Last weekend NASCAR ran the first of two Sprint Cup weekends at my local track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. NASCAR comes to New England in July and September each year, and the July weekend includes a second-division Nationwide race and a Modified race – a particularly strong NASCAR category throughout New England. Ryan Newman won both the Sprint Cup and Modified races, while Kyle Busch scored his 100th NASCAR win in Saturday’s Nationwide event. It was the 26-year-old’s 49th Nationwide victory to add to his 22 Sprint Cup wins cars and 29 in Trucks.
Busch arrived in New Hampshire leading the Sprint Cup championship after scoring his third win of the year in Kentucky the previous weekend. But Busch was out of luck on Sunday, hitting the wall after a front wheel overheated and a tyre blew out amid the heavy braking required on the minimally banked one-mile New Hampshire track.
Newman on the other hand had a great weekend, qualifying on pole for both the Sprint Cup and Modified races. It was his first win of the year, helping guarantee him a place in the ‘Chase for the Cup’ over the season’s last 10 races. Newman led team-mate Tony Stewart across the line in New Hampshire to score Stewart-Haas Racing’s first 1-2.
Newman became NASCAR’s 13th different Sprint Cup winner this year and the championship is even more wide open than usual. Carl Edwards leads with 852 points, seven ahead of defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Kurt Busch is third, 11 points behind leader Edwards, followed by Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Denny Hamlin, the latter only 82 points behind Edwards.
In New Hampshire Jimmie Johnson assessed the competition: “At this point I still don’t see a clear favourite. Kyle’s probably at the top for a lot of people. He’s moved up in the points and had some good races but then he had a bad race this weekend. I still haven’t seen a dominant car or driver out there, so I believe it’s anyone’s championship. It’s still seven races till the Chase and a lot can change between now and then. It’s going to be very difficult to predict.”
Johnson has won only one race so far this year and hasn’t been as strong overall as in recent seasons. “Some races we leave kind of down, knowing that we need some speed and some areas to work in,” he said. “Then other weeks go really well for us. In all, we’re doing well. We feel like we should be sitting there with three or four wins. We had some opportunities early in the year and mistakes were made team-wise which prevented that from happening.
“As I’ve said every year, the pressure that’s put on a team and driver during the Chase is unlike anything else. So the more opportunities we have to race for wins, the stronger we’ll be when the Chase comes around.”
NASCAR now has a rare weekend off before the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis at the end of July. Indianapolis kicks off a brutal schedule of 17 race weekends in a row through to the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Say what you like about NASCAR, but it is by far the world’s the most deeply competitive form of motor racing with an equally demanding schedule of 36 races over 10 months. In these ways, no other form of racing is a patch on it.