Call it chaos, random luck or coincidence, but however you might term the jockeying of positions late in Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it was just another day for Jamie McMurray.
He gained five positions in the final 30 laps of Sunday’s race to finish sixth. That helped him climb to 15th on the Chase grid and stretch his advantage on those behind him trying to make the playoffs.
“We are getting better at the right time,’’ McMurray said after the race. “Last year we made the Chase and we had a pretty good buffer going into Richmond, but we didn’t run very good in the first three Chase races. They have made our cars a lot better.’’
What McMurray did Sunday is not new for him this season. He ranks third in the Sprint Cup Series in positions gained in the final 10 percent of races. He’s gained 21 spots during that time in the last five races.
While McMurray excelled late at New Hampshire, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson — both behind McMurray in the Chase grid — were not as fortunate. They were involved in a crash with less than 20 laps to go. Kahne lost 13 spots and Larson lost three.
Heading into this weekend’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBCSN, McMurray is 15th on the Chase grid with 474 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. holds the final transfer spot after missing Sunday’s race. He has 461 points.
Trevor Bayne is the first driver outside a playoff spot with 447 points (27 behind McMurray) and is followed by Ryan Blaney (29 behind McMurray), Kahne (35 behind McMurray) and Larson (38 behind McMurray).
Those gaps are important because of the chances a non-winner could score a victory and earn a playoff spot. Another winner would leave four spots available for the Chase via points.
Last year marked the first time since 2008 there were not at least two first-time winners in the final seven races before the Chase began.
If that trend resumes after skipping last year, then a driver 15th in the Chase grid — as McMurray is now — would not be safe.
While every lap is important, what happens at the end of races becomes critical because there’s less time to make amends for a pit road penalty or getting collected in a crash. With seven races left before the playoff field is set, the intensity builds.
By avoiding such pitfalls throughout a race (and especially late), McMurray is in a position to contend for a second consecutive Chase spot.
Here’s a look at the drivers 12th to 20th on the Chase grid and how many positions they’ve gained or lost in the last 10 percent of races the past five events.
21 positions gained — Jamie McMurray
21 positions gained — Trevor Bayne
16 positions gained — Ryan Blaney
7 positions gained — Ryan Newman
6 positions gained — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
1 position lost — Austin Dillon
2 positions lost — Kasey Kahne
2 positions lost — Kyle Larson
24 positions lost — Chase Elliott
The joke in the Sprint Cup garage is that Tony Stewart runs on “Tony Time,’’ a time that does not always correlate to schedules or plans. So, after missing the first eight races of the season because of a back injury, might Tony Stewart be gaining momentum heading toward the Chase?
His runner-up finish marked his third top-five finish in the last four races. That equals the number of top fives he had in the 77 races before the current streak.
Stewart credited rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz with making the car better throughout the weekend. At Sonoma, a pit call by Bugarewicz put Stewart in the lead late to help Stewart score that victory.
Next on the schedule is Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart’s home track. It will be his final time to race there in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car and possibly ever.
“I grew up my whole life in Indiana,’’ Stewart said. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series that’s from Indiana that still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back. I still live in the town I was raised in. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend. I’m representing a lot of people around me, and I’m proud to do that.
“It’ll be an emotional weekend for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.’’
— Joey Logano’s third-place finish marked the sixth consecutive race Team Penske has had a top-three result. Penske has won three of those races. The results: New Hampshire (Logano, third); Kentucky (Brad Keselowski, first); Daytona (Keselowski, first); Sonoma (Logano, third); Michigan (Logano, first); Pocono (Keselowski, third).
— Hendrick Motorsports has led one lap in the last four races. That was the opening lap of Sunday’s race with Jimmie Johnson starting from the pole. He lost the lead on the second lap.
— Four of the top-five finishers Sunday were age 40 or older: Winner Matt Kenseth (44), runner-up Tony Stewart (45), fourth-place finisher Kevin Harvick (40) and fifth-place finisher Greg Biffle (46). The only driver younger than 40 in the top five was third-place finisher Joey Logano (26). Even with Logano’s age, the average age of the top five Sunday was 40.2.
— Matt Kenseth gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 136th career Sprint Cup victory Sunday, moving JGR past Roush Fenway Racing for fourth in all-time wins by teams. Junior Johnson is next with 153 wins.