New England Lobster’s Least Favourite Race | July 18, 2012
After the action packed excitement of last weeks Daytona race it was with baited breath that NASCAR made one of its brief flurry’s out of its southern heartland on Sunday when it went to New England and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (or the ‘Magic Mile’ as its known) at Loudon. With only seven races left before the Chase starts the pressure is now building on the drivers on the cusp to step it up, the tactics for those drivers is now more about getting a win to secure a wildcard rather then playing it safe for the points.
NHMS is a one mile track that although isn’t technically a short track it is talked about and driven like one. It is a track that is traditionally hard to pass on as there is usually one line that works, coupled with the fact that the bottom of the track is only banked by 2 degrees (in comparison to the top line’s 7 degrees) means that track position is key to success. Any slight mistake that results in losing track position can not only cost a team the chance of a win but can also cost them a chance at a competitive finish. Crew Chiefs have to be on top of their game with strategies, pit crews have to ensure there are no mistakes and drivers have to make every lap a clean one.
With track position being talked about by everyone the best chance at a win was going to come from a good qualifying session. With 43 out of the 44 drivers having set their time it was Kasey Kahne sitting a top of the tree, as Kyle Busch rolled out onto the track. Although he came extremely close to going into the wall on the last portion of the track he was able to beat Kahne by 0.003 seconds with a time of 28.548 seconds (133.417mph) for his first pole position of the season and his first at the NHMS.
Come race day there was an added sense of urgency as the weather reports were showing that rain clouds were heading towards the circuit and there was a chance that it could effect the race and make it an early finish.
Once the green flag dropped Busch held his first place into turn 1 and Kahne slotted in behind him. One lap later the number 5 thought about trying to make a move but that would mean moving out of the racing groove and onto the slipper parts of the track and at this early stage of the race thought better of it and kept himself in line. Early on many drivers were reporting issues with handling and complaining about how slippy the track was. NHMS requires slightly different tactics to most of the other tracks on the schedule. While the usual strategy is to chase the racetrack and make adjustments to constantly stay on top of the conditions, at NHMS very little changes over the course of a race. Cars are set up for long green flag runs, which means that in the early stages the tyres will not be up to pressure (low pressure means no grip) and it often takes at least 10 laps to reach optimal pressure.
On lap 9 Denny Hamlin makes it a Joe Gibbs Racing one two as he finds a way passed Kasey Kahne and starts closing down his team mate who is struggling on entry in the turns but nonetheless is able to maintain his lead on the straightaways.
While Kyle Busch is reasonably comfortable out front behind him the top 10 is starting to be dominated by the Hendrick Motorsport cars with all four cars now in it and moving forward. Heading them up is still the number 5 of Kasey Kahne who has caught up to the rear bumper of Hamlin and is able to breeze past him to retake second place. Ten laps later the 5 catches up to the rear bumper of the 18, in part due to Busch being held up by back markers, but he’s not able to find a way round him as Busch has much better grip on the exit of the turns and this allows him to ease himself away from Kahne before being caught again into the turns. They both put on a great show of driving for 30 odd laps weaving in and around lapped traffic while all the while keeping each other in check.
Eventually something had to give and with 67 laps gone it was the need for fuel as green flag pit stops got underway and the two leaders came to pit row together. But Kyle Busch didn’t leave with Kahne. An issue with the rear right tyre cost him almost 10 seconds but worse then that he was given a penalty for pit row speeding and had gone from a comfortable first place to 22nd and 44 seconds behind the leader. After the stops have all cycled through Denny Hamlin is the new leader, followed by the Hendrick Motorsport train of Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kyle Busch has made up a couple of places to 20th and has gained a lap back and now sits 22 seconds behind Hamlin; the only saving grace for Busch is that this happened early in the race and with smart driving a a good pit strategy it is possible that he could still be in contention at the end of the race.
The top 5 stays the same until the first caution of the day is thrown on lap 89 for debris. With the exception of the 24 of Jeff Gordon the leaders all come to pit row and depending on how the race unfolds it might be possible to only need two more pit stops to make it to the end. On the restart Hamlin puts his new tyres to good effect and blows past Gordon to retake the lead. The gamble for Gordon is that he needs another caution to enable him to come to pit row to get fresh tyres without losing any places. But in keeping with his luck this season no caution is forthcoming and he gets passed by team mates Johnson and Kahne. Meanwhile the caution worked well for Kyle Busch as he has made it back into the top 10 and looks to be on a charge to try and get back to the front.
On lap 145 Gordon can hold out no longer and comes to pit row and starts the second round of green flag pit stops which coincides nicely with the halfway point in the race so even with the rain closing in on the track the race will now have an official result if it does hit before lap 301. Although Gordon lost a few places before coming to pit row it seems that the gamble has in fact paid off as once everyone else has been to pit row he sits happily in second place with the rest of his team mates sat behind him.
Hamlin’s lead after the stops is over 5.5 seconds from the number 5 of Kasey Kahne, but over the course of the next 20 laps Kahne eats into the lead and brings it down to just under 3 seconds as Hamlin battles his way through backmarkers. That lead is entirely wiped out though on lap 189 when another debris caution is thrown. While the leaders all come to pit row Kyle Busch’s crew chief takes a gamble and keeps him out. This puts him back into the lead and marks a great come back that shows that with a good strategy and calm driving an early mistake doesn’t have to spell the end of a race. However his lead doesn’t last long as on the restart team mate Hamlin comes past him. The decision for Busch and his team now is when to bring him to pit row. Too soon and his tyres wont be as fresh at the end but too late and he could run out of fuel.
Third place Jimmie Johnson quickly comes up on the rear bumper of Busch and for the next few laps they race side by side for second place. Despite being on older tyres Busch is somehow able to keep Johnson at bay, but the battling allows Hamlin to open a 2 second lead over the rest of the field and with the dominance that he has had it is going to take something special to deprive him of the win. On lap 232 the final round of green flag stops start as second and third Busch and Johnson come to pit row, but more bad news for Kyle Busch as he overshoots his pit box and has to be pushed back costing him valuable time. But that isn’t the worse thing that happened to Busch and Johnson, just after they rejoined the track a caution is thrown after an engine blowout on the number 10 car.
Because Johnson and Busch had pitted under a green flag they had gone a lap down which would normally be negated by all the other cars also coming to pit row and they would reclaim their positions they were in prior to making their stops. But the caution allowed everyone else to come to pit row and maintain their positions meaning they wouldn’t get their chance to come back through the field. They were able to make it back onto the lead lap as Johnson was the first car a lap down so he got the lucky dog and Busch didn’t need to pit so he could stay out and take the wave around. But that was scant consolation as they were now at the back of the pack with less then 70 laps to go. Johnson was able to battle back to 7th place and post race was furious that the caution was thrown when he felt that there was no danger to the other cars, Busch was less successful and after overcoming all his earlier problems finished a very disappointing 16th.
When all the cars had left pit row strangely Hamlin, who was leading as they came on to pit row, was back in 13th. What transpired was that while all the cars around him had only taken 2 tyres he had for some reason taken 4. It seemed a very strange choice to make given that it would be obvious that everyone else would take 2 at this stage in the race and from listening into team radio it appeared that his crew chief (Darian Grubb) had made a monumental mistake. When Hamlin was coming to pit row he was asked how his tyres were doing, he replied that he had used them up and “just needed tyres”. Grubb replied that in that case two is the right call, and Hamlin said “I just need tyres”. Grubb interpreted this as Hamlin wanting 4 new tyres so that is what he gave him. On the radio after Hamlin had left pit row he was less then impressed with that decision and asked what had happened. Grubb told him “You said you wanted tyres, as in 4″, Hamlin replied “No, I said I wanted tyres on it!” Grubb admitted he had made a mistake “my bad bud, go on and make it up”, and with that Hamlin did his best to get back to the front.
On the restart the new leader is Kasey Kahne but Hamlin had the bit between his teeth and 10 laps later he is up to 8th, 4.7 seconds behind the leader and is the fastest car on the track. Two weeks ago it was Kahne who was doing the hunting, now he was being the hunted. But the laps were ticking over, with 29 laps to go Hamlin is up to 3rd and six laps later he has made it all the way back to second. With 20 laps to go Kahne’s lead is down to 2.6 seconds and with every lap that passes the lead shrinks a little bit more. 10 laps remaining Kahne’s lead is 1.8 seconds as he comes up on a train of back markers. Saturday’s Nationwide race was decided after the leader had to slow up due to back markers and he got passed for the lead so the drivers are fully aware of the effect that they can have on a race. The cars slow Kahne a little and the lead tumbles to one second but with 2 laps to go Hamlin pushes too hard into turns 3 and 4 and runs very high giving him no chance of making the catch. Kasey Kahne takes the chequered flag (and gets a lobster!) for his second win of the season which moves him up four places in the standings and with 2 wins puts him in prime position for a wildcard Chase spot.
The excitement at the end somewhat masked what was a reasonably incident free race. If you exclude the lead changes that occurred because of green flag pit stops there were only 3 leaders of the race and although everyone knew that it would be this type of race there was still a sense of disappointment among many fans about the lack of action. From my point of view I thought it was a race that demonstrated the drivers skills and showed how important it is to have a team that could go an entire race mistake free. NASCAR now takes a much needed week off before returning for the Indy 400 which usually provides some very exciting racing and with 5 drivers pushing for a wildcard spot there should be no holding back.