More than ever NASCAR needed a good race Sunday at New Hampshire in the aftermath of the scandal that dominated headlines in the last two weeks.
The Sylvania 300 won’t go down as one of the sport’s most memorable afternoons but at least it was controversy-free for the most part.
The story from Chase race number two was clearly Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing after another 1-2 finish by the 2003 champion and teammate Kyle Busch. After their performance last week at Chicagoland Speedway, JGR became the first team in Chase history to start the playoffs with back-to-back sweeps of the first two finishing positions.
But outside of the glorious day for the Gibbs bunch, Sunday’s race wasn’t exactly chock full of highlights. Side-by-side racing was mostly relegated to restarts and the field spent most of the afternoon strung out around the one-mile track.
Although Chase drivers dominated the first ten finishing spots, others not in the championship hunt enjoyed a decent afternoon including Jamie McMurray, who rallied back from an early race incident with soon to be ex-teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, and Jeff Burton.
It’s early to be sure but this Chase sure has the look of a three-driver race with the way Kenseth, Busch and Jimmie Johnson have started. Carl Edwards is already 36 behind in fourth place, which is nearly a race worth of points already to make up only a couple of events into the championship season.
Dover is next up, which happens to be one of Kenseth’s best tracks by the way. Hopefully the “Monster Mile” can add some spark to what’s so far been a tepid start (at least on the track) to Chase 2013.
- Kasey Kahne had the roughest day of the title contenders with a 37th place finish, thanks to a hard hit to the inside front stretch wall late in the race. Kahne appeared either dazed or frustrated in his television interview after the accident but did return to the track. However his Chase chances may have been hit harder than the impact of his car. On the other Hendrick Motorsports hand Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained alive after what appeared to be a doomed start on a botched early pit stop with crew chief Steve Letarte calling the right strategies to help orchestrate a 6th place finish for the 88 team.
- New Hampshire track president Jerry Gappens reiterated his desire to have a night race at the New England track hopefully by the 2015 season. Gappens said the installation of lights to put the annual summer July visit in prime time is very much in play. There appears to be some shifting of day and night races on the horizon with speculation Texas will switch its April race to a daytime affair while New Hampshire joins Kansas as tracks looking to go under the lights. NASCAR’s new TV deal will more than likely play a big role in the potential adjustments. On another bright note although it wasn’t a complete sell-out, a large crowd turned out at NHMS for Chase race number two.
- The controversy of the Richmond manipulation finale and Michael Waltrip Racing’s role added another chapter over the weekend with some pointed comments from sponsor 5-Hour Energy. “We’ll see how the year plays out,” company president Scott Henderson said Sunday to the Associated Press when asked about the company’s partnership with MWR’s No. 15 entry driven by Clint Bowyer. “There’s a lot of talk about integrity,” he said. “When the guy who’s in charge can say, ‘I can do whatever I want and I’m going to do it and I just did,’ I wonder about integrity. I want to make sure we can win in this sport, OK?” Pretty strong words from another sponsor swept up in the scandal. Stay tuned.
- Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway saw young Ryan Blaney score his first career win in a field without Sprint Cup regulars, with the exception of Brian Vickers. But despite the lack of interlopers from NASCAR’s top series and a wealth of young talent on display, the Bluegrass State fans did not seem to be interested with an intimate crowd on hand. It’s puzzling because the outcry from so many fans seems to be to rid the series of Sprint Cup drivers, yet the box office support for such events is minimal.