In a season that had already seen 12 different winners in the first 19 races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series got the second half of its 2011 season under way today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with another first-time 2011 winner.
Ryan Newman, driving for Tony Stewart's Stewart-Haas Racing team, became the second driver this season to win from the pole in the Sprint Cup Series, and the second in consecutive weeks, in capturing his first victory of the year and 15th Cup win of his 12-year NASCAR career in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in Loudon, N.H. It also broke a 47-race winless streak for Newman. His last win was in April 2010 in Phoenix. Newman led six times for 119 laps in today's race.
Teammate Stewart crossed the finish line right behind Newman to make it a clean sweep for the Stewart-Haas duo. The second-place finish tied Stewart's best of the season. He also ran second at Las Vegas early in the year. Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing came in third, followed by teammate Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion captured fifth. Kasey Kahne, Boby Labonte. Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose and Kurt Busch completed the top-ten finishers. Busch has finished 14th or better in each of his past nine races.
The other Busch brother, Kyle, encountered a really rough day at New Hampshire. The points leader in the race for the Chase coming into Sunday's race started out the race midway back in the pack, in 19th position in the starting lineup, and it only got worse from there. The younger of the two Busch brothers glanced off the wall on lap nine, but saved the car and was able to get back on the track.
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs wasn't as fortunate in his second encounter with the wall. Busch suffered a cut right front tire that caused him to slam into the Turn 2 barrier on lap 59, bringing out the second caution flag of the afternoon. The crash sent his car to the garage and put a huge damper on his day only a fifth of the way through. Not only did he lose his car for most of the race, but also his points lead, dropping back to fifth after a 36th place finish at New Hampshire.
After extensive repair work and major lost time, the No. 18 car did return to the racetrack on lap 134 and was 77 laps down to the leaders at the finish.
"Blew a bead," Busch said in describing his lap 59 incident to reporters afterward. His comment referred to the edge of the tire that sits on the wheel. "We came back and got four (tires, after his first collision with the wall early in the race) just to make sure we got all the changes we wanted to. Working our way up through there. Just blew a bead, I guess, transferring to much brake heat through the wheel," he went on to say.
While Newman and Stewart were having their best day of the season in race No. 20 on the 36-race 2011 Sprint Cup schedule, Carl Edwards, who lives 100 miles east of Kansas city in Columbia, Mo., may have been the biggest beneficiary of the New Hampshire race. Because of Kyle Busch's misfortune on Sunday, Edwards was able to regain his points lead, but only narrowly over Johnson, who moved up three places from fifth and trails Edwards by just seven points. Kurt Busch is currently in third, 11 points back of Edwards, and Kevin Harvick is in fourth, just ahead of Kurt's younger brother, last week's points leader.
Edwards finished 13th at New Hampshire, only the sixth time all year the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford has finished outside of the top ten. Ten of his 13 top-ten finishes have been in the top five. The Kansas City area's other NASCAR driver, Clint Bowyer from Emporia, Kan., was 17th after starting in the 12th position. Bowyer, with three top-fives and eight top-ten finishes this season remained in the 12th and final qualifying position for the season-ending Chase for the Cup.
The only other driver to win from the pole in Cup racing this year was Kyle Busch a week ago at Kentucky.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway was the site of Newman's first Sprint Cup win in 2002. The 33-year-old driver of the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet started Sunday's race on the pole, the fifth time he has done so at New Hampshire, right alongside Stewart's No. 14 car, and 301 laps later around the one-mile track, the pair finished in exactly the order in which they started.
With fewer than 50 laps to go, there had been 14 race leaders and 21 lead changes. According to NASCAR officials, the final lead change has taken place with 19 laps or less in 13 of the 19 races in 2011, including six of the past eight races. This wasn't the case at New Hampshire, though, as Newman led for the final 72 laps of the race.
The next Sprint Cup race is two weeks from now when the scene shifts to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400.