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Stewart-Haas Racing smokes the field in Loudon
by Matt Taliaferro
A typical fuel-mileage race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit finds a surprise winner in Victory Lane — a driver and team running mid-pack that have nothing to lose by rolling the proverbial dice and stretching a tank of gas to the max.
Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 was not your typical fuel mileage race.
Ryan Newman passed Clint Bowyer on a lap 260 restart and managed to milk 41 laps worth of fuel around New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s 1.058-mile layout to grab his first win of the 2011 season.
Newman and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Tony Stewart, flexed their muscles early and often in Loudon, N.H. Both were top-3 cars throughout the event’s three practice sessions. They followed that by sweeping the front row in qualifying, with Newman edging Stewart for the pole.
Newman then led a race-high 119 laps — including the final 72 — while conserving just enough fuel to hold off a hard-charging Stewart in the closing laps.
“One of the best cars here that we saw was the 14 (Stewart),” Newman said. “There were a couple other cars at different times, but the 14 was mired back in traffic. He had to run the wheels off of it to get up to where he had some track position so he could try to run us down.
“Fortunately it stayed green. I was more worried about a yellow coming out with five (laps) to go. Do we have enough fuel for a green-white-checkered (finish)? Usually those things that come and squash us didn’t happen today.”
Stewart settled for second, while Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top 5.
The 1-2 finish was especially gratifying for Stewart, who co-owns the team that employs Newman and his No. 39 operation, as well as Stewart’s own No. 14 Chevy.
“It’s no secret we’ve been struggling this year,” Stewart said. “But it really shows me the depth of the people we got in our organization.
“Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away, they keep working, they keep their chins up. That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and you have a day like today, you see how your organization battles. That, to me, shows the character of what Stewart-Haas Racing is about, what our people are like.”
Newman’s win could pay big dividends for his playoff hopes. He had been teetering on the Chase bubble for weeks, but the New Hampshire victory falls just one week after a strong fourth-place showing at Kentucky. He now finds himself eighth in the championship standings and with insurance via the win that, were he to fall out of the top 10, could qualify his team based on the two wild card entries awarded to race-winners.
Stewart’s standing is a bit more precipitous. Normally a driver who comes alive in the hot summer months, Stewart is winless in 2011. Still, he is tied with Hamlin for 10th in the standings, although Hamlin’s win at Michigan serves as the tiebreaker. But with one of Stewart’s favorite tracks on tap — the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway — it could be the start of an SHR surge.
Kyle Busch entered New Hampshire with the points lead but blew a tire on lap 61 a limped to a 36th-place finish. That handed the points lead back to Carl Edwards, whose 13th-place run finds him seven points ahead of Johnson in the race to the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slide continued on Sunday. A top-10 car for much of the afternoon, Earnhardt’s No. 88 was the victim of a pit road violation. Having to make up lost ground, he drove to a 15th-place finish but fell to ninth in the standings, with only a seven-point cushion over Stewart, after being a fixture in the top 5 for the first half of the season.