LOUDON, N.H. – Twelve drivers entered New Hampshire Motor Speedway's infield tunnel this weekend with hopes of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Some – most notably Tony Stewart – took a big step in that direction on Sunday afternoon in the Sylvania 300. Others, like Denny Hamlin, may have had the first nail or two pegged into the proverbial coffin.
Here's the way the 12 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers emerged from The Magic Mile and what we think the Sylvania 300 told us about each:
1. TONY STEWART, Winner of the Sylvania 300
While Stewart's second straight win to open the Chase was notable, what the driver of the No. 14 Mobile 1 Chevrolet said in Victory Lane – on national television, no less – may have created more waves.
Asked about how his fortunes have turned since under-performing in the 26-race "regular season," the two-time series champion said he'd "gotten rid of some dead weight" and that "sometimes it's hard, but you have to make changes."
When pressed further about his comments in the post-race press conference, Stewart was short.
"We'll just leave it at that," Stewart said.
All Stewart would confirm was that the "change" had nothing to do with personnel changes at Stewart Haas Racing. History shows that an angry Stewart is a motivated one. Enter into evidence Stewart's win Sunday.
2. KEVIN HARVICK, Finished 12th
Harvick ran around the Top-10 all day, but he certainly couldn't have been considered a factor among contenders for the win. The most noise Harvick made all day was when he called for a team meeting first thing Monday morning at Richard Childress Racing to determine why his car was so much worse on fuel mileage than teammate Clint Bowyer's.
Of course, that was before Bowyer ran out of fuel while leading just a couple of laps from the finish.
3. BRAD KESELOWSKI, Finished 2nd
Keselowski may have taken the biggest step forward among Chase contenders on Sunday, despite the fact that the three spots he gained in the standings weren't the most by a Chaser.
Any suggestions that the driver of the Blue Deuce may have peaked too early this season could have been put to rest. On a track where he finished 35th back in July and dropped all the way to 23rd in the standings, Keselowski rallied with solid pit strategy for the runner-up finish on Sunday.
"We struggled a little bit this weekend, but we executed, and that's what these races are about," Keselowski said. "We probably weren't a second-place car, but we worked hard and made something happen... That's exactly what we needed to do."
4. CARL EDWARDS, Finished 8th
Edwards channeled his inner Alain Prost when he spun teammate Matt Kenseth early in the race (see: Ayrton Senna), but he did what championship teams do and salvaged a good day out of virtually nothing.
Edwards qualified poorly, spent most of the afternoon running well outside the Top-15 and struggled to be more than an afterthought. At the end, though, he and crew chief Bob Osbourne played strategy perfectly and was fifth among Chase drivers.
5. JEFF GORDON, Finished 4th
Gordon jumped six spots in the standings to fifth – the biggest gainer among the Chasers.
After not being so good in the Chase opener at Chicago last week, Gordon looked like Jeff Gordon, Circa 1997. He stalked the leaders, played the fuel mileage game well and was poised to collect the big hardware at the end of the day. He ran out of gas, though, on pit road as he headed in for his final pit stop – and he never made up the lost track position.
"It is tough conditions to race in," Gordon said. "I don't think that we wanted to see back-to-back fuel mileage races like this, but it is kind of the name of the game these days."
6. KYLE BUSCH, Finished 11th
Busch's spotter screamed at him to "Get your head in the game!" after an on-track skirmish with Jimmie Johnson, after it appeared that Busch initiated contact with the five-time series champion in the final 100 laps of the event.
But Busch managed to salvage an "ok" day on a track that – despite Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series wins here this season – his team has not performed well on.
"This is probably the track that we feared the most coming to," crew chief Dave Rogers said. "It just doesn't fit our style."
So, like the Cup Series, Busch's championships move on to Dover still in one piece.
7. MATT KENSETH, Finished 6th
See: Carl Edwards.
8. DALE EARNHARDT JR., Finished 17th
For the second straight week, Earnhardt had a race car that performed well. For the second straight week, Earnhardt failed to capitalize.
Now 26 points out of the lead in the Chase standings, Earnhardt may well look back at this race – where he had a flat tire and had to pit under green on two different occasions – and see it is one of the places that cost him a title.
"Just pretty frustrating," Earnhardt said. "We'll take it right now. It could be worse. We could be sitting in Victory Lane – but we could be out of the Chase altogether."
9. KURT BUSCH, Finished 22nd
Busch's day was over almost before it started. His car didn't clear pre-race technical inspection until literally moments before drivers were given the command to fire their engines.
It didn't get much better for Busch once he did get on the track, either.
10. JIMMIE JOHNSON, Finished 18th
He used a four-letter word in a tirade against crew chief Chad Knaus. He got into an on-track scrape with Kyle Busch. He had a hard time staying in the Top-10.
And those were likely the best parts of Five-Time's day at New Hampshire. For the first time in the Chase, Johnson is 10th in the standings – a long, long 29 points behind the leader Stewart.
On Sunday, it seemed as though we might have actually seen some of that vulnerability the rest of the competition has been waiting for.
11. RYAN NEWMAN, Finished 25th
The driver who swept the poles for both Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire this year and has six career wins at the track – including the July race here – led the first 62 laps of the race and then disappeared off the face of the earth.
"We just didn't capitalize on what we could have, and today was a good day to do that and we didn't do it," Newman said.
12. DENNY HAMLIN, Finished 29th
Hamlin was the lowest finishing driver among the Chasers, and it's not too soon to say his title hopes are officially over. He's 66 points out of the lead – far too much ground to make up on 11 other guys in just eight races.
Hamlin had a chance to turn things around in this disastrous season, but he ran out of gas as he challenged Jeff Gordon for fifth just three laps from the end.
"We thought we were good, and that's just strategy racing nowadays," Hamlin said. Wee've got to work through it. Another tough day for us, but we're just figuring out what we need to do to be a little more competitive."
Presumably, Hamlin's already talking about 2012.