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Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Chasing, but not catching

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 13. 2014 9:10PM
Brad Keselowski wins the Camping World RV Sales 301 race on July 13, 2014 at NHMS. Keselowski swept the weekend by winning both the Nationwide Sta-Green race and the Sprint Cup Series CWRVS301. (NEW HAMPSHIRE MOTOR SPEEDWAY)

LOUDON -- They were lined up, hoping, waiting, for a chance to strike.

Drivers on the outside looking in at the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship are running out of chances to grab spots in NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs.

The Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday was another opportunity: An opportunity lost as far as nailing down a Cup win, which is priority No. 1 in Chase criteria.

Eleven different drivers — Sunday’s winner Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch — have won at least one race this season, making them locks, or at least heavy favorites, for spots in the Chase.

Everyone else is trying to get in and capture one of the 16 slots in the Chase.

A bunch of those desperate drivers were in the top 10 late in Sunday’s race, looking for their chance in case race leaders Keselowski, Hamlin, Gordon or Harvick faltered.

As it turned out, Hamlin, Gordon and Harvick all ran out of gas.

But Keselowski was going nowhere and held on for his third win of the season. Keselowski became the first driver to sweep the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races on a weekend at NHMS.

Kyle Busch snuck into second place.

The next five finishers — Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart — all helped themselves in the Chase picture.

Not nearly as much as they would have with a win, however.

Bowyer, who has two wins here, was ready to make a bid for another when Justin Allgaier spun out with two laps to go, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

Bowyer was sitting fourth and planning to take a shot at the win on the final restart.

It didn’t go well.

“Just frustrating,” Bowyer said. “Kind of our M.O. This year, nothing goes right. We got into position to get a top-five and solid run and the 4 (Harvick) runs out of gas and stacks us all up on the bottom and a bunch of them get around us. We got the consistency down — we’ve just got to keep gaining on it.”

The good thing for those desperately seeking wins is that a driver with wins got another. That’s unlike last week when Almirola, who is deeper in the points standings, picked off a win at Daytona.

If the Chase started today, there would be spots for five drivers based on points.

That race is shaping up to be interesting as well.

Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Paul Menard and Larson would earn spots based on points at the moment. Larson is actually tied in points with fellow rookie Austin Dillon, but would get the spot based on having a better finish, a runnerup result.

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JOHNSON had the toughest of days.

He had a flat tire on Lap 6 and had to make a pit stop and then had the same tire, the left rear, blow on Lap 12, sending him hard into the wall in Turn 1.

Worry not about Johnson when it comes to the Chase, though.

He has three wins, as does Keselowski, and has a spot in the Chase secured. The problem with Sunday was, besides shooting for a good result, the team hoped to pile up some track knowledge for when the Cup series returns here for the Sylvania 300, second race of the Chase on Sept. 21.

Eleven laps completed won’t help much with that.

“It’s definitely a setback,” Johnson said. “We had a good test up here. We had a very fast car. It would have been nice to get a race in here before we come back for the second one, so it’s definitely a setback missing out on track time.”

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JEFF Burton competed in his first Sprint Cup race here in the inaugural Cup event at the track on July 11, 1993.

Sunday was likely his last race here and perhaps his last Cup race overall and NHMS general manager Jerry Gappens presented Burton with a trophy made of granite to commemorate the moment.

Burton’s four wins here — he and crew chief Frank Stoddard of North Haverhill had the place covered — are the best of anyone.

Burton, Jeff Gordon and Morgan Shepherd, 72, were the three drivers in Sunday’s race who also raced in that first race here in 1993.

Gordon finished 226th, Burton was 20th and Shepherd, who caused some controversy when he knocked Logano out of the race while 15 laps down on Lap 211, was 39th on Sunday.

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EDDIE MacDonald of Rowley, Mass., finished 35th in his Sprint Cup debut, driving the No. 32 Ford owned by Stoddard and Archie St. Hilaire of Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports Loudon