- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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LOUDON, N.H. -- Considering that Ryan Newman has long deemed New Hampshire Motor Speedway "the birthplace of track position," the starting order for Sunday's Sylvania 300 makes for a pretty even matchup of Chase contenders.
Four Chase underdogs start up front, and the top three drivers in the standings will have to work to pass on the flat, 1-mile track just to get up there and form a big cluster of contenders in the second race of NASCAR's playoffs.
Newman and Jeff Gordon, late admissions to the Chase due to NASCAR rulings over the Richmond affair, will start first and third. Newman, on the pole, is eighth in the standings, up from 12th. Gordon is seventh, up from 13th.
The last time Newman started on the pole here, in 2011, he won.
Gordon figures he could make this a breakout race, maybe get his first win of the season.
Meanwhile, back in mid-pack, consider the switch flipped. You know, the one Kyle Busch said three weeks ago Johnson's No. 48 team could activate anytime it wanted. And if you didn't see the lights go on last week at Chicago, you weren't sitting where Kyle was sitting.
"Last week they ran fine and in my eyes they had a really, really fast race car there at the start of the race," Kyle said. "They took off and I was running second to them, and then they left me."
But five-time champion Johnson suffered two pit road issues, one off a NASCAR official's mistake, "and a couple of times he got back in traffic, but then was able to drive back up through … "
Johnson salvaged a fifth place out of all that, and "If that's not good enough for you, then I don't know what is," Busch said, meaning switch-flipping by the 48 team.
Still, Johnson hasn't won since Daytona in July, and through one awful stretch ending with Labor Day weekend had four finishes of 28th or worse.
"When you get to the Chase … you can't look back on the regular season," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter if you dominated it, or if you've been behind. It's a 10-race stretch of its own.
"With that in mind, I haven't won in a week," Johnson said. "I finished fifth and had a shot to win last week."
Kyle Busch seemed unimpressed by his second-place status, so early in the Chase.
"I don't know where I am and I don't want to know where I am," he said. "It's not time to look at any of that or worry about any of that."
His teammate, Kenseth, said his victory in the Chase opener counts for naught here.
"Couldn't have gotten started any better than what we did at Chicago," Kenseth said. "But that was last week. This week presents totally different challenges, totally different kind of race track, totally different style of racing … "
Gordon overcame a tire issue last week to salvage sixth place, and "the team was fired up this week," he said. "I went into the shop and you could just see a different attitude and a lot of smiles."
And Gordon has always enjoyed this, arguably the most difficult track to pass on in the Cup series.
"It's been a great track for us," said the three-time winner here. "It's been a great track for the No. 24 team for many years."
If the finishing order looks anything like the starting grid at New Hampshire on Sunday -- and it just might -- the Chase will get a heck of a shakeup out of the likes of Jeff Gordon.