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NASCAR Cup Series

Latest Accomplishment Gives Chad Knaus New Admiration for Jimmie Johnson

By Kelly Crandall – For every accomplishment that Jimmie Johnson adds to his impressive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series resume, crew chief Chad Knaus is there to share in the accolades.

Well, for most of them anyway. Knaus has been on a few NASCAR mandated days off and missed some of Johnson’s wins. Lately however, the most noticeable and talked about crew chief in the garage has had a front row seat for – as well as place in – history.

Including Sunday afternoon in Dover where Johnson won for the eighth time at the speedway. The win put him in sole possession of first place on the all-time win’s list there. He broke a tie with the King Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, both Hall of Famers who Johnson will one day join.

“This is obviously a great racetrack for us. Jimmie has really taken to this place starting back in 2002 when we first came,” Knaus said after the pair notched their 63rd win together. “It’s pretty spectacular every time I hear Jimmie’s name mentioned in the same sentence as guys like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt Sr., all the guys that have done so well throughout the history of our sport. To be able to one up those guys right now is pretty spectacular.”

For Johnson it’s his 65th career win and fifth of 2013. In the bigger picture, as he and Knaus chase another championship, it moved them to second in points behind Matt Kenseth, just eight markers from the spot they held for all but three regular season races.

The Knaus – Johnson duo is the longest current running crew chief and driver combination in the NSCS. And when all is said and done they’ll be one of the best NASCAR has ever seen. With the drive and determination the two have though, there’s still time to break every other record still out there and become the greatest of all time.

“The man’s got a lot of skills. It’s been an honor to be able to work with Jimmie over the course of the years,” said Knaus, who began to praise Johnson as he sat next him. The five-time champion intently listening to his crew chief and best friend. “I think he’s able to pull out some things that are pretty spectacular. He’s able to dig deeper, pull out his cape, make things happen in winning moments of these races that other people cannot do. It’s pretty spectacular.”

In 2008 while Johnson tied Cale Yarborough by winning three straight championships, Knaus became the first crew chief to accomplish the feat. The following two years as they won two more titles they made new records. Johnson sits behind just Petty and Earnhardt Sr. in titles while Knaus is second behind Dale Inman’s eight.

“It’s really cool. I’m not sure I’ve ever done what Richard Petty hasn’t,” Johnson said on Sunday. “To get this eighth win here is very, very special. Truthfully it was the first thought that went through my mind when I crossed the finish line.”

For Knaus, a man who treats every win and race as part of the job, the man who had to be told it was okay to take a vacation and walk away, it seemed he too was caught up in the moment.

He and Johnson not only took the record at Dover, but Johnson is now the winningest driver at seven different tracks. Just this season he became the first driver to win four All-Star race’s at Charlotte and Knaus is the winningest crew chief at Indianapolis after guiding Johnson to four career Brickyard 400 wins.

“I’ve seen a lot of great drivers, worked with a lot of great drivers. Knowing what we’ve got sitting behind the seat is always a little bit of confidence, knowing if you get close, if you make the right call at the right time, he’s going to be able to carry the ball,” said Knaus.

Winning isn’t new for these two. Through five championships, eight trophies from Martinsville and Dover respectively, the Brickyard 400 wins and a Daytona 500 (two for Johnson) and all those years they owned the Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s been business as usual. But Sunday afternoon, the latest accomplishment had even Knaus admitting how incredible the last 12 years have been.

“Once again, I think Jimmie is probably the most underrated champion we have in this industry,” Knaus continued. “He is by far and above the most powerful driver over the course of the last 25, 35 years in this sport. It’s pretty fun being able to work with him.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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Editorial NASCAR Cup Series

Average Finish Key to Chase Success After Dover

By Matt Weaver – While no one has been mathematically eliminated from championship contention after three races, the Chase for the Championship can be broken down into three distinct groups based on the likelihood that they will win the Sprint Cup this season.

Keep in mind that the following post is a matter of opinion and the final seven races will ultimately decide the Cup. The speculation is based on past Chase performances and the traditional notion that a championship will be won with roughly a 6.0 average Chase finish over the final 10 races.

The three groups have been split into favorites, those with an outside shot and those who have been largely eliminated barring a remarkable comeback that would become the stuff of legend. The brackets can be found below.

Safe Bets and Title Favorites:

1.) Matt Kenseth

Kenseth entered the playoffs with a three points championship cushion as the highest seed and has added to it with an average finish of 3.0 and two wins to open the format.

2.) Jimmie Johnson

The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has an average finish of 3.3 and responded to Kenseth’s consecutive victories with one of his own at Dover. The championship battle will go through Johnson and the 48 team one way or the other.

3.) Kyle Busch

Finally off to a steady and consistent Chase start, the younger Busch has an average finish of 3.0 through his first three races, comparable to both Kenseth and Johnson. All that is missing is his own trip to Victory Lane in the Chase.

Needs to Win and Catch a Break:

4.) Kevin Harvick

With an average finish of 9.6 and the one bad finish (P20) at New Hampshire, it could be argued that Harvick has used up his mulligan. With the early performance of the top-three, Harvick may need to be near perfect to win the championship. That means getting to Victory Lane and inching ever-closer to the expected 6.0 average finish to earn the Sprint Cup.

5.) Jeff Gordon

See “Kevin Harvick.” The four-time champion may have used up his bad finish with a P15 at New Hampshire. Gordon has had speed for each of the last eight races and now is the time for him to capitalize. It’s a fascinating subplot considering the controversy surrounding the fact that he’s even in the Chase to begin with. Average finish: 8.3

6.) Greg Biffle

“The Biff” returned to his borderline top-10 status at Dover. His average finish sits at 9.3 which seems to be his ceiling this year given that Ford just appears somewhat behind both Chevrolet and Toyota through three Chase races.

7.) Ryan Newman

Newman has been steady but not spectacular in all three Chase races with finishes of 10th, 16th and 8th — good for 11.3 average finish. Newman is on the fringes of likely contention but can not afford an accident or other misfortunes over the final seven.

Eliminated:

8.) Clint Bowyer

At 51 points behind Matt Kenseth, Bowyer is the first of the drivers that is more than a full race behind the leaders. With a 12.0 average finish, Bowyer has yet to show the speed or results over the first three races to contend. He hasn’t won at all this season and there is a “dark cloud” hanging over his head from Richmond.

9.) Kurt Busch

Average finish: 12.7. Kurt just has too many things working against him in the first half of the Chase. Be it the stigma of being a one-car operation or the struggles of his various pit crews, Busch is fighting for every spot on the track. His talent is undeniable for the variables appear to be catching up.

10.) Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Considering his sixth and second place finishes over the last two races, it’s an even bigger disappointment that NASCAR’s most popular driver suffered an engine failure at Chicagoland. At 57 points behind Kenseth, even 10 more spots gained at Chicagoland could have kept him in the fringe of contention. His average finish looms at 14.3.

11.) Carl Edwards

The mechanical failures at Dover served as a major hit on Edwards championship hopes. His average finish dipped all the way to 18.3 and is 65 points behind Kenseth. That’s a race and a half’s worth of points just to make even with the leaders.

12.) Joey Logano

With finishes of 37th, 14th and third, Logano’s Chase never got off to the start needed to win a championship. He’s 66 out of first with an 18.3 average in the Chase.

13.) Kasey Kahne

Yet to finish in the top-10 in the Chase, Kahne is most arguably the only driver you can assuredly eliminate ay 78 points out of the lead. Kahne still has the speed to win races during the Chase and may play spoiler or valuable (but a 100 percent effort) chess piece for his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Average finish: 20.6

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NASCAR Cup Series

The Stories Behind the Story: Dover

By Matt Weaver – With Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch dominating the first two Chase races, it may have been easy to overlook Jimmie Johnson.

After all, Johnson entered the Chase with four straight sub-30th finishes and was written off by many as a title long shot.

Much of that is likely the long-standing Johnson hate, something that’s just heating up with his fifth victory of the season at Dover on Sunday afternoon.

His victory, combined with a seventh place by Kenseth acts as a confirmation that Johnson will be a factor in the championship this season. Kenseth now leads by eight over Johnson with Kyle Busch lurking just 12 points out of the top spot.

Still a three-team battle

The discussion entering Dover was that the Chase was already down to three teams in Kenseth, Johnson and Busch. And despite the other Chasers’ insistence that they would still be a factor, their actions did not entirety back it up.

Johnson won, Busch finished fifth and Kenseth still scored more points than six rival Chasers. Merely scoring ‘good finishes’ won’t be enough from here on out.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the perfect example.

Dale Jr. comes just short

It’s assumed that every Chaser can afford one mulligan (or bad finish) but that’s only of said team can win to offset it. With finishes of sixth and now second, Earnhardt is giving it his best shot but he may look back on Sunday as a missed opportunity.

After fighting back from a pit road entry mistake, Earnhardt methodically worked his way to the front and was the first car with four tires on the final restart — in fourth.

Earnhardt quickly moved into second and just couldn’t overtake his teammate, Johnson who survived after taking just two tires.

It’s one of the grittiest performances of Earnhardt’s season — at one of his better tracks — but only moved him up to 10th in the standings and 57 points out. But given that he’s only 18 points out of fourth, this could still be a very successful season for NASCAR’S most popular driver.

Five-Time forget me not

Earnhardt’s inability to close on Johnson will be seen as a disappointment, especially by his victory rabid fan base.

At the end of the day, Earnhardt is just the latest victim of the Jimmie Johnson buzzsaw. Be it clean air or undeniable talent, Johnson had the winning formula on Sunday.

Who ultimately wins the Chase for the Championship is still undecided but as has been the case for most of the format’s tenure, the title hunt will run through Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Solid Day at Dover but Not Satisfying for Busch and Kenseth

By Kelly Crandall (DOVER, Del.) – Kyle Busch is still searching for his first career win in the Chase but it wasn’t teammate Matt Kenseth who kept it from him on Sunday in Dover.

Busch finished fifth in the AAA 400 after two back-to-back second place finishes to open the Chase. He led once for 30 laps but never had the Interstate Batteries Camry to challenge the dominant Jimmie Johnson. The finish however, put Busch’s average Chase finish to 3.0, yet it drops him to third in points.

“We were about a fifth to seventh place car much of the day and we ended up fifth. The Interstate Batteries Camry got what it could out of it,” Busch said. “Certainly, I wish we definitely could’ve gotten more. We probably could’ve if I could’ve got the outside lane on the final restart I probably could’ve finished third, but we didn’t get that.

“We had to fight through it and pass a couple cars the hard way and we ended up fifth. It’s certainly the finish that our car was today. It’s frustrating to be fifth, but yet you look at the grand scheme of things and it’s three straight top fives to start the Chase so not bad.”

Busch and Kenseth made themselves early championship favorites after Chicago and New Hampshire. Kenseth won both races but Busch could have take one of the two given certain circumstances. It’s a great way to start the Chase but crew chief Dave Rogers knows it won’t be enough.

“It says we’ve got a Chase contending team, but it’s one week at a time. We’ve got seven more to go,” he said on Sunday. “The first three were good, but we’ve got to back that up for seven more weeks and we’ve got to put this 18 car – this M&M’s, Interstate Batteries Camry – in Victory Lane here sooner or later.”

Which is what Kenseth had been doing and until Sunday the 18 team were the only ones capable of running with him. Some still believe it’s a three-man race for the title between Kenseth, Busch and Johnson, who won Sunday for the eighth time at Dover.

Kenseth started second and led twice for 36 laps but the handling of his Home Depot Toyota took him out of contention. He had to settle for a seventh place finish.

“When you look up, everybody that finished in front of you, it’s all cars that you’re racing for points,” the point leader said. “Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish.”

Two tires on the last pit stop didn’t help Kenseth, who left pit road third. Having run solidly in the top 10 all day with the likes of Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Busch, it looked as though he’d finish amongst them. But the call for tires as well as restarting on the inside lane, did him in.

He remains the point leader but now by only eight on Johnson. Fortunately, Kansas is the next stop for the NSCS and Kenseth won there earlier this season. Unfortunately, Dover is one of Busch and Kenseth’s better racetracks and after Sunday, not one to just put aside and move on.

Said Busch about the weekend and result, “It’s certainly appealing and you could be happy with it, but we’re a little disappointed at the same time. We felt like we wanted to come in here, we wanted to run better, we could run better here, we have before and just could never really get the feel that I was looking for the whole weekend with the front tires.”

Kenseth wasn’t ready to put it behind him either. “No, if we would have won I would say that, but, no, not really. I felt like it’s one of our best racetracks and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks and now that all the guys you’re racing with beat you, so – overall, it was a solid day, but we wished for a little bit more.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson Dominates at Dover

By Reid Spencer (NASCAR Wire Service) DOVER, Del.—  Jimmie Johnson’s run toward a possible sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship shifted into high gear Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

On two fresh tires to polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s four, Johnson held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate during a 26-lap green-flag run to the finish of the AAA 400 and made a significant dent in the series lead of Matt Kenseth, who finished seventh.

Johnson picked up his fifth victory of the season, his record eighth at the Monster Mile—breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison—and the 65th of his career. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet vaulted over fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch into second in the Chase standings, eight points behind Kenseth.

Johnson, however, had plenty of cause for concern when he lined up for the final restart with Earnhardt right behind him—on four fresh tires.

“Two (tires) worked good for us in practice,” Johnson said. “And believe me, I wanted to see four tires line up in the fourth or fifth row. When they lined up right behind me, I thought I was going to have my hands full. And I really did. Junior drove a whale of a race, and track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him off.”

Johnson also took a moment to enjoy the magnitude of his record-breaking win.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “To do anything Bobby or Richard has done is quite an accomplishment. We’ve had a few sneak away from us here, too, over the years. I’m just happy to get that done and be the sole leader of race wins here. It’s a very special day.”

Johnson held a lead of nearly five seconds when NASCAR called the fourth caution of the race for debris in the form of a spring rubber that had dislodged from a car and landed on the concrete racing surface in Turn 3.

With every lead-lap car short on fuel—with the possible exception of Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota—the yellow presented a welcome opportunity to refuel. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, opted to change right-side tires only, while Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, called for a four-tire change.

Earnhardt restarted fourth on Lap 375 of 400 and quickly rocketed into second place, but couldn’t catch the five-time champion.

Joey Logano ran third, followed by Jeff Gordon and Busch, as Chase drivers claimed all top 10 finishing positions for the first time in Chase history.

Earnhardt, whose winless streak reached 48 races, relinquished the race lead during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 119 after missing the entrance to pit road on the previous lap. The snafu cost Earnhardt seven positions and 13 seconds on the track, and though a caution on Lap 164 bunched the field and enabled him to make up lost ground, Earnhardt couldn’t mount a challenge to Johnson’s dominance after that.

On a later stop, Earnhardt lost time getting to his pit stall when he had to slow behind Mark Martin’s Chevrolet. Earnhardt conceded that the issues on pit road, particularly the first one, may have changed the outcome of the race.

“Yeah, if you really look at the race as a whole, they did cost us a little bit, at least the mistake I made missing pit road completely. We had the lead, gave up the lead. Jimmie had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted.

“If I had not given up that track position, had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted right at the end, we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was (hard) to get by Jimmie.

“I think missing the commitment cone was a big factor in us not finishing one spot ahead of where we are. But the other pit stop wasn’t that big a deal. I came on pit road about as hard as I could. The 14, Mark, was running maybe five, 10 miles an hour slow in the first couple of (pit road timing) segments. I don’t know that cost us a ton of time.”

Chase drivers Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards were casualties of bad luck and a broken part, respectively. Busch was caught two laps down after an early green-flag pit stop that preceded the second caution on Lap 164. He finished 21st and dropped to ninth in the standings, 55 points behind Kenseth.

Edwards, who entered the race fourth in points, took his car to the garage on Lap 377 with broken hub, finished 35th and plummeted seven spots to 11th in points, 65 out of the lead.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Furniture Row Racing Makes Chase Changes

By Amanda Ebersole – If there is one underdog team in the 2013 Chase to the Sprint Cup, it is without a doubt Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team from Furniture Row Racing. The only single car team to make the Chase in its history, Busch has garnered a new fanbase as fans cheer for the little team to out race the mega teams.

As we approach the third Chase race, Busch is currently seventh in the points and forty points in the hole. Still mathematically in the title hunt, there needs to be changes made to get the team on the “A” game.

Today news broke from the garage that Furniture Row Racing will be using the pit crew of the No.2 Nationwide team as part of their technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. This is the crew that has seen Brian Scott to 12 top 10 finishes and a current average finish of 11.6 for the season.

“We had to make a change,” Busch said of his struggling Chase efforts. “As a Chase team, you have to go up to bat each time looking to make contact, and our team had a lot of misses on pit road this year. Each position struggled. The chemistry among the group — it was no one person’s fault. As a team, they did not execute. So I talked to (FRR GM) Joe Garone about it and brought in (FRR team owner) Barney Visser and Richard Childress, and we all came to the conclusion together.”

As they head over the wall in Dover, the 78 team will have one familiar face, jackman Milan Rudanovic.

Is this enough to get Busch back into title contention? Time will tell, with eight races remaining wins will determine our 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Field Wide-Open

By Matt Weaver – Matt Kenseth knows the potential pitfalls of a slow start in the Chase for the Championship.

After all, it was almost a year ago that Kenseth won his first of two races in the playoffs but was an afterthought because of three consecutive finishes outside of the top-10 to open the format. He was forced to play catch-up and couldn’t, finishing seventh in his final season for Roush Fenway Racing.

This season has seen the 2003 champion perform flawlessly to open the Chase, kicking off his latest playoff runs with two straight victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. As a result, he’s built a massive championship lead — 13 over Kyle Busch and 18 over Jimmie Johnson.

Everyone else is at least 35 points out of the top spot and Kenseth wouldn’t have it any other way.

“As I’ve watched the Chase through all these years, there are always guys that get far enough behind where they’re basically eliminated, and I was one of them last year,” Kenseth said on Friday at Dover International Speedway. “And after we got out of Dover, we knew that it would take a small miracle to get back in it.

“I think that happens every year.”

This year, that role happens to be inhabited by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne who have had miserable starts to the Chase and inhabit the final three spots in the standings. Kenseth has now experienced both ends of the spectrum in consecutive seasons and is relishing the opportunity to control his own destiny over the final eight weeks of the season.

“I’d like to be out front as far as you could possibly get out there,” Kenseth added. “I think that’s the best place to be. You hope to have a lead and you hope to build on that lead and I think when you get further behind that’s kind of when you maybe try things you wouldn’t typically try and you get out of your comfort zone…

“I think you’re more open to making mistakes or things going wrong [in that scenario] so I’m obviously happy with the start we’ve had and hopefully we can build on that.”

At second place in the standings, Busch has done everything in his power to match his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, finishing second in both races. As a result, he says he’s not paying attention to how the standings are playing out this early.

“I really don’t care right now, ” Busch said. “We’re just with the mindset to continue on the path that we have all year long and that’s to continue to run consistently and to get good finishes and if we can win we try to win.  But, right now it’s going to be the guys who are upfront each and every week — and certainly it may take a couple wins in this deal to win it — but I’ve also felt all along that if you finish second every single Chase race then you could have a really good shot at winning a championship that way.”

It is certainly easier to feel that when you’re Busch and you’ve had that remarkably fast start. But to those in the middle of the pack like Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, winning is going to have to be a part of the recipe — that and a drop-off in performance and/or bad luck by the front-runners.

Like the championship leaders, Biffle says it is too early to crown anyone the favorite after two races.

“The Chase, from what I understand is made up of 10 races,” Biffle said on Friday with a hint of snark. “And to be two races into the Chase and say it’s a three-man race already — to me — seems silly.”

And to a degree, Biffle is right.

There is a lot of racing left but rolling off good finishes won’t be enough for second-place on back. With Kenseth so far out in front, a good finish won’t be enough if Kenseth maintains a near top-10 average. To those fourth-place on back, nearly a full race separate the two groups so it is going to take wins and maybe two just to get even.

But Biffle believes that anyone in the Chase from fourth on back is certainly capable of making the grade.

“I wouldn’t count out Carl Edwards or any of those other guys that are right there in the hunt,” Biffle said of his rivals. “Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick — I wouldn’t be counting those guys out yet is all I’m trying to say. And I’m not just saying it just because of our case either.”

Just as Kenseth opened last year’s Chase with three bad finishes, the same result could befall him at any of the remaining eight events this year and that would change everything.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Power Rankings: The Fast Fifteen

The story of the Chase after two races is a consistent one — Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Jonson. Kenseth has opened with two wins while his teammate Busch has a pair of runner-ups. Johnson has finished no worse than sixth, placing the trio at the top of the Fast Fifteen Power Rankings for the second consecutive week.

The updated list can be found below.

1.) Matt Kenseth (LW: 1)

Two wins, an average finish of 1.0 and a 14 point championship lead to open the Chase for the Championship. That Kenseth guy is going to be pretty good someday, isn’t he? His seventh victory of the season came at a place where he has often struggled and had never won at until Sunday.

Dream season indeed.

2.) Kyle Busch (LW: 2)

Kyle Busch is doing everything he can to win the championship outside of beating his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Back-to-back runner-up finishes is still impressive and keeps him at 14 points out of the top spot.

3.) Jimmie Johnson (LW: 3)

While the Gibbs teammates get all the attention, Five-Time is silently lurking in the background with some of his better tracks (Dover and Charlotte) looming around the corner.

4.) Carl Edwards (LW: 8)

The former championship runner-up has been solid through two Chase races and is 38 points behind Kenseth. If the leaders stumble, Edwards could find himself back in the mix.

5.) Kurt Busch (LW: 4)

Busch continues to lose spots on pit road, magnified by the difficulty to pass at New Hampshire. He finished 13th on Sunday.

6.) Brad Keselowski (LW: 11)

An 11th place on Sunday at New Hampshire wasn’t terrible. The No. 2 is starting to regain some consistency that they can hopefully put towards next season.

7.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 15)

NASCAR’s most popular driver responded to his Chicagoland misfortune with a sixth place at New Hampshire. It was good for momentum but not good enough to catch the championship leaders, who all finished ahead of him.

8.) Greg Biffle (LW: NR)

A third-place run on Sunday was one of Biffle’s best since the summer. He’s now fifth in the standings and 38 points back, posed to return to contention if the frontrunners have a setback.

9.) Jeff Gordon (LW: 6)

A season of what could have been was best represented by Sunday’s race in New Hampshire. For a second straight week, Gordon experienced a situation that took him from a likely top-5 to deep in the pack. But unlike Chicago, Gordon was only able to get as high as P15.

10.) Ryan Newman (LW: 9)

Yet another Chaser who struggled to break into the top-15 at New Hamsphire. Newman finished sixth.

11.) Clint Bowyer (LW: 7)

#WeAreMWR? Bowyer’s team didn’t buy any fan votes with the sympathy act and the team struggled at New Hamsphire, traditionally one of the Bowyer’s better venues.

12.) Sam Hornish Jr. (LW: 13)

Still the Nationwide Series points leader by 15 points after a P4 showing at Kentucky.

13.) Kevin Harvick (LW: 5)

Harvick was no doubt happy to leave New Hampshire after a 20th place showing.

14.) Jamie McMurray (LW: NR)

A top-5 at New Hampshire was a good boost for the highest finishing non-Chaser and a reminder that McMurray is having one of his better seasons despite not yet having hit Victory Lane.

15.) Austin Dillon

Kentucky remains one of his better tracks as it saw him finish second there in the Nationwide Series standalone event.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Pit Road Mistake and Traffic too much for Gordon to Overcome

By Kelly Crandall (LOUDON, N.H.) – Jeff Gordon knew it was going to be close when he started to slide through his pit stall with less than 100 laps to go in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Gordon was carrying more speed than he had his previous trips down pit road, this time because he was leading. As the front of his No. 24 started to inch towards the white line which outlines the designated pit area Gordon saw the NASCAR official and react and knew he was in trouble. The slide ended Gordon’s day, taking him from the lead to 21st off pit road.

“I’m highly disappointed in myself. The team put me in a great position,” the four-time champion said after his 15th place finish. “We had a decent car and then track position made it into a great car. So it was obviously important to maintain that. I just came in and slid through. I hadn’t come close to sliding through all day … and crossed the splitter over the line by an inch and that’s all it takes to make a difference between a chance at winning and finishing 15th.”

Entering the day seventh in points and less than 24 behind leader Matt Kenseth, Gordon’s mistake after leading twice for 36 laps leaves him eighth in points and now almost a full race behind Kenseth who won for the second straight week. Track position was so important Gordon was never able to recover even with the amount of time left in Sunday’s event.

He called passing nearly impossible and his car was not a car capable of working through traffic. It was much better out front. Add in the chaos he described happening around him, the odds were not only stacked but worked against him.

But whether it was his mistake or not, the race ended up playing out differently than Gordon needed. The caution which led to his pit road problem was not what he wanted to see, “that caution hurt us in general,” because it took away the strategy the Alan Gustafson led team were running.

Now, Gordon heads to Dover still looking for his first win of the season. While he’s run strong, he acknowledged right now it won’t be enough to beat the likes of Kenseth, Kyle Busch and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Dover however, is a track he’s won at four times.

And for as much as Sunday stung and for as many mistakes Gordon’s made in his career, this one came at critical time but still early enough in the Chase to overcome.

“I’m excited with the way we’re performing. Chicago was great and this weekend was great and we just keep that up; we’re not far out of fourth,” Gordon said about his point position. “We lost quite a bit of ground to those guys up front but not too much as far as getting in the top 5 in points.

“I think we are very capable of doing it but the driver can’t make mistakes. [Sunday] was one of the days. This is a short race. Track position is so important. You can’t make mistakes. I made a crucial one and I can’t allow that to happen again if we’re going to get ourselves in the top 5 in points this year.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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NASCAR Cup Series

The Stories Behind the Story: New Hampshire

By Matt Weaver – A lot of ballyhoo was made of NASCAR’s decision expand the Chase for the Championship to 13 drivers following the events that transpired at Richmond. The end result was the literal biggest Chase of all time, not that it matters much after the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth became just the third driver to open the Chase with two consecutive wins and with it has turned the playoffs into a three team battle following Sunday’s race in New England.

For the second straight week, Kyle Busch — Kenseth’s teammate — finished second and Jimmie Johnson scored a top-five. The end result is just three teams within 36 points of the top spot — the top three separated by 18. The biggest Chase in NASCAR history is suddenly a three-car breakaway with eight races remaining.

Here are the top three stories to emerge from the Chase race at New Hampshire:

Kenseth defies odds

On Friday, I wrote that Matt Kenseth was not yet the favorite to win the Chase due to his previous results at New Hampshire. The 2003 champion entered Sunday’s race with a 13.8 average finish and a 16th-place average over his past 12 starts. But I also wrote that a good finish could establish his place as the favorite, speculation he exceeded by pulling into Victory Lane.

The victory is his seventh of the season and extends his own personal best marks — at 41 years old and in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

To those counting on Talladega to catch Kenseth, do so at your own risk as the Toyota driver has been one of the two most dominant plate aces (alongside Johnson) this season. Kenseth, powered by JGR and crew chief Jason Ratcliff may just have found an unbeatable combination in the 2013 Chase.

Elimination Sunday

In college football, some weekends are considered “elimination Saturday.” Sunday’s race at New Hampshire took on the form of an elimination race, perhaps ending the championship hopes of the bottom four Chase contenders.

Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the race at the back end of the standings and didn’t do enough to negate their problems at Chicagoland, finishing 14th (Logano) and sixth (Earnhardt). At this point, two wins are likely required to negate each bad result.

Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer were the latest to have their Cup hopes dashed. Kahne’s late-race accident relegated him to a 37th place finish while a delayed final pit stop dropped Bowyer to 17th.

On its face, Bowyer’s result wasn’t crippling but at 10th in the standings, nine teams may be too many to jump with eight races left in the season. This is especially true given the pressure and scrutiny the team faces following “Speedgate” at Richmond.

And the reality is dictating that no one is going to catch Kenseth if he continues to perform at his current pace.

Don’t fix the Chase if it isn’t broke

It is somewhat ironic that the Chase was instituted as a result of Matt Kenseth winning the championship with consistency and only a single victory in 2003.

It’s ironic because Kenseth is again running away with a championship and doing it under the format he helped necessitate. This has left some questioning the competitiveness of the current playoff format.

Look — nothing can be done to squash dominance.

The best teams and drivers will take whatever system you throw at them and eventually beat it. Sure the Chase could benefit from some added diversity in the form of a short track and road course but the 1-48 championship system — plus the Chase — is a valued aspect of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.

What were your instant takeaways from an eventful Chase race at New Hampshire? Tell us on Facebook or contact the author on Twitter @MattWeaverSBN