Sunday’s Sylvania 300 wasn’t unlike many strategy-fueled finishes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — with emphasis on the word “fueled.” Clint Bowyer drove past Tony Stewart and his empty gas tank on the penultimate lap of the 300-mile affair to win the first race of NASCAR’s 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Knowing gas mileage would be an issue, Bowyer and Stewart — who combined to lead 277 of 300 laps — gambled in an attempt to stretch their fuel runs the distance. With Denny Hamlin chasing both down, Stewart’s car sputtered coming to the white flag, while Bowyer feathered his throttle and took the lead. Continuing to conserve over the course of the final mile, Bowyer floored it off Turn 4 to outrun Hamlin to the checkers.
“I was trying to save as much as I could,” Bowyer said. “I was lifting halfway down the straightaway and not hitting the brakes until you’re almost in the corner and letting it roll around there as long as you could before we picked up the gas. I saw the 11 [Hamlin] coming and then you start worrying about, ‘Well, I’m not going to let him pass me.’”
The win was Bowyer’s first since May 2008, a span of 88 races. It’s the second time he entered the Chase seeded last only to win the first event. In 2007, Bowyer won the pole and the race at NHMS, which was his first career Cup victory. He eventually finished third in the Chase standings.
Stewart placed 24th in the final rundown, a result that dropped him from fifth in the standings to 11th, 124 points behind Hamlin, who ran second and extended his championship lead from 10 to 35 points.
“I’m not happy, that’s for sure, but we went down swinging,” Stewart said of the disappointing outcome. “It’s hard to lose one that way but at the same time it was fun racing Clint like that. He was definitely the fastest car and congratulations to those guys. It’s a tough way to start the Chase, but I’m proud of my guys. Darian [Grubb, crew chief] kept swinging at it all day and finally on that last set of tires we got it halfway decent.”
Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5.
It’s been said that a driver can’t win the championship at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but he sure can lose it. It’s not clear who coined the phrase, but it seems to hold little merit. Over half of the Chase field — seven drivers — spun or wrecked throughout the afternoon, including the points leader, Hamlin. Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth all found themselves looking at oncoming traffic.
However, the Chase standings remain tight, with Kenseth, at 136 points back, the low man on the totem pole. The top-8 drivers are within 95 points of the leader, and easy striking distance. In fact, no one’s championship hopes took a fatal hit.
Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth, best summed up the Chase drivers’ sloppy afternoon and resultant outlook for the next two months:
“I think that’s just sort of what happens with the Chase. I think everybody gets excited, and the intensity builds up and it pushes guys to be a little bit more risky. But for us, we realize that we still have nine more races to go. I just don’t think you can win it here this weekend. You’ve got to make sure that you get everything out of your car and your team, and we did that today.”
Hamlin leads Bowyer (35 points back), Harvick (-45), Kyle Busch (-62), Gordon (-75), Kurt Busch (-86), Johnson (-86) and Edwards (-95) into Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.