LOUDON, N.H. – If you prefer NASCAR with a side of the world’s strangest in stock cars, the 5-hour Energy 301 was your brand of bizarre.
Tires were turned into fireballs, menacing water bottles were tossed with impunity in hopes of stopping the action, and an oil slick straight out of Spy Hunter that took an interminable long time to trigger a caution.
And then there was this odd little nugget.
The two fastest cars in the Sprint Cup Series the past two weeks somehow seem headed in opposite directions.
How is that possible?
Consider the demeanor of the top two finishers Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
On one hand, there was race winner Kyle Busch, cracking jokes and thrusting newborn son Brexton skyward in victory lane.
On the other, there was runner-up Brad Keselowski, sounding unusually angst-ridden on his team radio and dejectedly offering up a series of tired clichés and eight-to-10 word answers afterward.
“I’m ready to go home,” he said. “I’m ready to go home.”
Busch obviously had much more to be happy about after his third win in the past four races continued his unbelievable surge toward the impossible – making the Chase for the Sprint Cup despite spotting the field the first 11 races because of a broken right leg and fractured left foot from his crash in the Xfinity Series opener Feb. 21 at Daytona International Speedway.
His 32nd career Sprint Cup victory whacked another 29 points off the deficit to his golden ticket to a Chase berth.
With seven races remaining in the regular season, only 58 points separate 30th-ranked David Gilliland from Busch, who might make up the gap at his current rate by Pocono Raceway in two weeks.
“This is pretty special,” he said. “This is something that I’m not sure we ever would have expected.”
The latter sentiment also might have been expressed by Keselowski if he’d been in a typically loquacious mood after leading a race-high 101 laps Sunday.
In two consecutive races, his No. 2 Ford might have been the class of the field.
In two consecutive races, he’s watched Busch’s No. 18 Toyota snatch the checkered flag.
“He’s good, but we’re a good team, too,” Keselowski said. “And I feel like we can beat him.”
He certainly has shown the ability to keep pace.
At Kentucky Speedway last week, a self-induced batch of pit miscues and backfiring strategy calls cost Keselowski. The miss at New Hampshire mostly was attributable to an inopportune caution flag that allowed Busch to inherit and keep the lead, but that didn’t make it any easier to stomach.
Normally laid-back and measured when communicating with his Team Penske crew, Keselowski often was chippy on the team radio Sunday. He complained of lapped traffic, threatened retaliation and chastised spotter Joey Meier for a “panicked” tone on a restart.
In a series of upbeat postrace tweets more reflective of his regularly insightful and engaging personality, Keselowski blamed his grouchiness on stifling heat and the yellow flags.
But one has to wonder if the recent lack of execution also was a factor.
By virtue of his victory at Auto Club Speedway, Keselowski is in no danger of missing the Chase, and he is a major threat to advance deep into the playoff – perhaps a round further than last year to reach the winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But winning a title is about more than that just pure speed. Keselowski won the championship in 2012 because he and crew chief Paul Wolfe married flawless performance with sound (and often unconventional) strategies.
Over the past few weeks, though, that mantle has belonged to Busch and first-year Sprint Cup crew chief Adam Stevens, who has helped propel his driver’s long-shot bid with aggressively solid tactics that have maximized every chance at improvement.
“We executed,” Busch said. “That’s what you’ve got to do on these days.
“(Keselowski) should have probably been the fastest car. Was last week, was a little bit this week, yet somebody beat him. They executed just a little bit differently, and we were able to win the race.
“That’s going to happen to us, too. We got to take what we can get when we get it. Take those opportunities and make the most of it.”
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team is doing that better than any other outfit in Sprint Cup, and it’s been most starkly contrasted with Keselowski’s disappointments.
Busch’s lap times might be matched by many in NASCAR right now.
But it’s the only team truly setting the pace now.