Kenseth 24-Stewart 25-Johnson
CAUTIONS: 8 for 34 laps. Lap 26-29 (No. 09, 82 accident-FS), 41-43 (No. 47, 98 accident-T2), 148-151 (debris-T1), 208-212 (No. 5 accident-T2), 215-219 (No. 11, 99 accident-T4), 224-229 (No. 2, 9, 18, 31, 48 accident-T2), 235-237 (No. 12, 17 accident-T1), 243-246 (No. 2, 19, 20, 48 accident-T2).
LEAD CHANGES: 21 among 8 drivers. Keselowski 1, Stewart 2-25, Keselowski 26, R. Gordon 27, Nemachek 28, Bowyer 29, McMurray 30, Bowyer 31-43, McMurray 44, Bowyer 45-97, Edwards 98-99, J. Gordon 100-101, R. Gordon 102, Bowyer 103-147, Edwards 148, Bowyer 149-207, Edwards 208, Bowyer 209-212, Stewart 213-237, McMurray 238-247, Stewart 248-298, Bowyer 299-300.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs. 58 Mins. 22 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 106.769 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.477 Seconds
2010 CHASE FOR THE CUP: 1-Hamlin, 5230 points; 2-Bowyer, -35; 3-Harvick, -45; 4-Kyle Busch, -62; 5-Gordon, -75; 6-Kurt Busch, -86; 7-Johnson, -92; 8-Edwards, -95; 9-Biffle, -108; 10-Burton, -112; 11-Stewart, -124; 12-Kenseth, -136