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Cup Notes: Jimmie’s Magic Returns In Loudon

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 17 2011

Jimmie Johnson salvaged at top-five finish at New Hampshire on Sunday and moved up to second in points. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Loudon, NH – Jimmie Johnson spent a lot of time near the back of the pack Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Somehow, though, the magic touch demonstrated so often by the five-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion returned just in time and Johnson came up with a fifth-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

That was good enough to move him from fifth to second in the season standings, trailing new leader Carl Edwards by just seven points.

“I was just driving my guts out, man,’’ Johnson said. “Anything that could have gone wrong today did.

“We started out with a bad qualifying effort on Friday and we paid the price for that on pit road and track position at the start, and then we had some issues on pit road,’’ said Johnson, who started 28th and who lost a lap when he had to pit under the green flag for a missing lugnut.

He was running 21st on lap 240 when he spun after apparently getting squeezed down on the track by Juan Pablo Montoya.

“I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional,’’ Johnson said. “But he’s out of mulligans and I’ve had enough of `Oh, I’m sorry’ and you’re spun out. It’s happened way too often to the No. 48.’’

Johnson had to pit for fresh tires under the ensuing caution and fell all the way to 33rd. But, somehow, he rallied for his seventh top-five and 12th top-10 finish in 19 races this season.

“And we did it the hard way,’’ he said. “By passing cars.’’

EARNHARDT’S FRUSTRATION: Hard to believe, but Sunday’s 15th-place finish by Dale Earnhardt Jr. was actually quite a comeback after a mostly miserable race

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was good on the track but troubled in the pits on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

that included being penalized when his crew failed to place the worn tires they had just taken off his No. 88 Chevrolet near the pit wall during a stop.

Like teammate Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt kept having to overcome adversity.

Early in the race, he complained to crew chief Steve Letarte that he had to keep passing the same cars after every pit stop because they were taking two tires and he was getting four and falling behind.

When he finally did make peace with his crew, apologizing to them over the radio for his impatience, he charged into the top 10, getting as high as sixth on lap 230 before getting hit by the penalty 11 laps later. That pushed him back to 24th.

“Well, 15th ain’t awesome,’’ Earnhardt said. “But it’s certainly better than what we have been putting on points-wise (the last four weeks). Today, I just tried not to go crazy because I was really getting frustrated with the way the car drove. I was trying not to flip out in there and just try and get what I could get.’’

Earnhardt fell from eighth to ninth in the standings.

When told he was only seven points out of 11th place – which would put him out of the Chase for the championship at this point – Earnhardt said, “Yeah, that’s pretty tight. So we’ll have to keep an eye on that.’’

BUSCH-WHACKED: Kyle Busch, who started the day on a high after winning the

Kyle Busch wrecked and lost his points lead at New Hampshire. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

Nationwide Series race on Saturday and coming into Sunday’s race leading the Cup points, was not able to salvage a decent finish like Johnson and Earnhardt after blowing a tire early in the race.

Busch finished 36th in the 43-car field, 77 laps off the pace. That finish knocked the 26-year-old racer all the way to fifth in the standings – 20 points behind new leader Carl Edwards.

“Fastest car here, getting through the field pretty good and kind of the only guy passing guys, I guess,’’ Busch said. “Just blew a bead (in the tire), I guess. Transferring too much brake heat through the wheel. Couldn’t tell you anything else besides that.

“Kind of knew things weren’t going to go our way today. This morning woke up and everything went wrong that could go wrong. Petty much seemed right.’’

NEW LEADER: Carl Edwards wasn’t thinking about regaining the Cup points lead late in the race. He was just conserving gas and trying to get to the end.

Edwards succeeded, finishing 13th, and, in the process, came away with a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.

“That was a very fun race,’’ said Edwards, who apparently was one of the few drivers on the one-mile oval having a good time Sunday. “It is fitting that we have Aflac for a sponsor because I feel like I was buying insurance at the end.

“I was letting those guys go by one point at a time, thinking that if we had a green-white-checker (overtime finish) we could win this thing. I knew we could lost more than we could gain (if we ran out of gas). It is hard to back up like that, but it worked out.’’

SPARK PLUGS: Ryan Newman became the 13th different winner in 19 Cup races this season. … Appropriately, Newman spent less time on pit road than any other competitor Sunday, hitting pit road five times for 2 minutes, 35.638 seconds. On the other hand, race runner-up Tony Stewart pitted six times for 3:13.745, good for fifth on the pit stop list. … Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte’s seventh-place finish was his best showing and first top-10 since finishing fourth in the season-opening Daytona 500. … Newman’s average speed of 104.100 was held down by 44 laps of caution.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 17 2011
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