New England's first race of 2010 was also one of its finest. Between poor pit strategy, a fender-banging fight for the lead, and a near-impossible comeback, there's plenty to focus on after 301 miles at Loudon's one-mile oval. It was a day that started with thoughts of a wreckfest, but ended by building on two important themes NASCAR sorely needs: credibility and respect. Racing, not roughhousing, took center stage one week after Infineon's road course devolved into a high-speed game of bumper cars.
With the dust settling and a reigning four-time champ back toward hogging the spotlight, here's five things to take away from NASCAR's first showdown of the summer:
"I was a little shocked," he said, thinking at first a chance to win the race was over. "Inside the car, I was so pissed off, I almost lost it."
"Driving into turn three, I had all intentions of passing him on the inside," was Busch's version of events. This from a guy who has a history of making things rough on the No. 48. "Your motive is always to pass a guy clean ... I just got into him in the left rear."
That answer seems questionable, but whether Busch told the truth is beside the point. The bottom line is, he didn't get his desired result of winning the race. Johnson showed the maturity that's won him races and championships through the years, realizing quickly he was still in second and had a chance to pull an "eye for an eye" routine.
"My thought process was [initially], 'Wreck his [butt],'" he explained. "But my end result was: 'You can't do that, you'll wreck yourself, you'll look like a fool.' You still have a chance to win the race, focus on your job. It made it easier for me to get off the brake a little earlier and nudge him."
That's exactly how it happened, Johnson ran his challenger back down, then pulled a little bump 'n' run to score his second win in a row. That ties him with rival
"Have we caught the Gibbs cars? I don't know that we have ever lost touch with them," said crew chief
It wasn't easy. A rare early mistake for the No. 14 crew, failing to fill the car with fuel under caution, left Stewart off sequence with the leaders. After a Lap 240 yellow for
"Fought all day," he said of a frantic finish, during which new tires and a handful of restarts gave him a chance to climb to second. "Nobody has quit on this deal. We have all dug deeper; it's hard to keep motivated and keep everybody pumped up, but I'm really proud [of where we are now]." Stewart attributes their latest success more to a change in philosophy -- the team has done more off-track testing in recent weeks in order to try and catch the field. But there's no denying that since catching a lucky break at Pocono and finishing third, the No. 14 team got infused with a little confidence injection they haven't relinquished.
"Everybody talks about momentum and it's a theory, I guess," he said to my question about the team's solid month. "Today is over, and we have to start tomorrow for next week."
That may be true, but it's a whole lot easier when you start off the joy of a podium finish as opposed to running 25th.
This time, the blame falls squarely on Burton's crew chief. During a caution on Lap 283,
"All we had to do was drag one or two people with us on that restart and we would have been fine," he said afterward, refusing to point the finger. "[My team] gives me great race cars, and 99% of the time they make great calls. It just went against us today."
Those old Goodyears destroyed the handling in the closing laps, leaving Burton sliding into
Gordon knows that feeling all too well, going 0-for-17 despite a hefty 712 laps led. On Sunday, after he ran fourth by flashing some speed early, contact with rival
"Just the type of racing you're seeing these days," he said. "Double-file re-starts get really hairy and wild and crazy. We've got to work on the restarts a little bit."
Those late-race missteps make the difference between labeling them championship pretenders or contenders.
Whatever the reason, solutions need to come quickly. The organization was light years behind its rivals on Sunday, running 16th, 17th, 20th, and 25th with their four-car effort.
That mess opens the door for the most unlikely of challengers:
But ultimately, the off-track distractions have combined with on-track mechanical issues, dooming Kahne to four months of going through the motions while a pending marriage to