LOUDON, N.H. — NASCAR didn’t get the day it needed Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It needed a free-for-all wrestling match on a 1-mile flat race track on a hot summer day when its most popular driver was sidelined by a possible concussion.
Thanks, Matt Kenseth, for spoiling all that hope. Kenseth earned his 38th career win in a New Hampshire 301 dominated by the same drivers who have dominated all season and where battles for the lead primarily got dicey when the leaders found themselves in the rare position of being stuck in traffic or on a restart.
The race had potential to invigorate. Restarts would be crazy thanks to the typical one-groove track. Drivers who already have made the Chase would have nothing to lose beating and banging for a win. Teams had not used the “regular” 2016 aerodynamic package since early June at Pocono, meaning that some teams might have landed on something in the last month that could throw the establishment into a tailspin.
Kenseth’s car fails inspection after N.H. victory
Matt Kenseth’s Toyota will go to NASCAR’s research and development center in Concord, North Carolina, for more evaluation after the race-winning car failed an inspection.
Kenseth pulls away late to win in New Hampshire
Matt Kenseth pulled away down the stretch to win the Sprint Cup race Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Oh, there could have been mayhem.
Sigh. Even the restarts with potential for dramatics, resulted in mostly fender benders that then resulted in tire rubs instead of all-out melees battling for position.
A ho-hum race won by Kenseth? Where have NASCAR fans seen that before? At least it wasn’t like his last win at New Hampshire by fuel mileage.
Kenseth no doubt earned it in front of a disappointing half-filled grandstands in a race with no sponsor. And in a race with no Dale Earnhardt Jr., out with concussion-type symptoms.
The lack of drama was the result of one thing: Talent rises to the top and currently it’s primarily Toyota teams (Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing) sitting there with Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske playing the role of annoying gnats.
“I felt like we had probably the best car all day,” Kenseth said. “It just took forever to get there.”
Yes it did, and Kenseth didn’t do anything dramatic to get there. That’s what a driver does when having the best car — don’t tear the thing up but make the pass when the opportunity presents itself. There’s no need to look at the rearview mirror when the car is better than the rest.
“I think no matter what package it is, … it’s kind of the same group you’ve got to beat,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think anybody really is leaps and bounds out there running away from it. The rules are too tight and everybody is pretty close to the same speed.”
Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, is one of the series’ best drivers and he felt as if he had one of the best cars. That was pretty obvious as he led the final 31 laps.
Truex had another one of those show-me-how-to-lose-it days, this time with a broken shifter as the culprit. The other dominant driver this season, Kevin Harvick, would have led laps if he didn’t have two slow pit stops.
“We under-execute as a team on a weekly basis and got to do a better job,” Harvick said. “The … cars are always fast, but we always do something wrong. It’s really going to have to come from the top [to manage].
“I mean they are going to have to clamp down and there is no way we can win a championship like this unless they straighten some of this stuff out.”
That left the race for Kenseth to lose, and while he has had some moments similar to Truex this year, he appeared flawless on the four restarts in the final 43 laps, leaving any challengers racing for second.
That race actually was a good one, with Tony Stewart rallying late. The outside lane was the obvious spot where drivers wanted to be on restarts, and restarting sixth with 11 laps left put him in position to gain positions. But by the time he passed Joey Logano for second with a couple laps remaining, he had no hope of catching Kenseth, who won by nearly — yawn — two seconds.
“There were a couple times that we were racing around guys and we would catch them and then just got too tight when we got right up to them,” Stewart said. “There were times that I thought I pulled some veteran moves … and watched them race each other, and then when you see them start missing the bottom or getting loose on the exit, then I went up there and tried to push them and make them make mistakes, and it was working.”
Logano finished third, followed by Harvick and then the first surprise — Greg Biffle, in fifth, for his first top-5 of the season.
“I can’t say I passed a car if it wasn’t in the first 10 laps after a restart — not because it was hard to pass, just because my car wasn’t good,” Logano said. “We were able to just be aggressive on restarts and get a couple, and then I was playing defense the rest of the day.
“It’s not fun playing defense to be honest with you. It’s not fun to do that. But days like today you have to get the best finish you possibly can.”
Kenseth has three wins in the past six races at New Hampshire, a place where he had no wins in his first 27 career Cup starts. In other words, his days at this track probably were like many of the fans who watched the first 219 laps Sunday with two cautions — frustrating and wanting for more.
They didn’t even get a crazy finish. And for that, blame Kenseth and his team.
“These guys [on the team] did a great job,” Kenseth said. “I had an easy job today.”