Friday, September 20, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

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Week two of The 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup Champion heads to Loudon, New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.  Matt Kenseth leads the points, but with nine races left, don’t count anyone out.

This week we break down driver statistics for NHMS and preview what you can expect from the 13 men racing for the title.

Check back Monday for our recap.  

1. Matt Kenseth (points leader)
by: Katy Lindamood


Call it a renewal, a resurgence, a revitalization, a revival, a reawakening. Label it however you want, Matt Kenseth is at the top of his game and everyone else is scrambling to catch up to the current points leader.

Coming off win at Chicagoland, the 2003 Champion has momentum riding shotgun at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But, momentum is just a bonus considering the milestone Kensesth celebrates this week -  500 Sprint Cup Series starts spanning a 14-year career. To celebrate the milestone, Kenseth’s Camry will sport a special paint scheme honoring his career.

“You know, I think the older I get, the longer you've been around, as least for me, I've learned to enjoy wins more, especially after you've gone on a losing streak. We had two seasons without a win one time. When you struggle some, have some things go on like that, you certainly learn to appreciate and enjoy the wins more,” said Kenseth this week during a teleconference.

Historically, NHMS has been a rocky road. In 27 starts Kenseth has never earned a win,  only five top-five finishes, and has led only 122 of the 7873 laps he’s completed on track. Will start 500 end with victory number 31? We’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out.

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2. Kyle Busch (-8)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud


New Hampshire Motor Speedway may not be Kyle Busch’s best track but as well as he’s run this season, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Peanut Butter Toyota doesn’t seem to be too concerned about having only one win and five top-five finishes at the 1.058-mile oval.

“Loudon is tricky for me. For some reason, I never figured it out with the last car, but this new 2013 Gen-6 Toyota Camry worked well for me there in July. The first race there this season was the best car I’ve had there with JGR,” Busch said. 

The team looks to improve on their average finish of 15.8 at Loudon. 

“Essentially, at Loudon, you’re looking at how good your fuel mileage is and you have to look at when you have to make your last pit stop, since that’s what everyone looks at.,” he explained. “You end up running it almost like a road-course race because you do want to be the first guy on the last round of pit stops to pit. You want to get in there, get your tires and fuel, and then stay out the rest of the race and keep your track position since it’s so important there.” 

With his second place showing in the Chase opener, the younger Busch brother trails Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth by just eight points in the championship standings, but Busch isn’t letting that position affect him at this point. 

“There’s still nine more weeks – nine long weeks to go. But I know this team is focused and we’ll try to have another good race at New Hampshire with our M&M’s Peanut Butter Camry and keep up some positive momentum from last week.”

Considering that Kyle is showing almost as much personal control as he does car control, his chances of winning the Sylvania 300 look pretty bright.

3. Jimmie Johnson (-11)
by: Beth Bence Reinke


After celebrating his 38th birthday this week, Jimmie Johnson enters the race weekend at Loudon sitting third in the Chase standings. Although it’s not his best venue, Johnson has accumulated three wins at the track, the most recent in July 2010. In 23 starts at the Magic Mile, he has 16 top-10 finishes, earning four of them in his last four races there.

If he meets or improves his average finish of 9.4, Johnson will make it five top 10s in a row. However, the five-time champion prefers to win, as shown by his fifth place finish last week despite strange pit road events, including a broken jack and an erroneous call resulting in lost track position. The caution flag usually flies about seven times during Loudon races, and it’s a safe bet the No. 48 Lowe’s team has double-checked their equipment and will be ready for quick, smooth pit stops this week.

After testing at the track last month, Johnson feels good about his team’s performance heading into New Hampshire.

“We had a great racecar there earlier this year and we’ve tested there, so I’m optimistic going back. The way the race unfolds, it’s definitely a different game when you get into the top-10. Restarts were important and the lane you were in made a difference on how you could pass.”

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4. Kevin Harvick (-15)
by: Stephanie Stuart


Kevin Harvick made a strong statement for 2013 Sprint Cup Champion after a 3rd place finish at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend. He hopes to keep his campaign running strong as the No. 29 team heads into New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a brand new car. Harvick enters the weekend fourth in points, only15 behind leader Matt Kenseth.

As Harvick enters his last stretch of races for Richard Childress Racing before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he is in top form. There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the season that the No. 29 team may be a lame-duck this year, but Harvick told the media that he would do everything he could to leave the team stronger than it was when he first began driving for them in 2001. It looks like he is fulfilling his promise.

According to Kevin, the hardest thing about running at NHMS is making the car turn in the middle and being  having enough forward drive off.  He also says that the New Hampshire race always seems to come down to a track position strategy call on two tires or four tires towards the end of the race. Track position will play a big part, but getting the car to handle right will probably play an equal part.

Harvick has one win from the pole position at NHMS in 2006 in 25 starts. He also has five top-5 finishes and ten top 10s. He has an average starting position of 14.2, and an average finish of 13.4. To his credit, he has also completed an astonishing 99.3% of the laps at the track.

Kevin looks forward to going to NHMS. He says it's a flat track, and it's similar to the tracks out west that started his racing career. If the past 27 races have been any indication of what the next ones hold for Harvick, hold on to your seats.

5. Carl Edwards (-23)
by: Carol D’Agostino


Carl Edwards comes off of a "just OK" race at Chicagoland where he finished in 11th place and led one lap. Fortunately, the Magic Mile should be kinder to him. Although he has never won at New Hampshire, he has dominated on tracks most similar to this track – Richmond and Phoenix. In fact, his only two wins this season have come on these two tracks.

The No. 99 Aflac Ford needs to finish well this week to secure a spot as a Chase contender, not a pretender.

Edwards has an average finish of 14.1 in 18 career starts at Loudon, including two top fives and four top 10s.

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6. Kurt Busch (-23)
by: Rebecca Kivak


Kurt Busch has a score to settle at New Hampshire. In the July race, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion started from the outside pole and led a race-high 102 laps before crashing with fewer than 80 laps to go. He was forced to settle for a 31st-place finish.

Now the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet returns to the Magic Mile after three straight top-4 finishes. Busch is hungry for his first win with Furniture Row and thinks he can get it at New Hampshire, where he has three victories, seven top fives, 11 top 10s and an average finish of 15.4.

Busch is hoping to finish what he started two months ago.

“We have good notes about how to set up our car for this weekend’s race,” Busch said. “We have momentum heading into New Hampshire with top-fives in the last three races.”

“We just have to keep knocking off those top-fives and hopefully we can eventually seal the deal with a win,” Busch added.

Busch sits sixth in points, 23 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

7. Jeff Gordon (-24)
by: Rebecca Kivak


After a hard-fought sixth-place finish at Chicagoland, Jeff Gordon enters New Hampshire with a competitive fire in his spirit. The four-time Sprint Cup champion notched his fourth consecutive top-10 finish last week and aims to keep the streak alive at the 1.058-mile Loudon track.

Gordon has had ample success at New Hampshire. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet counts three wins at the Magic Mile. His 16 top fives and 22 top 10s lead all drivers. His 109.4 driver rating tops the Chase field and his average finish of 10.5 is second-highest among the 13 drivers.

Gordon finished third at New Hampshire a year ago after starting from the pole, the fourth time he’s claimed the top starting spot at the short oval. He finished 10th in the July race.

Ranked seventh in the championship standings, Gordon is 24 points – his car number – behind leader Matt Kenseth. He looks to build on his team’s progress.

"This team has a lot of fight in them and we never give up," Gordon said. "We've started to run better - I think Chicago was one of our best races so far this year - and we have started to finish better. We just need to keep building on that. When you have cars that drive like the one I had at Chicago, it's so much fun.­­”

Looking ahead to New Hampshire, Gordon said, "I can't wait for this weekend's race."

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8. Ryan Newman (-28)
by: Lacy Keyser and Beth Bence Reinke


Ryan Newman made a splash in The Chase early with his 10th-place showing at Chicagoland, jumping four spots in the standings to eighth place. New Hampshire is a welcome venue for the driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevy since his last four wins came at flat tracks.

Although Loudon used to be his least favorite track, now Newman is sentimental about the place, perhaps because it was the location of his first Sprint Cup points win during his 2002 rookie season.

"It’s still not my favorite racetrack, but I really look forward to going back there each year. New Hampshire has always been a good place for me. I’m not 100 percent sure why. It’s the place I got my first win and, when I hadn’t won in a long while, 70-some races, I won again there. For whatever reason, I still don’t know the answer to why I enjoy Loudon."

In addition to his three wins at New Hampshire, Newman has six top fives, 13 top 10s and six poles.

9. Clint Bowyer (-28)
by: Katy Lindamood


In recent weeks, Clint Bowyer’s racing ability has played second fiddle to the controversy that began in Richmond. On Thursday it was announced that NAPA Auto Parts, long-time sponsor at Michael Waltrip Racing, would sever their ties with the company at the end of the current season. With one sponsor out and Bowyer’s primary 5-hour ENERGY still determining their future with the team, the fallout may only just be beginning.

Controversy aside, Bowyer needs to focus on the track if he wants to make a run at the title this season. Unfortunately, history shows that the second-place finisher doesn’t usually fare well the following season. (See Carl Edwards who lost tie-breaker in 2011 yet failed to make The Chase in 2012.)

Bowyer faces a deficit of 28 points as the series moves to Loudon for the Sylvania 300. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has dealt its share of poor finishes to Bowyer, but since joining MWR he’s never finished worse than 13th in three events. His two wins came in 2007 and 2010 and his average finish is 14.9.

“The flat short tracks seem to fit my driving style the best and I have had a lot of success there - so we are pretty confident going in. We could use a big week to get back on the right track,” said Bowyer in regards to NHMS.
AAA Kasey Kahne in his pit stall 6-2-13

10. Kasey Kahne (-31)
by: Rebecca Kivak


After finishing 12th last week at Chicagoland, Kasey Kahne hopes to make magic at the Magic Mile.
The driver of the No. 5 Great Clips Chevrolet looks to build momentum at New Hampshire, a track that has been good to Kahne recently. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has three consecutive top-11 finishes, including a win in July 2012. Kahne finished fifth here last year and 11th in July.

In addition to his win, Kahne has three top fives, eight top 10s and an average finish of 15.9 at the 1.058-mile track. He has started on the outside pole twice in the last four Loudon races.

Kahne sits 10th in the championship standings, gaining one spot after Chicagoland. This weekend he will try to slice into the 31-point gap between him and points leader Matt Kenseth.

11. Greg Biffle (-31) 
by: Lacy Keyser and Beth Bence Reinke


Greg Biffle didn’t have the best of nights in Chicagoland. He had issues all night resulting in a16th-place finish.

Coming to New Hampshire Biffle has a record of one win, five top fives and eight top 10s with an average finish of 16.3. The No. 16 team brings a new chassis to the track this weekend and Biffle is optimistic.

"I’m looking forward to Loudon," Biffle said. "I won a few years ago there and we had a strong run at Richmond so I’m really ready for this weekend. We’ve got a brand new 3M Ford for this weekend and I’m looking to get solid finish."

Biffle fans can submit messages to their driver via twitter using the #StickWithBiff hashtag and some messages will be chosen to appear on the car.

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12. Joey Logano (-52)
by: Stephanie Stuart


After a disappointing day in Chicago, Joey Logano hopes to redeem himself at a track where he has won before. A blown engine left the 23-year-old coming into New Hampshire Motor Speedway seeded 12th in the points, 52 points behind points leader Matt Kenseth. This is a significant drop from his 6th-place standing after Richmond. In order to win the title, Logano has a lot of ground to make up, but has proved in the past he is no stranger to adversity. Just this May, he was in 19th place following the Darlington race, and was able to make up 56 points in six races, allowing him to work himself back into the top 10.

Chicago was not the day that the No. 22 team wanted, but Logano says they hope to rebound in New Hampshire. "I thought we had a pretty good car there in July, but we never got a chance to show it, as we had a tire issue on the third lap and hit the wall," he said. "We never got a chance to show what we could do. So we are going to try and scratch that from our memory banks and just go out there and do what we need to do. We don't have a lot of notes to go off of. We will rely on our teammate (Brad Keselowski) a little bit there."

Not only does Logano have to worry about not having notes to setup the car, he has to worry about keeping his team's spirits up after a dismal day at Chicago. He isn't worried though. He knows that there is nothing that can be done about an internal engine issue. He sees the positive in the fact that the No. 22 team was fast all weekend long, even winning the pole for the race before the motor failure. He says the most important thing is for the team to keep their heads in the game.

NHMS has proven to be friendly to Logano. In 2009, at age 19, he made history by becoming NASCAR's youngest winner by capturing the checkers at the track, which came during his Rookie of the Year campaign. Logano has one win at NHMS, two top 5s, four top 10s and an average finish of 17.8 in 10 starts at the track. Look for Logano to rally back from a disappointing weekend in the windy city, and to start to make up his points deficit quickly. That's just what he does.

13. Dale Jr. (-53)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud


Fans looking for the familiar electric green of the Diet Dew car or the patriotic National Guard No. 88 should know that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will again run the deep-blue and black Time Warner Cable paint scheme as he seeks his first win of the season and his first victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Though he’s winless in 28 starts at Loudon, Earnhardt Jr. has earned seven top fives and 11 top-10 finishes at the track. Unless he runs into bad luck the way he did at Chicagoland, he’s got an opportunity for a solid run. An encounter on pit road caused significant damage to the nose of the No. 88 and later the engine blew up in a cloud of smoke, putting Earnhardt last in the championship points.

Crew chief Steve Letarte told SiriusXM’s The Morning Drive that the engine would have blown anyway, even without the damage and Letarte denied that the lengthy rain delay played any role in the demise of the motor.

Earnhardt sounded less than confident about his prospects.

“We tested New Hampshire last month because we weren’t as good as we thought we needed to be earlier this year. We picked up a few things at the test that will help us. New Hampshire is an important race in the Chase, and we’ll try to go get a good finish,” he said.

Hopefully Junior will find a bit more swagger before he takes the wheel Sunday, because it’s going to take confidence, skill and luck to make it out of the cellar and contend for the championship. A good run at Loudon would certainly help.

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