Friday, September 17, 2010

Chase for the Cup Coverage: New Hampshire Motor Speedway – Race 1 (Pre-race) – Sylvania 300

chase Welcome to Skirts and Scuffs coverage of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, you will see pre-race and post-race analysis from 12 of our outstanding contributors. Each of these contributors has been tasked to cover one driver throughout the entirety of the Chase. On Fridays prior to the race, we will share our pre-race analysis of each driver, and on Tuesday following the event (Monday if it’s a Saturday race) we will share with you how that driver did over the course of the weekend. It’s our hope to bring you some of the most comprehensive coverage of the Chase you can find online.

Week 1 of the 2010 Chase takes us to New Hampshire Motor Speedway (also referred to as Loudon) for the Sylvania 300. Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, Loudon has played host to the Chase opener; however, in 2011 the opener will move to Chicagoland Speedway.

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The 1.058-mile track was completed in 1990 and has hosted 31 Sprint Cup Series events since joining the schedule in 1993. Drivers Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon are the only two Chase contenders to have competed in all 31 events. In addition, the 12 chase contenders have combined for a total of 218 starts, 20 victories and 4,781 laps led at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Only one driver (Kurt Busch) has won the Chase opener and gone on to take home the series title (2004).

GENTLEMEN, START THE CHASE!

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1. DENNY HAMLIN – 5060 POINTS – HOLLY MACHUGA

First in points, winner of last weekend's race, is Denny Hamlin. When asked about how the win felt, he responded, "It's good. I definitely feel like we spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be and we brought what we had in the shop and said we are going to try to start our Chase early and that way, when we got to Loudon..." Denny looks to sweep the Chase and win his first championship.

Earlier in the season, Hamlin had surgery on his ACL after a basketball accident. The race following his surgery, he brought in a win for the FedEx team and shocked everyone. His wins up to this point took place at Martinsville, Texas, Darlington, Pocono, Michigan and, now, Richmond. Because Denny led 251 of the 400 laps and won, he shot from 10th in points to first.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been a good track to Hamlin in the past. He has nine starts, six top-tens, three top-fives and a win. His average start is 10.1 and his average finish is 8.2. Things are definitely looking up for the #11 FedEx team as they begin their first of 10 races and their Chase for the Cup. Hopefully, Denny will be the one to knock Jimmie Johnson from his four-year Cup streak.

2. JIMMIE JOHNSON – 5050 POINTS – REBECCA KIVAK

As the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off, Jimmie Johnson is looking to make history and claim his fifth consecutive championship in the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Seeded in second place after the points were reset, Johnson claimed five wins in the regular season (California, Las Vegas, Bristol, Infineon and New Hampshire) as well as 10 top 5s, 14 top 10s and one pole. But it hasn’t been an easy year for the 48. The team had a rough time adjusting when the COT’s trademark wing was scrapped and replaced with the spoiler. In addition, a stretch of poor performances over the summer, some uncharacteristic bad luck and a rare four DNFs have left many wondering if this will be the year the four-time champ is finally unseated. 

However, no other driver has mastered the Chase like Johnson. Since the inception of the 10-race playoffs in 2004, Johnson has won at least one race every year and collected four wins in three of those seasons. He boasts 32 wins at the 10 tracks that make up the Chase, and he is the only driver in the playoffs whose average finish is in the single digits (8.4). Johnson is also coming off back-to-back third-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond, which has the Cup champion feeling confident despite the bumps in the road this season. “I think with two good runs going into the Chase, my guys are ready, I'm ready, we have got our mojo back and we are looking forward to it,” Johnson said after last week’s Richmond race.
Johnson returns this weekend to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the site of his most recent win after a thrilling battle to the finish with Kurt Busch. In 17 starts at the "Magic Mile," Johnson has three wins, six top 5s, 12 top 10s and has lead 297 laps, with an average finish of 9.0. His driver rating of 107.9 is second-best at Loudon.

3. KEVIN HARVICK – 5030 POINTS – AMBER ARNOLD

Kevin Harvick ended the 2010 regular season as the Cup Series points leader. Going into Loudon, momentum is one thing the 29 team definitely has on their side. Harvick goes into the Chase with three wins in the regular season, earning him the third seed after the points reset for the Chase. RCR, a team that has been shut out of the championship since Dale Earnhardt last won in 1994, looks to be one team in contention to take the championship this year with all three cars making the Chase and seems to have its best shot with the 29, the highest-ranked RCR team. Going into the Chase, Martinsville is the only track where Harvick seemed to struggle this year, coming home 35th.

Harvick, who will pilot the Bud Light car next year (Shell/Pennzoil is moving to Penske and Kurt Busch), finished fifth earlier this year at Loudon. In 19 races he has one win, four top 5s and 10 top 10s at the New Hampshire track. He is credited with leading 318 laps in all 19 races. Harvick has an average driver rating of 93.0 at Loudon and should definitely not be overlooked as a threat to take the checkered flag on Sunday.

4. KYLE BUSCH – 5030 POINTS – LINDI BESS

Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, will be making his fourth attempt at bringing home a Sprint Cup championship. Should the #18 Toyota team accomplish this, it’ll be another first for Busch with the foreign car manufacturer. In 2008, Busch made history as the first Cup driver to win in a foreign car. It was his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and JGR’s first year with Toyota. Busch visited victory lane eight times, putting him in contention for the 2008 championship, but he finished in the top 10.

A disappointing finish for Busch in 2009, despite four wins, brought about a major change for 2010. A new chapter for the #18 team began as Dave Rodgers replaced *Steve Addington as Busch’s crew chief. Since then, JGR has definitely brought the M&M Toyota Camry back as a worthy opponent in the series.

Busch begins the Chase in the fourth position with 5030 points, one spot ahead of brother Kurt, and two behind four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. With wins at Richmond, Dover and Bristol, the #18 car remained in the top 12 in the points standings the majority of the regular season races. So far, the 2010 season has netted him two poles, eight top 5s, 14 top 10s, one DNF and $4,706,420 in the first 26 races. He also snagged the record for having swept NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, NNS and the CWTS races at Bristol in August.

With only one win in **2006 and an average finish of 15.2, Loudon will definitely set the tone for the M&M’s Toyota Camry early on in this competition. Busch’s last visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway gave him an 11th-place finish, with 46 laps led. This M&M’s team behind the #18 are more than capable of capturing the Sprint Cup Championship. They’ve come from behind on more than one occasion this year, proving that they are definitely a team to beat.

*Ironically, Steve Addington moved to crew chief the #2, Kurt Busch
**Driving #5 Kelloggs for Hendrick Motorsports

5. KURT BUSCH – 5020 POINTS – KATY LINDAMOOD

He may not be a fan favorite and he may not have the most wins in 2010, but Kurt Busch is still a man on a mission. Entering the 2010 Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship, Busch has two wins to his name this season in addition to the cool million he won in the All-Star event in May. Seeded in fifth after the points were reset, Busch is looking to add a second series title to his resume. The second half of the season has been up and down for Busch. Poor finishes at Sonoma, Pocono and Michigan were followed by top 10s at Loudon, Watkins Glen and Bristol.

Busch begins his final 10 races behind the wheel of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge this weekend at Loudon, a track that has been good to him in the past. (Side note: Busch will move to the #22 sponsored by Shell/Pennzoil in 2011 while teammate Brad Keselowski will pilot the #2 Miller Lite Dodge.) Earlier this season he finished third behind Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. This weekend will mark Busch’s 20th start at the New Hampshire track. In his previous 19 starts, Busch has claimed victory three times and has an average finish of 13.7. His most recent victory at Loudon occurred in 2008. In 2004, when Busch won the first ever Nextel/Sprint Cup, he swept Loudon.

6. TONY STEWART – 5010 POINTS – UNIQUE HIRAM

Two-time champion, driver/owner and one of the most outspoken talents in the Cup Series, Tony Stewart has been working hard to overcome the rollercoaster ride that has plagued his team this season. It was unbelievable that the Stewart-Haas racing team would go winless for most of the regular 2010 season considering how well they had run the previous 2009 season. Hard work, determination and perseverance were showcased on Sept. 5 when the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet team and their driver won the Emory Healthcare 500 in Atlanta. Granted, this would be their only regular season win; however, it solidified this team’s presence in the upcoming Chase.

Now seeded in the sixth position for the Chase, Stewart will be headed to a racetrack where he has won two times: July 2000 (thatlook.com 300) and July 2005 (New England 300). Upon entering the July 2005 race, Stewart was seeded third in the point standings behind Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle respectively; he went on to lead 232 laps to win the race, which put him only 85 points behind the points leader. (Note: He was able to capture his second series championship this season) Additionally, his other Loudon track statistics include the following: one pole position (September 2005), 12 top 5s, 14 top 10s and approximately 1,030 led laps.

7. GREG BIFFLE – 5010 POINTS – STACIE BALL

Being the second-oldest driver at the age of 40, Greg Biffle, the driver of the No. 16 3M Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, is seeded in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the seventh position. Biffle clinched his spot in the Chase with consistently good finishes throughout the season, with one win at Pocono Raceway at the end of July, five top-5s and 14 top-10s.

Going into Loudon, Biffle, who started 34th and finished 16th last time in New Hampshire, is looking forward to the Chase races. "It would obviously be great for us to come back and start the Chase with two wins like we did in 2008 but a solid top-5 run would work too. We’ve had a couple of bad races but I still feel really confident about our chances in the Chase. We’ve been running well since Chicago and I think that should carry over into the Chase." Biffle has one win at Loudon, which came in 2008 at the beginning of the Chase, along with four top-5s and six top-10s. Could this be the year for things to turn around for Biffle and the 3M Fusion?

8. JEFF GORDON – 5000 POINTS – GENEVIEVE CADORETTE

Jeff Gordon will be entering the 2010 Chase season in New Hampshire 60 points behind Chase leader Denny Hamlin. The four-time Cup champion finished the regular season second in points without a single win.

Gordon holds a solid record as a top 5 leader at NHMS with three career wins, three career poles, 14 top 5s and 17 top-10 finishes in 31 starts and has lead a total of 1,205 laps. In his last race at NHMS, he started 16th and finished fourth. For Sunday's race at New Hampshire, the #24 team decided to use a new chassis that has not been raced yet, Hendrick Motorsports Chassis No. 24-616. The paint scheme is gray and black with National Guard, Find Us on Facebook painted right smack on the hood of the car. A fourth victory is possible for Gordon.

9. CARL EDWARDS – 5000 POINTS  – AMANDA EBERSOLE

Carl Edwards is winless in 2010, but despite that fact, he sits ninth in points. In the two months leading up to the Chase, Edwards has finished no worse than 12th. Edwards claimed the pole at Watkins Glen and had runner-up finishes at Chicagoland Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway just two weeks ago. The 99 team is not to be counted out as a contender for the Sprint Cup championship.

As we head into the first Chase race at Loudon, this is a track where Edwards has not had much success in the past. In a total of 12 races, Edwards has only lead 65 laps and has no wins. His most recent top-five finish at Atlanta came in 2008’s Chase opener, in which teammate Greg Biffle won and Edwards finished third behind Jimmie Johnson. Although winless at Loudon, Carl has an average finish of 14th, so look for him to improve on that stat since this Roush Fenway Ford seems to be hitting the marks as of late.

10. JEFF BURTON – 5000 POINTS – GENNA SHORT

Jeff Burton is what most people would call a sentimental fan favorite, although many seem to have counted him out of the Chase. This is the fourth time the veteran has been in the playoffs, the other years being 2006-08. Although he has been in NASCAR for a while, making his first Cup start in 1993 at the very track the Cup Series will be visiting this week, Burton’s stats at Loudon are nothing short of impressive.

He is the all-time winningest driver at the 1-mile oval track. From 1997-99, he won all of the July races on his way to winning the September 2000 race. He is also the only driver to come from as far back as 38th to win. In spite of having just one top 10 in his last five starts, a fourth-place finish in September 2008, his average finish at the track is 13.5.

Coming off a 13th-place finish at Richmond, he heads into Loudon seeking to improve his already respectable résumé at the track while chasing his first Sprint Cup Series title.

11. MATT KENSETH – 5000 POINTS – WHITNEY RICHARDS

For the first time in nearly 10 years, Matt Kenseth began a new season without the familiar black and yellow colors of his long-time sponsor DeWALT. Crown Royal became the primary sponsor of the No. 17 Ford driven by Kenseth after Jamie McMurray was let go from Roush Fenway Racing when the organization had to downsize from five teams to four. Sponsor changes weren't the only adjustment for Kenseth in 2010. He started off the season with Drew Blickensderfer as his crew chief, but Blickensderfer was replaced by Todd Parrott the week after the Daytona 500. Parrott was eventually replaced by Jimmy Fennig, who had been the crew chief for Kenseth's teammate David Ragan. Seven years ago, he earned the nickname "Mr. Consistency" after racking up 25 top-10 finishes, 11 top-5 finishes and one win to earn the 2003 Winston Cup championship.

This year Kenseth is showing that consistency can still pay off in the long run when it comes to vying for the championship, despite the fact he has yet to win in 2010. He has five top-5 finishes and 10 top-10 finishes this season. His best finish came in the spring at Atlanta, where he finished second to Kurt Busch.

With an average starting position of 19.4 and an average finishing position of 13.7 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kenseth has earned five top-5 finishes and 11 top-10 finishes at the track, but has yet to get a win there. His best finish at NHMS is second, which was in 2004. This weekend will mark his 21st start at the track. The team is bringing chassis RK-704 to New Hampshire this weekend. It is a new car, and the team is eager to see how it will run. Many people consider Kenseth a long shot when it comes to winning this year's championship, but don't count the 2003 champion out just yet. He and his team will give their all to bring home that trophy at the end of the season. Kenseth is currently 11th in the standings, 60 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

12 - CLINT BOWYER – 5000 POINTS – AMY MCHARGUE

With no wins to his credit this season and 12th in points, Clint Bowyer starts the Chase to the Sprint Cup at the back of the field. Starting with 5000 points, he is tied with four other drivers and will be looking for a strong finish at Loudon to improve his place in the Chase standings. At the post-race Richmond media press conference, Bowyer said, “I feel like this is the best shot we’ve ever had since I've been there to win a championship. You know from here, it’s 10 races and it’s all in.” Bowyer seems ready to go and is optimistic toward his chances of running strong in the Chase.

In 2007 Bowyer started from the pole and won this race; with three top-10 finishes and one win in Bowyer’s nine starts at the New Hampshire track, the #33 Richard Childress Racing Team should feel some confidence going into the weekend. This year's June race at Loudon found Bowyer with a seventh-place finish at the end of the day. If he is able to repeat or better that performance, he will surely move up from his 12th-place starting spot in Cup Series points. Forty-two percent of Bowyer’s starts on intermediate tracks have earned him top-10 finishes; there is a good chance he will finish ahead of several other Chase drivers Sunday on the 1-mile track in New Hampshire.

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