Johnson makes the pass,
gets New Hampshire victory
Competitive racing wins praise for track
By DAVID POOLE
The Charlotte Observer
LOUDON, N.H. - New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre has for years sat in the back of his track's media center following Winston Cup races and listened to people talk about how badly he needed to fix his race course.
Sunday, following Jimmie Johnson's victory in the New England 300, Bahre sat in the same chair and heard nothing but praise for the latest repaving job that on this day allowed spirited side-by-side competition at a track that had been notorious as a one-groove parade ground.
"I thought it worked out well," Bahre said. "I hope so; it's about time. ...We had to get it straightened out and we did. I think we have it now."
A year ago, the big story following this race was marble-sized clumps of asphalt that were being pulled up by Winston Cup cars' tires and deposited in treacherous piles just above a single racing groove.
That race produced 23 lead changes among 12 drivers, but a lot of those came because any car slipping half of a lane off the bottom of the track was sent skating toward the outside wall.
There were just 14 lead changes among nine drivers Sunday, but those numbers lie. This race was far more competitive than the one Ward Burton won a year ago, and was perhaps the most competitive Cup race among the 17 held here since 1993.
A year ago this weekend, it can be said with certainty that Johnson and eventual runner-up Kevin Harvick couldn't have spent most of five laps battling door-to-door for the lead as they did beginning around Lap 76 on Sunday.
As interesting as that was, though, it was a race for 10th between those two Chevrolets much later on that wound up to be the most pivotal pass on a sun-splashed Sunday in New England.
Johnson and Harvick had both made stops under yellow just after pit road opened on Lap 208 following the cleanup of a fuel spill in Terry Labonte's stall.
Both had pitted along with the other contenders just more than 10 laps earlier after Jamie McMurray's hard crash. By coming in again, though, Johnson and Harvick committed themselves to going the rest of the way without stopping. Fifteen cars stayed out, including Ryan Newman's Dodge, with some teams planning to gamble on fuel and others knowing they'd have to stop again.
That left Harvick 16th and Johnson 19th on a restart on Lap 212, and Johnson believing that if he could pass Harvick he'd be in the driver's seat.
"I told (crew chief) Todd (Berrier) on the radio, 'I hope that wasn't for the win.'" Harvick said. "It turned out that it was."
But it would not be that simple. A moment after Johnson passed Harvick on Lap 233, Christian Fittipaldi crashed on the frontstretch to bring out what would be the last of the day's 12 cautions and bringing those cars that needed more fuel to finish to pit road.
Not everyone ahead of Johnson came in, however, and that surprised him.
"I thought that when it cycled around and I passed Kevin I would be the first car on the track," Johnson said. "But I still had four or five cars in front of me who were trying to stretch it even farther than we were."
Johnson would get by those cars, driven by Ryan Newman, Robby Gordon, Steve Park and Dale Jarrett, in due time.
Johnson's final pass of Newman came on Lap 264, and from there it was just a matter of going easy on the accelerator to keep Harvick at arm's length after he'd moved back into second.
"I couldn't get my car going for four, five laps," Harvick said. "The farther I pushed the issue, the worse it got for me. I just couldn't keep the car from spinning the tires."
Harvick was also pleased with the track's new pavement, a concoction of asphalt and an oil from Trinidad that was put down in April.
"I think they've done a great job," he said. "Today you could run two grooves up the track pretty easily. In the past it has always been a battle for the bottom. We need flat-track racing. I enjoy that and they've done a good job to get the side-by-side racing."
Points leader Matt Kenseth had a fine day, too, stretching his fuel as well to get a third-place finish after passing Newman with 10 laps to go. Kenseth's nearest championship challenger, Jeff Gordon, changed four tires when he stopped on the final yellow and never regained the track position he had given up. Gordon finished 24th and is now 234 points behind Kenseth, who also praised the changes made to the track.
"For a flat track with corners as tight at these are, I think it was as good as you can get it," he said.
It was, at the very least, as good as it has ever been.