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How the race was won

Harvick
Harvick Fresh off his victory at Richmond, Kevin Harvick came to New Hampshire and promptly won the pole. He spent all of Sunday's race at or near the front of the pack (he easily led the most laps), survived a couple of late restarts and other teams' varying pit strategies, and drove away from Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon on the final restart to win the 2006 Chase opener and assume the Cup points lead for the first time in his career.

Story of the race

Harvick. The 29 must be considered the best team in NASCAR right now.

Hendrick Motorsports' woes. Gordon aside, it was not a good day for a couple of the Hendrick Chasers.

Give 'em credit

Harvick, of course.

Gordon. Some believe he's lost his drive. Really, it's probably that the competition is a little tougher now. Still, Sunday's performance put Gordon in good position early in the Chase – and that's where he'll stay if the 24 isn't bit by bad luck as it somewhat often has been the last couple of years.

Stewart. Richmond turned into a debacle, but he drove a nice, clean race after qualifying poorly and came home second. Small consolation.

Back to the Chasers, Denny Hamlin came up huge, Jeff Burton only faded a little for once (how about that Childress team?), and Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin more or less did what they had to do. Kasey Kahne had a nice in-race comeback but lost some positions late, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was disappointed with his day but still crossed a decent 13th.

Some non-Chasers, including Dave Blaney, Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler and J.J. Yeley (how about that Gibbs team?) also stepped up. That's two consecutive top-10s for Blaney.

What were they thinking?

Yes, Michael Waltrip raced Harvick pretty hard while trying to stay on the lead lap. Waltrip's move is understandable, but at this point there is far more on the line for the No. 29 team than there is for the No. 55. Waltrip put Harvick in a tough position there.

Then there was Harvick's banzai move on Hamlin and Burton. Harvick admitted he "screwed up" there. Made for some entertaining racing, though.

Better luck next time

Johnson
Johnson Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. For a while it looked like Busch might again be able to recover from early problems, but it wasn't to be. Yes, there are plenty of Johnson haters out there, but it's hard to deny that being wrecked in the Chase opener – on his birthday, no less – almost isn't fair after the season he's had. So can Johnson and Busch make up nearly 150 points and eight or nine positions in the standings in nine races? It's not impossible but …

Bobby Labonte. In a season in which the No. 43 team seems to have lost some of its early momentum, Labonte was putting together a pretty decent run before crashing out.

New Englander Ted Christopher was forced to start the race four laps behind. Why? NASCAR held him in the garage because his spotter had not reported to the spotters' stand. The spotter reportedly was stuck in an elevator during the power outage that hit the track shortly before the race.

By the way …

Stewart talked about the balance of just going all-out for a win and needing to be careful not to ruin the day of a Chase driver. It was a nerve-wracking position in which he did not enjoy being. He suggested running two separate races, first for the other 33 drivers and then for the Chasers. That might be pushing it too far, but many drivers – Harvick notably not included – do support the Chase drivers being scored under their own point system. Stewart also acknowledged that the character of the racing can change when drivers are being polite around the Chasers. Cases in point: the comparatively tame events at Bristol, Richmond and now Loudon in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, back to one of our favorite topics: the green flag pit cycle. It showed up at Loudon. Hopefully it will return for each of the next nine races.

Grading the race

This one moved along at a good pace. Harvick's dominance threatened to make it a bit of a yawner, though the late cautions added plenty of drama and set up an interesting finish. Loudon has been better than this in recent years, but it also has been worse. It just seemed this race didn't have all that much of an identity. And as far as Chase openers go, again, could have been better, could have been worse. Grade: C+

From the source

Kevin Harvick: "The whole year has been phenomenal. If it ended right now, I think we would be happy."

Jeff Gordon: "I kind of hope [Harvick] does more things like he did with Denny [Hamlin] and the No. 31 [Burton] because things like that will lose him the championship if he's not careful."

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