By Travis Barrett
LOUDON, N.H. — For nearly two years, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had been dominated by the Chevrolet teams of Hendrick Motorsports and its sister organization at Stewart Haas Racing. Jimmie Johnson won his sixth career Sprint Cup championship in 2013, followed by Kevin Harvick’s title last year.
Both Harvick and Johnson continued their form through the first half of this season, with Harvick capping a stretch of eight straight Top-2 finishes by finishing second at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in late March. Combined, both drivers have six wins this season.
But the chase to this year’s Sprint Cup might be shaping up as a showdown between two of NASCAR’s other powerhouse organizations.
Kyle Busch’s win in Sunday’s 5-Hour Energy 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was his third win in the last four races, and it completed a dominating weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing. Add in Penske Racing’s second-place finish from Brad Keselowski and his teammate, Joey Logano, holding strong in second in the overall series standings, and suddenly the Gibbs’ Toyota camp and the Penske Fords look like serious contenders to series’ bowtie brigade of Chevrolets.
Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounded worried after watching Busch, Keselowski and Logano all finish ahead of him Sunday.
“I’m more concerned that we don’t have speed,” said Earnhardt, who finished fifth Sunday, his eighth career Top-5 at NHMS. “We ran fifth, but I didn’t like the car at all. My teammates didn’t have a lot of speed. So, as a whole, we need to really work hard, try to come here a little stronger next time (in September).
“I’m always the third, fourth, fifth-best car. I’m never like the 2, the 4, the 18, the 11. That is very frustrating.”
Since Johnson won at Dover in May — his second win in a three-race span — the only race Hendrick Motorsports won was a bizarre, late night/early morning restrictor plate race at Daytona.
Meanwhile, Busch and his JGR teammates rolled into New Hampshire, the same track that hosts the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and browbeat the competition. Denny Hamlin won the Xfinity Series Lakes Region 200 Saturday after winning the pole for that race, while the weekend began with Carl Edwards winning the pole Friday and Busch, Hamlin and Matt Kenseth all qualifying inside the top eight.
“We’ve worked extremely hard,” said team owner Joe Gibbs. “To show you how hard this sport is, it took us a year and half to realize we were behind, where we were (behind), and then putting everybody to work trying to catch up… We’ll have to see (how we’ll be for the Chase), but certainly we’re a lot closer.”
“We just have to keep doing our deal every weekend, and it’s been getting better and better,” said Busch, who still needs to shave another 58 points to reach the Top 30 in the driver standings to lock himself into the 16-car Chase field.
“It’s certainly the right thing to do is to win races and to gather those points, but to do it in the fashion we have been – just winning these things, that’s just spectacular and that’s awesome.”
That effort to get the program back up to speed was sweetened Sunday by beating Keselowski, who led a race-high 100 laps after winning this race last year as part of a Penske sweep at New Hampshire in 2014. Logano won the race in September.
Though Keselowski was curt in his responses to the media following the race, the performance of his Ford certainly hasn’t diminished. Track position aside, he might have had the best car from start to finish Sunday.
“We’ve got really fast cars,” Keselowski said. “That’s the backbone of performance in this sport — having really fast cars.”
And despite seeing Busch finish one spot ahead of him Sunday, Keselowski remains confident about a return trip to NHMS during the Chase.
“He’s good, but we’re a good team, too,” Keselowski said. “I feel like we can beat him.”
Unfortunately for the Hendrick and Stewart Haas teams heading into the season’s home stretch, they might not feel the same way. They may not be far off, but Chase racing is about maximizing every single position on the track through each elimination round.
Close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
“I think we have to work on our long run speed just a little bit,” Harvick said. “That was probably our biggest benefit (Sunday), but I think we can be better.”
“We had a pretty decent car, just need to be a little bit better if we want to come back here and do well in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “We have to get a little more speed. The whole company needs to just keep working and we will get it.”