Fortunes were mixed for the title contenders in this past Monday's Chase opener at the Chicagoland Speedway. Eight of the top-10 finishers - including the top-six - were drivers among the Chase, led by race-wnner Tony Stewart. Fuel-mileage woes bit Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch, while Denny Hamlin had a miserable afternoon all around.
The result is that this weekend's 300-lapper at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Sun., 1 p.m. - ESPN) marks an important opportunity for all the title challengers. Stewart and the five drivers who followed him - Kevin Harvick (the new point leader), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, and Kurt Busch - will be looking to keep their momentum going on the flat 1.058-mile oval, a completely opposite track to the Chicagoland Speedway.
Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson both finished among the top-10, but they did so after running out of gas on the last lap and losing valuable positions and points. Newman won at Loudon in July, while Johnson finished fifth. A repeat performance for either could give Newman a jump start towards his first Sprint Cup championship or Johnson a run towards his sixth-straight title.
The other drivers are already in trouble. Matt Kenseth ran out of gas and actually crossed the line in 10th-place, but was penalized to 21st-place after being pushed for much of the last lap by J.J. Yeley. NASCAR rules have stated for years that drivers can not recieve a push while not under power on the last lap of the race. Gordon and Busch likewise ran out and were off the lead lap at the end. Kenseth has never run particularly well at flat tracks like Loudon, while Busch has had his struggles on the layouts. Gordon, meanwhile, was a late contender in July and has seemed at his best this year on flatter tracks like Phoenix - where he won in February - and Richmond, where he picked up a controversial second-place finish on September 10.
The 12th driver may already be out of the title hunt altogether, regardless of whether or not he continues his trend of strong runs at Loudon. Denny Hamlin started 27th and failed to progress through the field before being forced to pit road with a loose wheel. The miscue dropped him two laps down, a defecit from which he never recovered. He finally suffered a flat left-front tire after contact with Greg Biffle on a late restart and was left with a miserable 31st-place result. A year after leading the series with eight wins and leading the point standings into the last race of the year, Hamlin needs more than a couple of small miracles to have any shot of getting back into the title fight.