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Busch’s date with destiny will have to wait

Kurt Busch inspects his car after crashing 2/3 the way through the Camping World RV Sales 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Sunday, July 14, 2013.

(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Kurt Busch inspects his car after crashing 2/3 the way through the Camping World RV Sales 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Sunday, July 14, 2013. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

LOUDON – It was shaping up as the type of day where Kurt Busch could validate his status as a Sprint Cup contender, and legitimize his Furniture Row team as capable of really running with the NASCAR elite.

It started with his No. 78 sitting ninth in the standings, and on the outside of the front row in the Camping World RV Sales 301 – but after 202 trips around New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it looked as though Busch’s car was second to none.

To that point, Busch had led 102 laps over three tenures at the front; that was more than the rest of the field combined. Even when pit sequence put them back a few spots, he was fast enough to recover. His first win in a couple of years, and his fourth on this track, had emerged as a real possibility. Maybe even probability.

“I thought 78 had the best car,” Jeff Burton said of Busch’s Chevrolet.

By the end, though, the No. 78 was scratched, dinged, dented and making laps just to lessen the damage in the standings.

After sliding up the track between the first and second turns on lap 225, Busch was nudged from behind by Matt Kenseth and went careening into Ryan Newman, eventually spiraling his way into the speedway’s south wall and left waiting for a tow truck and an ambulance to come collect him and his ride.

The crew did well to get the car back on to the track in reasonable time, and the driver escaped unscathed – except for in the standings, where the 15-point payout from a 31st-place finish dropped him all the way to 14th.

It could be worse, as he remains only seven points out of 10th, but his five-spot plummet still marked the steepest fall of any driver in the series.

“I just got hit from behind,” Busch said. “There was three-wide action, everybody’s going hard. … The car gets light when there is no air on the rear spoiler back there.”

Busch hadn’t run worse than 11th when he went to the pits as the leader on lap 203, but a decision to take four tires shuffled him back behind the cars that only took two – and that may have led to his demise. He was forced to negotiate thicker traffic in what was generally an aggressive race, and the tight quarters left little room for error.

As such, Busch saw a modest streak of three straight top-six results come to an end. He did, however, remain winless despite leading at least 15 laps for the sixth time this season.

“I hate it for those guys,” said Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother and yesterday’s runner-up. “He’s fun to race against, and it’s cool to see that 78 bunch running like that. Certainly they’re contenders each and every week, they’re just having some bad luck.”

Johnson’s climb too steep

It was a lot to ask any driver, even one with five Sprint Cup championships on his mantle.

A failed inspection after qualifying put Jimmie Johnson in the very last spot in the lineup, behind a field that included his Cup rivals, Nationwide Series regulars and even 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd. It was a long way back to relevance from 43rd for the 48, especially on a track in NHMS that is notorious for making passing difficult.

Faced with long odds, Johnson went to work. He was in the top 20 by lap 58 and up to 13th by lap 85. By the end of a caution on lap 161, he was in the top 10, up to seventh and, as always, challenging for the lead.

“It was tough, it wasn’t easy by any means,” Johnson said. “We pitted on the second or third caution, and cautions didn’t fall right after that for us. … We just had to do it the old-fashioned way.”

That method worked. Johnson kept climbing, getting as high as third, but making up those final two spots was too great a task. He pitted along with most of the leaders on lap 219, and while he got back into contention, he never got higher than his finishing position of sixth.

“Once you get to the top 10, that’s a different game trying to pass cars and work your way to the front there,” he said. “You would have to wait for the guy in front of you to bobble and make a mistake. These guys are all pretty good out there. There were not many opportunities to get.”

Bumping and grinding

Neither of last year’s two Cup contests at Loudon featured an accident or a wreck – but yesterday’s featured two within the first 15 laps, and as a result, 12 of the first 21 trips around the Magic Mile were made under caution.

Last year’s grand total of seven cautions included five for debris, one for oil on the track, and another that was prescheduled for competition purposes, while yesterday’s first yellow came from a single-car incident when Joey Logano cut a tire and slid into the SAFER barrier between turns 1 and 2. The second then came when Kevin Harvick didn’t appreciate Marcos Ambrose impeding his path and punted the Australian into the wall.

The streak dating to a run-in between Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in September 2011, the Cup Series ran 732 laps at New Hampshire without a caution prompted by a damaged vehicle. By the end of the day there were 12 cautions – seven caused by accidents. That’s the most for a Cup race at NHMS since 2004, and tied for the third most in track history.

One for the ages

Morgan Shepherd made history yesterday, the 71-year-old becoming the oldest driver ever to start a Sprint Cup race. Running for the first time since NHMS’s September 2006 event, he started 41st and remained on the lead lap for almost 40 ovals before getting passed by the leaders. He exited after completing 69 laps, and ultimately finished 41st in the 43-car field.

Nuts and bolts

∎ Nearly 3,000 first responders were at NHMS yesterday, according to speedway General Manager Jerry Gappens, including representatives from the Boston Police Department, who prior to the race presented the colors in honor of those victimized by the Boston Marathon bombings in April. Race sponsor Camping World also donated one of its RVs to the BPD.

∎ With Ken Schrader (57) and Dave Blaney (50) joining Shepherd, yesterday’s field featured three drivers aged 50 or older – plus Joe Nemechek, who will hit that mark four days after NASCAR leaves New Hampshire in September.

∎ Danica Patrick crashed when things bottled up coming out of turn 1, and she misjudged her braking, on lap 225. She was running on the lead lap at the time, though when she wrecked she also collected her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., as well as Travis Kvapil.

∎ Kevin Harvick finished seventh, giving the No. 29 team its ninth consecutive top-10 finish.

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