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New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon is not a track known as an easy place to pass other cars. Track position is typically key to a good finish. So the fact that Jimmie Johnson drove the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS to a sixth-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday was particularly impressive, considering his 43rd starting spot due to an inspection issue following Friday’s qualifying session. The finish was Johnson’s 16th top-10 result in 23 starts at the 1.058-mile oval, allowing him to retain the points lead for the 14th consecutive week.
“We had a great racecar,” said Johnson, who has three wins at New Hampshire (July 2003 and 2010, and September 2010). “Once you get to the top-10, that’s a different game trying to pass cars and work your way to the front from there. Really, the lane that you were in on a restart had a huge impact on how many cars you could pass. A few times, I was on the outside and made my way to third and, then, a few times on the inside, and I slipped back. All in all, a great day for the Lowe’s team and just very proud of the effort these guys put in week in and week out. We are all going to enjoy this off week and then come back and get ready to go to Indy.”
Johnson, as usual, wasted little time moving up through the field at the start of the race. By lap 13, he had maneuvered his way to the 25th spot. Ensuing cautions allowed crew chief Chad Knaus to adjust on the Lowe’s Chevy, which was free into and off the corners, as well as tight in the center. During a green-flag stop on lap 75, Knaus called for four tires and, two laps later, Johnson was in 14th place, where he would stay for a majority of the ensuing laps. On lap 219, he found himself in the third spot when a caution flew. Johnson pitted for two tires and fuel, but not all of the field was on the same pit cycle. He restarted 15th. It was the last time the five-time champion had to bring his car in for service as several late-race cautions enabled him to stay off pit road.
Johnson wasn’t able to contend for the win in the closing laps but did manage to bring the Lowe’s machine home in sixth place despite his challenging starting spot.
“It was tough – it wasn’t easy, by any means,” said Johnson, who notched his 13th top-10 finish in 19 races. “You had to make quick work of people on the restarts and then we all kind of fell in line. 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. We just fought through the day and got our Lowe’s Chevrolet to sixth.”
Brian Vickers won the Camping World RV Sales 301 to score his third career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first at New Hampshire.
Kyle Busch finished .582 of a second behind Vickers in the runner-up spot while Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola rounded out the top-five. Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 12 caution periods for 58 laps, with six drivers failing to finish the 302-lap race, which was extended one lap by a green-white-checkered finish.
With round 19 of 36 complete, Johnson continues to lead the Hendrick Motorsports contingent and the rest of the NASCAR field in the championship point standings. His 696 points give him a 56-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer and a 175-point lead over 11th-place Martin Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr., is fifth with 578 points, 118 out of first, 57 ahead of 11th. Kasey Kahne is 10th with 523 points, 173 out of first, two ahead of 11th. Gordon is 12th with 521 points, 175 out of first, two behind 10th.
Seven races remain before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Truex (11th) and Tony Stewart (13th) are the only drivers between 11th and 20th in points with a victory, so they hold the first and second wild-card spots, respectively.
Sprint Cup teams will enjoy their second and final off weekend of the 2013 season before embarking on a slate of 17 consecutive races, beginning with the July 28 Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 20th running of the event begins at 1 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at noon.