Sunday, July 16, 2017

Truex, Larson, And New Hampshire Make Their Case

New Hampshire Motor Speedway faces a bittersweet season with its second Winston Cup weekend going to Vegas in 2018, so for right now it is making a case for itself, and the track's July Cup weekend proved rather astounding.  

The most competitive racing at New Hampshire is the Modified Tour and 2017's Eastern Propane 100 proved rougher than most; the early duel between New England racing hero Ryan Preece - he of the aborted Busch Series effort a year-plus back but now a signee for Joe Gibbs Racing - and Winston Cup star Ryan Newman rapidly swelled into a multicar shootout that exploded some twenty laps in into a multicar melee down the frontstretch; the most notable victims were Ronnie Silk (who'd stormed into the top five unnoticed amid the expanding battle for the lead) and Tim Solomito.   The 100 became a Preece-Newman duel, until in the final twenty-five laps Doug Coby and Bobby Santos ran them down and the fight for the lead heated up and rapidly escalated - until with three to go Newman went Ernie Irvan on the leaders with a stupid attempt at passing up the middle in Four; it naturally ended poorly for Newman, while Santos shot the gap on the GWC finish for the win.

The Busch series - no, that isn't a typo - then rolled off and after a thirty-plus minute rain delay the early showdown between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch took a back seat the last ten laps of Segment One to an eye-popping fight for the lead between Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler, a nose-to-nose showdown that lasted some six laps before Kyle Larson seized the segment; it was easily the most exciting Busch/Xfinity series competition at New Hampshire since the early 1990s.  

The two stories of this race had little to do with Kyle Busch - the first was Keselowski was clearly the strongest car, but his victory bid was killed by a penalty on his green-flag stop in the final laps, which put Busch into an insurmountable lead.


The second story was - again - Ryan Preece, given up for dead as far as a major-league NASCAR career went after his season with the #01 went nowhere; JGR then signed him for a part-time outing for the time being; driving the JGR #20 in the Overtons 200, Preece turned heads with a solid effort and a superb finish.  

Entering the Cup Overtons 301 one of the big stories was the return of Aric Almirola - months ahead of what a lot of people thought would be the timetable.   But with his return a sad side story is the future of Darrell Wallace Jr., who proved himself commendably in Petty's #43 in his four-race quasi-audition.   One hopes the rumored Petty merger that opens a #44 second car happens so Wallace, who clearly fits well in the Petty organization, returns.   As for Almirola's return to Cup competition it was a miserable day, struggling just to hold onto what he had (he raced people pretty hard, but it never gained him anything) and ultimately finishing 24th - curiously similar a poor start to this run of races as with Darrell Wallace at Pocono in June, albeit without the garish pit road mistake.

The big picture takeaways from New Hampshire -

Though neither won (that went to Denny Hamlin), by now the Cup title fight is a two-car showdown involving Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson, who raced to the front from dead last at the start and erased a big gap to Hamlin in the final dozen or more laps; though Jimmie Johnson is second in the "Chase" lineup with three wins to Truex's three and Larson's two, Johnson and the Hendrick organization do not look like they can consistently contend with Larson or Truex.  

(A hilarious illustration of the absurdity of the Chase format - Johnson is second in the Chase at present yet is only ninth in overall points - with still-winless Kyle Busch third.

Toyota appears now to be gathering some overall momentum, as they cleaned house at New Hampshire - Toyotas led 290 laps to Chevrolet leading eleven and zero for Fords.    It was a striking shutout for Ford, leading with eight wins to Chevrolet's seven; Toyota's four to date merely showcases the brand's sluggish overall start.   Illustrating Ford's curious struggle was the mediocre day for Penske Racing between Brad Keselowski's less-than-inspiring effort and trouble for Joey Logano that cost him a garage trip. 

(A report worth keeping an eye on is that a suspension part from Logano was confiscated while he was in the garage during the race)

SMI's use of VHT resin - Next Generation Bear Grease as I call it - continues to win over people, as New Hampshire showed the usual exciting Modified racing as well as Saturday's eye-popping Overtons 200; for the Overtons 301 some of the racing was spirited, following the halfway point the battle for the lead began to get going and at one point the lead changed twice in one lap between Hamlin and Truex.   Clearly SMI has hit on a genuinely good idea for the racing.

The bitter upshot to the loss of New Hampshire's September Cup weekend after this season is that race secured ISM Connect sponsorship, and the prominence of the company's presence around the track makes nonsense of the idea that the track had to lose a Cup date so Vegas could get a second one.

Speaking of upshots, one couldn't help but detect schadenfreude in the air when Kyle Busch got a pit penalty before the Ryan Newman spin.   JGR's surprising shutout from victories is now over, the story will now focus on whether Kyle Busch can win one.  

So it goes as NASCAR hits the Bricks next week, and Xfinity's race will bear extra attention.

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