Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2016

Winning Comes In Many Ways

Motor racing returned to New England this weekend, with NASCAR making its annual autumn visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. As if on cue the weather turned. After a warm and humid week, Saturday dawned crisp and breezy for the Camping World Truck Series race. Just twenty-four hours later that seemed balmy as wind-whipped fans bundled in layers made their way into the grandstands around the one mile concrete oval for the 300 mile Sprint Cup Series showdown.

NASCAR’s second stop in New Hampshire every season, after an earlier visit in July, has long been part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the ten race playoffs that have capped the season for NASCAR’s top circuit for more than a decade. This year a similar playoff series is in place for the two major developmental series, the Xfinity for cars and Camping World for trucks. That meant that Saturday’s main event was the first playoff race for the third highest North American stock car racing series, and Sunday’s was the second in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. The playoff formats are similar, with a small number of drivers qualifying based on the standings from the regular season, and that number then whittled down through the playoffs until only four drivers are left to compete for the title in the season-ending race for each series.

Racing is no different from other sports, especially when a championship is on the line. The focus is on winning, so most of the stories that casual fans read about this weekend’s events at Loudon will be about the winners. In Saturday’s race, sponsored by the University of Northwestern Ohio and happily shortened to the UNOH 175, it was no surprise that the dominant truck was driven by William Byron. He led the Truck Series regular season standings by a wide margin after winning five times. No other driver, including the small handful of Sprint Cup drivers who occasionally drive in a truck race, managed to win more than twice. In his number 9 Toyota, Byron led all but fourteen of the race’s one hundred seventy-five laps; and his victory punched his ticket into the next round of the Truck Series playoffs. What is surprising is that Byron is just 18 years old, and didn’t start racing at any level until he was 15. A true phenom behind the wheel, he seems likely to climb quickly through NASCAR’s developmental series, with a lot of checkered flags in his future.

On Sunday the lead story was about a thrilling finish between Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, two veteran drivers who are both competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Kenseth’s bright yellow number 20 Toyota was at or near the front for much of the race, as he sought to become the first driver to win three consecutive Sprint Cup races at Loudon after following up a victory last September with a win in July. But after a disappointing finish in the first Chase race last week, Harvick in his number 4 Chevrolet charged through the pack late, and on a restart after a late caution flag pulled away from Kenseth over the final laps for the win.

But there were other stories floating around the Magic Mile this weekend, accounts that do not make headlines. One of those on Saturday was the tale of Jordan Anderson, the 25-year old driver of the number 66 truck. Anderson’s Chevy is the lone Truck Series entry for Bolen Motorsports, and like many small teams, money is always a problem. Early in the week owner Jeff Bolen called Anderson to tell him that there wasn’t enough cash to cover the expense of this week’s race. Rather than despair Anderson took to social media, directing anyone who would listen to a hastily designed website aimed at raising the $15,000 needed to pay for one hundred seventy-five laps around the Loudon oval.

Little more than a day later Anderson was halfway to his goal, and soon enough he and the number 66 were on their way to New Hampshire. On Saturday he recognized those who had emptied their wallets for him with a decal on the side of his truck that read “Fueled by Fans,” and by writing the name of every donor on the rear deck of the number 66 Chevrolet.

On Sunday the two most remarkable stories had to do with the makeup of this year’s Chase contenders. After twenty-six regular season races, sixteen drivers qualified for the playoffs in NASCAR’s top series. Most of the drivers and teams were familiar names. Harvick and Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, the Busch brothers and Tony Stewart; Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, all would be on anyone’s list of NASCAR’s elite. But there among the sixteen were two interlopers.

Sixteenth on the list of qualifiers for the first round of the playoffs was Chris Buescher, a 23-year old Sprint Cup rookie who made the Chase on the strength of a win at Pocono. At the other end of the Chase drivers, the leader going into the playoffs was veteran Martin Truex, Jr. He opened his season with a heart-breaking and heart-stopping loss by one one-hundredth of a second to Denny Hamlin at the Daytona 500, before going on to win twice.

What sets Buescher and Truex apart is the same issue that nearly derailed Jordan Anderson. Buescher drives the number 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, a tiny small-budget team that struggles to support two full-time Sprint Cup Series cars. In the number 78 Toyota, Truex is the sole entrant for the equally small Furniture Row Racing team.

Given the week-to-week expense of stock car racing, it’s hard to explain the enormity of these two drivers making NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s not like a couple of low-budget baseball teams winding up in the postseason. Rather imagine those same teams making it to October while not being able to afford a farm system, and having to use equipment handed down from other major league franchises once they no longer needed it.

But against all odds in this weekend’s chill air at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Jordan Anderson took to the track on Saturday, and Chris Buescher and Martin Truex, Jr. followed one day later. In the Lifetime or Hallmark channels accounting of this story, one or two would have won a thrilling victory.

Reality is seldom so providential. Anderson finished 22nd in the truck race, down a lap to the phenom Byron. Buescher had a tough day from the start, winding up 30th. Absent a strong finish next week, he’ll be among the four drivers failing to make the first cut in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after that race. Truex had a good car and dueled Kenseth for the lead through much of Sunday’s race, bringing cheers from the fans. But in the end he was shuffled back to 7th as Harvick and Kenseth dueled, and he wound up losing his points lead to Brad Keslowski.

Perhaps the weekend’s results only remind us that life is not a Hallmark movie. Or perhaps there is another lesson. One that suggests that winning has multiple definitions. Sometimes just making it to the starting line counts as a victory.

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