Sunday, July 15, 2012

Rating the Lenox Industrial Tools 301: 2 Stars **

A dreary afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway set the stage for a dreary race where the second-best car in the field won because of a terrible pit call by his opponent. But, it didn’t rain, so the Sunday afternoon drive in Loudon gets a 2 Star Rating.
Kasey Kahne had a good car, but Denny Hamlin had a better one. Hamlin dominated the entire weekend. He qualified third, had the fastest lap in each of Saturday’s practice sessions and led 150 of the 301 laps on Sunday.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, he and crew chief Darian Grubb weren’t on the same page on their last pit stop and took four tires while the rest of the field took only two. That sent Hamlin from the lead to 14th with 62 laps to go. Hamlin made a great charge at the end but still came home second.
Although Kahne received some good fortune with Hamlin’s pit call, he had a strong car all weekend, and this win is not a fluke. He now has two wins on the season and sits 12th in the points standings, leading the pack of wild card contenders.
My, what a difference three months make. After a 38th finish at Martinsville in April, Kahne sat 31st in the points. At that point he had to pay more attention about not falling out of the top 35 in points than making the Chase.
People started to write him off and wait for the #5 team to try again next year. That might have been an accurate assessment back in the Winston Cup Series days when there was no Chase and the driver with the most points at the end of the season won the championship.
These days a driver has many more opportunities to contend for a championship. A driver can have a bad start to the season and still win the championship. Brad Keselowski was 23rd in the points standings at this point in the season last year, and he ended up 11th by the time the Chase started.
Kahne is still 66 points behind Keselowski for 10th place, but he has two wild-card spots available. That option keeps all of the top 20 drivers in the points standings in contention to make the Chase up until only a few races remain before the cutoff at Richmond in September.
Overall, this was not a high-quality race in terms of action on the track. Kyle Busch led the first 66 laps and never drove away from Kahne and Hamlin, but Busch had major pit problems and a speeding penalty on his first stop that was the beginning of a tough day for the #18 team.
From that point on Hamlin checked out and did his best Jimmie-Johnson-at-Auto-Club-Speedway impression. Hamlin had more than half of the field a lap down until that fateful pit stop that forced him to race his heart out for second.
And as has been the case most of the season, the first caution didn’t fly until lap 90 when NASCAR threw one for debris. Race officials did the same 101 laps later, and then David Reutimann’s engine blew up on lap 235. Other than that, nothing happened, and it was extremely difficult to pass.
Unfortunately, we might be stuck with this type of racing the rest of the season. NASCAR has made a few modifications to the cars lately, but it hasn’t had any effect. The Race to the Chase will be fun with several drivers in contention for the wild-card spots, but the actual racing during that stretch could easily be less than thrilling.
In any case, next week is the final off-weekend of the season for the Sprint Cup Series. The teams will head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks to begin the final stretch of the regular season.
Have as great week everybody, even though it won't be followed by a Cup race next weekend.

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