For 16 Sprint Cup Series drivers, the quest for the championship continues this week at one of the circuit’s many short tracks. The flat, one-mile oval of Loudon, New Hampshire sets the stage for the second race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. After racing the tricky banks of Chicago, we come to the schedule’s version of a change of pace as drivers will have to slow down and battle the track as much as the competition for this second race of ten that make up the playoffs. Patience is the key to success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and for these eager, adrenaline-filled drivers, a battle of patience behind the wheel will be as important as racing the competitors on the track. Those drivers who can race the track and not their opponents will reap the rewards and set themselves up for a run at the championship. If you over-drive a stock car at Loudon, you will likely end up in the wall or other serious trouble, so knowing how to pace yourself and not “force” the car are valuable traits. This second event of the 10-race Chase is one more step towards the first “cut” going from the challenger to the contender round, so performing well in this event is very important. Since short track racing is a skill unlike the racing on intermediate ovals, the drivers who rule the bull rings of the series will have a leg up on the competition in pursuit of the championship. Many of our Chase drivers are skilled short track specialists, so we expect to see the Top 10 filled with championship contending names this Sunday afternoon.
We will be racing at a bull ring for the second time in three weeks, so we expect to see a lot of the same faces running up front this weekend that we saw at Richmond a couple weeks ago. However, NHMS has very flat banking which sets it apart from the higher banks of Richmond. We’ll need to take a quick look at the recent history of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in order to get a feel for our driver lineup this week. This track tends to be a facility that spurs streaks so we can put a lot of confidence into the recent numbers at Loudon. Here are the loop stats for the last 21 races at the small oval in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway has become a track of surprises in recent seasons. What used to be a quite predictable oval has become a track often won by wild cards. Nothing demonstrates this point better than Kyle Busch’s summer victory at NHMS. It was his second-career win at the New England short track, but first since 2006. Drivers like Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were much greater favorites to win that day at Loudon. To say that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s win was a surprise is a big understatement. If we step back in time and look at this event one year ago, Logano picked up his second-career Loudon victory in last year’s Sylvania 300. So when we look at the recent history at this facility, we find several first-time winners and long dry spells broken at the Magic Mile. Surprise has been the overriding theme at this track for the last five seasons. For the moment, Toyota has wrestled control of this small race track from Ford and Chevrolet. Busch’s win earlier this year snapped a two-race Ford win streak at NHMS. Our last Chevrolet winner at this oval was Kasey Kahne in 2012. That was one of only two Hendrick Motorsports victories at the facility in the last six years. So this super stable hasn’t had much success here recently. Championship contender Jimmie Johnson will hope to reverse that trend and make his first trip to victory lane at the Magic Mile since way back in 2010. While some surprises could be in store, it might be just as likely that Chicago winner Denny Hamlin comes steam rolling into Loudon and pulls the next surprise in-waiting at the Magic Mile, or his teammate Busch could return and pull the season-sweep at Loudon. It’s not unheard of at this short track, but it hasn’t been done since Kurt Busch last did it in 2004. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is peaking at the right time and could be pointed towards a first-ever championship this November. There are several drivers who perform well at Loudon, and some of those are “Chasers” so you know they’ll be racing hard this weekend. We’ll turn you onto the drivers that you need to win this second race of the Chase for the Cup this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star may be in the best position of his career to challenge for the Sprint Cup Series championship. He sits tied for third overall at 21 points behind leader Matt Kenseth coming to Loudon this week. The tough luck that has historically dogged this team in the Chase seemed to disappear with his strong effort at Chicago. Busch should get down to business this Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire, a track that has held great results for him in recent seasons. He is a two-time winner at NHMS and he has finished first or second at this small flat track in four of the last five events here. He’s led a combined 210 laps over those last five races, and has established himself as the current driver to beat at Loudon.
Brad Keselowski – The No. 2 Ford team is rounding out nicely into championship-contending form. Keselowski rides a 10-race Top-10 streak that includes three runner-up finishes coming to Loudon, and now set up well heading into the second race of the Chase. As the Penske Racing driver showed at Darlington just a couple weeks ago, he can take over and dominate a race at just the right time. He finished runner-up at New Hampshire Motor Speedway earlier this season, and that was one of five career Top-5 finishes at the short track. The momentum of this driver and team is huge coming to New Hampshire, and that’s all you need to know entering the Sylvania 300.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick comes to the Magic Mile in defense of his Sprint Cup Series championship. After a crash and poor finish at Chicago, the veteran driver is definitely on the offensive entering this Sylvania 300. He comes to New England last in the Chase standings and looking to have a big rebound. Harvick is a one-time winner at the flat oval in New Hampshire, and he finishes in the Top 10 at about a 52-percent rate. His July appearance at NHMS yielded a strong third-place finish in the 5-Hour Energy 301. The Chase is like the biggest “reset button” there is in the world of NASCAR, and racing for a championship can turn all things positive. Harvick’s urgency to get back into the championship picture should fuel a very strong run at the Magic Mile.
Joey Logano – The Sylvania 300 is a great opportunity to roll out Logano in your fantasy racing lineups, and he has performed well on the short tracks this season. He won this event one year ago and is a two-time Loudon victor. Logano’s most recent trip to NHMS in July saw the Penske Racing star qualify on the outside pole and finish fourth in the 5-Hour Energy 301. The veteran driver of the No. 22 Ford has led 85 laps in just his last two trips to the one-mile oval. Considering all the variables, and the pressure to perform in the championship chase, the upside and Loudon history with Logano is just too good to ignore.
Solid Plays – Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Matt Kenseth – The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in on the solid plays list this week at Loudon. Kenseth is coming off an impressive Top 5 at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend to start the Chase. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been a real challenge for the veteran driver. Kenseth has one victory and 16 Top 10s in 31 starts at the one-mile, flat oval. A mid-career slump at this track really hit his career numbers hard. However, he’s began to reverse those trends in recent visits. Four of his last five trips to the Magic Mile have netted Top-10 finishes, including the victory in this event in 2013.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his 19 career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with two wins, seven Top 5s and 11 Top 10s. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has recently been trying to gather some momentum, and last week at Chicago we got a glimpse of this team’s capabilities. Crew chief Dave Rogers and Hamlin have begun to click. They ride a five-race Top-6 streak into New Hampshire, including the win last week at the Windy City. Hamlin’s last trip to Loudon yielded an unimpressive 14th-place finish. He will do much better than that in Sunday’s Sylvania 300.
Jimmie Johnson – Johnson’s quest for a seventh championship may be his toughest challenge to-date. The No. 48 team has not been in race-winning form for the last couple months, and the competition is as tough at the top as it has been in recent years. Still, we expect Johnson to challenge for the title and to defend his turf this Sunday afternoon. He has won three times in his career at Loudon, and has managed a stellar 67-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Johnson has five Top 10s in his last seven visits to the Magic Mile. He should be up to the task of cracking the Top 10 again at the New Hampshire short track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – The Hendrick Motorsports star is coming to one of his favorite small ovals this weekend. Even though most of his early career was mixed at New Hampshire, Earnhardt has been coming on strong here of late. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has been strong in recent trips to the New Hampshire short track. Earnhardt rides a four-race Loudon Top-10 streak into New England this weekend. Now that the Chase has begun and the stakes are high, we expect the NASCAR icon to have his “A” game for the Sylvania 300. Earnhardt qualified 19th and finished a brilliant fifth here earlier in the summer. He should be very happy to visit one of his favorite short tracks this weekend.
Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Loudon who can provide a solid finish
Kurt Busch – If you’re willing to gamble a bit, veteran driver Busch could pay great returns this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing star has spent most of 2015 exceeding expectations and the Chase for the Cup should be no different. The veteran driver has a great history at this facility and will his best to revive that tradition this Sunday afternoon. Busch is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and as recently as 2008. He qualified sixth on the grid and finished 10th in this July’s 5-Hour Energy 301. If his strong third-place finish this past week at Chicago to start the Chase is any indication, Busch should have his game face on this short track battle.
Carl Edwards – For those of you who compete in weekly lineup leagues, you’ll want to be sure to keep Edwards in mind for Loudon. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran came to the New Hampshire short track in July and surprised all by capturing his first-career pole position at the Magic Mile. Edwards would go on to lead 19 laps that weekend and finish a strong seventh in that 301-lap event. With that performance, three of his last five trips to the flat oval have netted Top-10 finishes. Edwards and the No. 19 Toyota team have been coming on strong leading up to the Chase for the Cup, so he will be a great performer in this Sunday’s 300-lap event.
Ryan Newman – The No. 31 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2015 despite failing to break into the win column this season. Newman has managed 13 Top 10s to this point with more sure to come. The second race of the Chase is a great venue for Rocket Man. Newman is a three-time winner at Loudon, and he sports a 59-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has Top 10s in three of his last five starts, including his strong Top-5 finish at Chicago this past week. Newman seems to find another level of speed when we get to the Chase, and we should see that on the track in the Sylvania 300.
Martin Truex Jr. – This is a track specific selection this weekend. New Jersey native Truex has been a steady performer at the one-mile oval over the years. He boasts six Top 10s in 19 career starts at this flat oval. Truex has a 10th- and three 12th-place finishes in his last four trips to New Hampshire, so consistency has been on his side. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in July, Truex raced in the Top 15 for a majority of the event and peddled home a respectable 12th-place finish in the 5-Hour Energy 301. With his recent level of performance and Chase in the balance, we expect the No. 78 Chevrolet team to take things up a notch at Loudon Sunday afternoon.
Kyle Larson – Despite the small sample size, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver sports some strong stats at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Larson picked up third- and second-place finishes at this oval in his rookie 2014 season. His outing here this past July didn’t go as well, with struggles that led to a disappointing 31st-place finish. With Top-10 finishes in two of his last three starts leading up to this weekend, it’s clear that the No. 42 team is getting their act together even if it is late in the season. Larson posted a strong seventh-place finish this past week at Chicago, and he should use that momentum to exceed expectations at Loudon.
Aric Almirola – The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is really regretting missing the Chase for the Cup at this point. After 11th-, fourth- and 10th-place finishes the past three races, Almirola is in the middle of his biggest hot streak of the season. The impressive fourth-place finish coming at the Richmond short track a couple weeks ago. The driver of the No. 43 Ford should carry this hot streak into New Hampshire this weekend and post a good performance in the Sylvania 300. Almirola has finishes of sixth- and 15th-place in his last two trips to the Magic Mile. Those results didn’t happen by accident and he should fall within that range again this weekend.
Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week
Jeff Gordon – Despite leading 41 laps at Chicago, Gordon was saddled with a disappointing 14th-place finish in the Windy City. The Hendrick Motorsports star has battled some major performance issues throughout this season. Gordon has three career victories and 23 Top 10s in 41 starts at Loudon. He’s led well over 1,300 career laps at the small oval. However, recent visits have told another story for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon has two finishes outside the Top 25 in his last three trips to the Magic Mile. The struggles are concerning enough to warrant benching Gordon for this very important race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Paul Menard – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has nine years of racing experience at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. However, the results have just never improved or moved along for the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet. In 17-career starts Menard has no Top-10 finishes and only two Top-15 finishes. It all adds up to a career average finish of 23.8 at the Magic Mile. His last Loudon outing was a typical 25th-place finish in July’s 5-Hour Energy 301. Considering this driver and team’s current level of performance, that’s the mark to expect in the Sylvania 300.
Kasey Kahne – It’s been a nightmarish season for Kahne and the No. 5 team. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran missed the Chase for the Cup and is poised to post career-lows in Top-10 finishes and laps led. Kahne limps into Loudon mired in an 11-race Top-10 drought and just looking for anything positive. New Hampshire Motor Speedway hasn’t been one of his better tracks over the years. With eight Top 10s in 23 starts he checks in at a lowly 35-percent rate. Kahne hasn’t visited the Top 10 in his last five trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Tony Stewart – Smoke is a three-time winner at the Magic Mile and has 18-career Top 10s to his credit. However, that strong resume has been turning south over the last two seasons. Stewart has only one Top-10 finish in his last four trips to the New England short track. That includes a subpar 20th-place finish in the series’ last visit to Loudon this past July. Considering that Stewart is poised to cap the worst season of his career in 2015, there’s not much hope for a rebound performance at the one-mile oval this weekend. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has been a fantasy racing liability for the whole of the season.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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