Drew Bonifant: In NASCAR this year, winning isn’t everything – but it helps
Brad Keselowski , left, and Clint Bowyer lead the pack during a restart in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 13, 2014, in Loudon, N.H. Keselowski won the race. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Face cheer on their favorite driver during Sunday's running of the Campingworld 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Alan MacRae / for the Monitor)
Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 13, 2014, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
A huge crowd converged on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday's running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Campingworld 301. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
NASCAR officials gather around Morgan Shepherd's 33 Toyota as his crew reattaches his left rear wheel next to Kevin Harvick's pit. Shepherd smoked his tires, leaving the pit before his crew could tighten the lugnuts causing him to lose a wheel a short distance down pit road during Campingworld 301 at NHMS on Sunday, July 13, 2014. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
Brad Keselowski was leaving the rest of the field in his impressive wake, but one of the people calling his victory had some reassurance for the drivers behind him.
“You don’t always have to get to Victory Lane to make it a successful day,” TNT commentator Wally Dallenbach said during the broadcast.
Several of those drivers will be counting on that. For all the Keselowskis, Jimmie Johnsons and Kyle Buschs, who have won races this year and are well-positioned for a postseason run when the Chase for the Cup rolls around, there are those like Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer, racers who have enjoyed good seasons but are lacking the victory that would officially make them good enough.
And while Keselowski easily made sure yesterday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 wouldn’t be that win, a few Chase hopefuls could come away from the track pleased, knowing their playoff chances were in better shape after the trip to Loudon than before. Larson, Kenseth and Bowyer held the lead. Jamie McMurray, despite finishing 16th, spent the first 245 laps in the top 10. Annual NHMS contender Ryan Newman bolstered his Chase chances with a fifth-place finish, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. eked out a ninth-place finish after spending the first 300 laps outside of the top 10.
For those looking to make a Chase push, Loudon could have a significant effect on their chances, whether they left the track with the result they needed or evidence that those results are just around the corner.
“It was a good day. We had some eventful parts to it,” said Larson, a Sprint Cup rookie who finished third behind Keselowski and Busch. “Got a top-three finish, and we’ve got to keep these good runs going. . . . We’re really happy with how today went.”
The new qualifying format for the Chase gives the 16 spots to the drivers with the most wins, meaning the emphasis on getting that one great race on one day has never been greater. Still, it’s hardly all or nothing. Assuming 16 different drivers don’t win races, points are still the next criteria to get in.
Therein lies the value of salvaging whatever you can, even if that doesn’t include first place. There’s still progress to be made, and that progress can make an impact when the Chase picture settles in August and September.
No driver helped his cause more than Larson, Chip Ganassi’s young star who entered the race 18th in the standings – out of the Chase picture – and stuck in a three-race skid that was threatening to derail his season. Those struggles ended at the Magic Mile, as Larson rose through the order from his 13th starting spot, eventually took the lead after the leaders pitted on Lap 112 and remained in contention the rest of the afternoon.
He even battled for the win, leading a total of 14 laps before it became clear that nobody was beating Keselowski’s car. He was poised on restarts and fortunate with cautions, and the result was a finish good enough to get him in line for a Chase spot, and an important dose of momentum for his season.
“It really had us (scratching) our heads and praying to get some good finishes again,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve turned it around and can get some consistent finishes again.”
For others, Loudon didn’t serve to help discover a rhythm as much as keep one going. Kenseth, last year’s series runner-up and the track’s September champion, entered fifth in points and came away in fourth, thanks to a steady race that saw him lead 12 laps and stay in the top 10 for nearly the entire afternoon.
He still needs the win to take the pressure off. But Kenseth has been close all year, he was close yesterday and he knows that if he continues at that pace, he’ll be in the running when the fall comes around and the drivers return to NHMS for the second of the Chase races.
“I felt like we were definitely in the ball game today,” he said. “I thought we really gained on it. . . . I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
For some, like Larson, a close finish was eagerly embraced. For others, it could only be grudgingly accepted. Bowyer held three separate leads for a total of 37 laps, hanging onto first as late as Lap 230 before Keselowski’s juggernaut passed him for the final time.
The final tally for Bowyer was a sixth-place finish, good enough to keep him on track to make the Chase on points alone. But Bowyer, the series runner-up two years ago, has won enough to know that coming close can be a bitter consolation.
“Just frustrating. Kind of our M.O. This year, nothing goes right,” said Bowyer, whose frustration was compounded by getting stuck behind an out-of-gas Kevin Harvick on a final restart. “We’re just not quite there yet. . . . We’re gaining on it. We’ve got the consistency.”
Minutes later, on Twitter, Bowyer’s tone softened.
“Better! Still need a little speed but felt good to get up and lead some laps,” he wrote.
Those are the positives to draw. The results matter most in Sprint Cup. But progress can pay off as well.
No drivers were able to put themselves in the Chase yesterday. Keselowski made sure of that. But some can still look at their Loudon efforts, feeling confident they’re on the right track.
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dbonifant.)