Ryan: Three thoughts on New Hampshire

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1. Aggressive strategy isn’t working for Kevin Harvick: A week after opting to decline pitting despite having a tire rub (which led to a wreck and 42nd-place finish), the defending series champion’s team again rolled the dice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The temptation to win with a No. 4 Chevrolet that led a race-high 216 of 300 laps is understandable, but the math doesn’t make sense.

Running out of fuel cost him at least 20 points and turned the next elimination race into an absolute must-win situation (as it’s unlikely he can make up a 25-point deficit on the cut line in one race). Though it’s marketed as being predicated on winning, advancing through the playoff still is centered on consistency until the final round. If Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers would have managed their finishes by cutting their losses through the first two races, they would stand to be in far better shape entering Dover International Speedway. Based on the middling performance of Jamie McMurray (ranked 11th after finishes of 14th and 16th), Harvick probably would be above the cut line.

2. Beware the middle’s mayhem: For the second consecutive season, New Hampshire Motor Speedway was an absolute roller coaster ride for Chase drivers with their fortunes undulating for 300 consecutive laps.

It was too early to count out Jimmie Johnson when he fell all the way to 30th because of a flat tire with 98 laps remaining, and it was too early to proclaim Dale Earnhardt Jr. as safe while on the verge of a top 10 with a lap remaining (he ran out of fuel on the final lap and finished 25th). Last season, it seemed as if the middle race in each round (New Hampshire, Charlotte, Texas) consistently produced the most chaos for the contenders, and Sunday’s race continued the trend.

3. When a gray area turned black: NASCAR picked a curious time to get tough on restarts, penalizing Brad Keselowski on Lap 243 for jumping a restart in which he didn’t even take the lead. Under the letter of the rule, Keselowski might have gone early. Under the spirit of the rule, it’s hard to see how this deserved a black flag that might have cost him a win and certainly cost him enough points to leave him in the danger zone for failing to advance to the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Last week, Jeff Gordon wasn’t penalized after he moved from second to first on a restart with a move that seemed a more blatant infraction. Before NASCAR changed its rule two years ago allowing the second-place car to beat the leader to the line, Keselowski was known as perhaps the savviest driver at restart gamesmanship. Did that history help turn the Team Penske driver into becoming an example? What about team owner Roger Penske challenging NASCAR’s decision to allow Matt Kenseth’s final restart to stand at Richmond (where Kenseth beat Penske’s Joey Logano)?

It’s worth asking … just as it’s worth wondering if NASCAR consistently will throw the black flag for Chase drivers who are judged as leaving early during the final eight races.