The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 24, 2016
September 22, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
One “Legend of the Brickyard” realizes his impact on this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup will be short if he doesn’t make a dramatic move forward in the Sylvania 300 on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But Jeff Gordon has been tested by pressure all season just to make the Chase.
Gordon finished 35th in the opening round of the Chase last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway when the throttle stuck in his Chevrolet. He arrives at the 1.058-mile flat track in New England last in the 12-driver Chase. That left him a whopping 47 points behind Chase leader Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing and 21 points behind 11th-place Matt Kenseth, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.
Gordon realizes time isn’t on his side. He doesn’t want to be as irrelevant as the wild-card team that loses the one-game playoff in Major League Baseball this season, so he must find his way to the front at New Hampshire.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Gordon made a good start Friday. He won the pole with a fast lap of 134.911 mph in his Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
“This season we have had a lot of problems, but our cars were really fast,” Gordon said. “It gave us the confidence to know you can rebound – you can win at the next track.”
It was Gordon‘s sixth pole at New Hampshire to go along with his three wins, 15 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 35 starts. But the last time he drove to victory at NHMS was ancient history – back in 1998. He was fourth last September and sixth in July.
Gordon is starting at the front but realizes it means little if he doesn’t win the 300-lap race.
“You can’t make up what we lost last week in one race,” Gordon said. “This is something we didn't expect. We expected to be strong in the race, but this was a big one and certainly good timing. Track position is big here. There are a couple of different factors I look at with this track. This track it is hard to get heat in the tires in the short run, so, you really slide around a lot and you can really lose positions on restarts if you are not careful. Maintaining that track position on those cold tires is hard to do. Obviously qualifying up front, we’ll have the track position there early. We’re going to fight hard to keep it. We have a great pit stall now, and that will certainly help as well. But, as you say, if you have long runs and you pit under green here, that number one pit stall really doesn’t do you any good. It is all about pitting under caution, and you don’t want to have to come in here, so you always stretch the fuel. We know it is tough to pass here, so track position is very, very important.”
While it would be easy to look at Gordon’s pole as a confidence-booster, former Indiana resident Gordon does not lack in that department after last week’s Chicagoland disappointment.
“My confidence wasn’t the issue, nor the team’s,” Gordon said. “We were running fourth when we wrecked last week. Your confidence gets broken when you are running 25th. That is the thing that has really gotten us through this season, is that we’ve had a lot of problems that have been frustrating, and we’ve had to battle through them. But our cars have been really, really fast. So, that keeps your confidence as a driver in knowing that you can rebound. That you can get to the next track. And, if you don’t have these problems, you are going to have a solid finish, or a chance to win.”
Non-Chase driver Kyle Busch starts on the outside of the front row in a Toyota while Tony Stewart gave Indiana two drivers in the top three when two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion Stewart qualified third. It’s the 18th time Stewart will start in the top 10 at New Hampshire.
“It was definitely a good lap for us,” Stewart said. “We had a good practice this morning, and it was just really nice to be able to back it up for qualifying and it’s definitely the perfect way to start the weekend off, for sure. It’s a nice length race. It’s not 500 laps here, which it doesn’t need to be, and the hard thing it that it’s hard to pass at times here. But it seems like after you get about 15 or 20 laps on the tires and everybody can pretty much get where they need to go. But we’ll have a good pit spot, and hopefully we can keep that track position all day and not have to beat our car up trying to get up there.”
Stewart enters the race third in the standings, eight points behind Keselowski and five points behind four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart has three wins, 14 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 27 starts at New Hampshire. He won last year’s race and finished 12th back in July.
He believes that with the prospect of long green-flag racing, track positions will be the key.
“Yeah, it’s pretty important,” Stewart said. “It just depends on what your car is doing. If you’ve got a good car, a long run can be an asset as much as it seems like some people think it could be a detriment. But having a long run, and if your car is good; every time you get to put tires on, you’re kind of reset for 15 or 20 laps. So it’s nice to get some long runs here and nice to be able to get things sorted out to where you can race guys one on one versus having to sit there and worry about two behind you and two guys in front of you. It makes the racing a little bit easier, really.
“We got this weekend and eight tough weeks after it.”
Johnson is just three points out of first place and has three wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He was 18th last year and seventh on July 15.
Johnson qualified 20th Friday, so he need to fight his way through the field to score a top finish.
“It’s so tough to pass and such a short race that you’ve really got to come off the truck your first laps on and just fine-tune,” Johnson said. “You have to qualify well and then stay up front, clean air is so important here. I know it’s odd with it being such a small track, but having clean air and the whole race track to run your line creates a really fast lap and you can kind of control the race at that point. The last thing that is a part of all that is when the cautions fall; this track can really be challenging from a fuel mileage stand point. We have seen plenty of that. First and foremost, you’ve got to have a great car. I think if you have a decent car you can play the fuel game and have a shot then, too.”
Johnson is the only driver that has been further back than second after the first Chase race who has gone on to win the championship. But he believes that plenty of drivers can accomplish that this season.
“Absolutely, it is definitely possible,” he said. “I think as tight as things were starting this Chase there wasn’t a very big points spread from first to fourth or fifth, something like that. Definitely that stat can fall for that reason, and then it’s racing. I was just talking about 2006, we had two DNF’s (did not finish) and still came back to win the championship.”
Points leader Keselowski will start 15th. Other Chasers not among the top-10 qualifiers include Clint Bowyer (12th), Greg Biffle (13th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (14th), 2003 Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick (16th), Johnson (20th), Kenseth (25th) and Denny Hamlin, who will start 32nd despite being fastest in practice.
Hamlin is fourth in the Chase, 15 points out of the lead. Former USAC star and Indianapolis resident Kasey Kahne is fifth, also 15 points out after his third-place finish last Sunday.
“We felt good about Chicago we started the Chase off on a good note,” Kahne said. “The team did a really nice job. We were close, we weren’t as good as Brad (Keselowski) and Jimmie (Johnson), but we were pretty close. We have a lot to build on there. Coming back to Loudon, I like this place. We have run pretty well here at times. We were right in the mix the first race and ended up getting the win here. Hopefully Sunday we can put together another strong performance, qualify well this afternoon and put together a good performance on Sunday.”
Kahne won at this track on July 15 after finishing 15th here last September. That is his lone victory, one of two top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts.
Bowyer is sixth in the Chase, the last of a trio of drivers 15 behind the leader.
Earnhardt is seventh, 17 points out of the lead. Although he hasn’t achieved the status as a “Brickyard Legend” just yet. he remains one of the most popular driver that competes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At New Hampshire, Earnhardt has no wins, seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 26 starts. He was 17th last September and fourth in July.
“New Hampshire kind of lends itself to the short-track mentality and that style of racing,” Earnhardt said. “I enjoy racing at short tracks, have a great track record at all the short tracks we run at. I feel like that’s a bit in my wheelhouse, and this place sort of fits toward that.
“I was a little bit disappointed with finishing eighth last week (at Chicagoland). We’re going to need a little bit more than that to win the championship. This is a track that I feel like owes me one. We’ve been running here for a long time. We’ve had some good cars here, and we’ve had some cars capable of winning races. We just haven’t been able to finish the job. So, I kind of feel like it’s got to happen sooner or later, and I feel like that it needs to happen now. There’s a bit of urgency. Not a whole lot, just enough to keep us motivated and real positive. I feel pretty positive. I mean, this is a good racetrack. When we came here (for the July 2012 race), I was without my main engineer (Kevin Meendering), who was having a child that weekend. We joke about it. Even though he was at home and trying to participate, it’s just not the ideal situation. That was something totally unavoidable, and we were happy for his situation at the time. We have him here this weekend. I’m really to attack, and go work on the car in practice.”
Martin Truex Jr. is ninth in points 21 behind the leader with 2003 Brickyard winner Harvick 10th, 24 points out of the lead.
Kenseth and Gordon bring up the rear in the Chase, but pole winner Gordon believes he can take a major step toward turning around last week’s disappointment with a victory Sunday.
“We have to score a lot more points than the other guys,” Gordon said. “How do you know what that is? The problem is that you have 11 guys that you have to do that with. We’re at the pretty good chunk just back to 11th. It’s going to have to be pretty extraordinary. Right next to miraculous. Miraculous things have happened, so that’s what keeps us motivated and keeps us going forward is that anything can happen, and crazier things have happened before.”