The Sprint Cup Series makes a return to the short track circuit this weekend after a long stretch of large ovals and road course racing. NASCAR heads to the one-mile flat oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 this Sunday afternoon. The bull ring at Loudon, N.H., is a true oval with variable banking of two to seven degrees in all turns, and one degree on both straight aways. It is a flat track in the purest sense. The handling of the race car is very important at this oval. How the car turns, how it exits the corners and how it holds the corners will dictate the driver's ability to pass or be passed at NHMS. A driver and crew chief's patience is tested to the max at this race track. If adjustments can be made and an ill-handling car can turn around over the course of a run, the patient driver and crew chief will reap the rewards. A lack of patience will usually end up in a wreck at this facility, as this usually leads to over-driving the car and pushing the speed/handling envelope a bit too far. Considering that the last several weeks leading up to this event have seen the wide open lanes of large ovals, we could see a lack of patience manifest itself this weekend at Loudon.
This is the first of two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For tips on what we might expect this weekend, look no further than the earlier races at Martinsville and Phoenix this season. All are flat tracks, and while Martinsville is smaller, the handling, setup and racing are quite similar to Loudon. Phoenix has more speed than NHMS, but the flat track in Arizona boasts some similar characteristics to the oval in New England. While keeping these recent races in mind, it will still be helpful to take a look back at the recent historical statistics at Loudon. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or 12 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUAL. PASSES||# of FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||DRIVER RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14.9||412||194||184||2,807||99.7|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||19.5||274||79||147||1,498||86.0|
|Martin Truex Jr.||15.7||232||77||47||1,591||85.9|
Recent seasons have shown a manufacturer streak developing at the one-mile oval in New Hampshire. What had been a track of parity among brands has turned into a Chevrolet monopoly at the moment. The last three wins have gone to Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer. That's two Hendrick drivers and one Childress driver. The winner of this event one year ago, Johnson, used a late restart to out-duel Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton for the win. It wasn't the most dominant victory, but it was all in the timing and the caution flags. NASCAR returned to the small track in the fall of 2010 and Clint Bowyer absolutely dominated to win the Sylvania 300 for the Childress camp and Chevrolet. It was his second career victory at Loudon. This season could see yet another Chevrolet driver take the win in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Kevin Harvick won this season's Martinsville race, so it could be the teams of RCR in the spot light yet again this weekend. As for teams just off the radar screen, we can't discount Dodge and driver Kurt Busch. It was the Penske Racing star that dominated in the late stages of this event one year ago to finish third. Busch could be primed for his first New Hampshire victory since 2008. We'll take a look at the loop stats, the past history of NHMS and current trends to determine who will dominate this weekend at the one-mile oval in Loudon.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Hamlin has been one of the more successful Sprint Cup Series drivers on the short track circuit in recent years. Luck has finally started coming around for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team after a slow start to this season. Hamlin won this event in 2007 and has finished second in two of his last three races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Short tracks are Hamlin's specialty and that could help him to rack up his second win of the season on Sunday afternoon in Loudon.
Gordon will be making his remarkable 33rd career start this weekend at New Hampshire when he rolls off the starting grid in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. In those numerous starts the Hendrick Motorsports veteran has managed to capture five poles and three victories at Loudon. While it's been a long time since Gordon's last win at NHMS (1998), you have to like his near 44 percent rate for cracking the Top 5 at New Hampshire. With three runner-up finishes in the last four seasons at the one-mile oval in Loudon, we know he'll be racing with the leaders.
With three career victories and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the track, Busch has to consider Loudon one of his best tracks. The Penske Racing star already has one victory this season and well over 400 laps led for the year. Busch has cracked the Top 6 in five of his last six races at the New Hampshire oval, so he's been sharp as a razor in recent seasons at this facility. We expect to see a lot of the No. 22 Dodge racing out front on Sunday.
Harvick has had a great 2011 season. With three victories already this season, he is well within the hunt for this season's championship and he's racing as consistently from week-to-week as anyone in the series. New Hampshire Motor Speedway could be another notch in the belt for this No. 29 Chevrolet team. Harvick has led over 300 laps, collected one win and has 11 Top 10's at Loudon. The veteran won at the short track in Martinsville, Virginia earlier this season so we know he'll be on his game for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Busch comes to Loudon this weekend as the new championship standings leader after his big win at Kentucky. This season has been a real revival for the No. 18 Toyota team. Busch loves racing at the flat one-mile oval as demonstrated by his one win and six Top 10's at the track. While we don't believe he'll mount a major challenge for the win, Busch should easily equal the 11th- and nine-place efforts that he made at NHMS last season.
Smoke comes to New England this weekend still in search of his first win of the season. He is a two-time winner at New Hampshire (2000 & 2005) and has finished in the Top 3 on numerous occasions. Stewart has led well over 1,100 laps over the years at NHMS, and nearly 200 in just his last four starts at the New England short track. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet battled hard to finish runner-up in this event one year ago, and you have to greatly respect his stellar 58 percent career Top 10 rate at NHMS.
The Hendrick Motorsports star is a three-time winner at Loudon, including the victory in this event one year ago. He has finished in the Top 10 in seven of the last eight races here. Despite the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion's recent lull in performance, you can never count out the Lowe's Racing team and this weekend is no exception. While the No. 48 team hasn't been in race-winning form of late, Johnson and company are easily good enough to slug out another Top-10 finish this Sunday afternoon.
Bowyer walked away with a dominant victory in the last race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last fall. NASCAR later penalized the No. 33 Chevrolet team for being too high in post-race inspection, but the victory stood. That was Bowyer's second career win at this one-mile oval. The RCR driver loves racing at Loudon and his three-race Top 10 streak at this oval entering this weekend does a lot to boost our confidence. Bowyer shouldn't disappoint in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at New Hampshire who can provide a solid finish
Burton's history at Loudon is long and colorful. He leads all active drivers with four career victories at the one-mile oval. Burton isn't the threat to roll into victory lane here as he was in the past, mostly due to his incredible slump. If there's any week though that the No. 31 team is going to get up off the mat, this is it. Burton's struggles this season have been quite amazing. However, it's his expertise and level of comfort at this track that makes him a good fantasy racing play. Burton led 89 laps and finished 12th in this event one year ago. Another Top 15 performance should be in store.
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is putting together a solid season. He enters this event ranked a career-best 18th in the championship standings. There's no better value at the end of your fantasy racing bench than the No. 43 team right now. Allmendinger finished a career-best 10th and 12th at this small oval last season, and that is a good sampling of his recent short track success. He cracked the Top 15 at both Martinsville and Phoenix earlier this season, so it's clear that Allmendinger likes racing on these flat ovals right now.
Newman is a two-time winner at Loudon and he owns four career pole positions at the one-mile oval. His No. 39 team comes to New England this week soundly within the Top 10 in the championship standings, and fresh off a brilliant Top-5 finish at Kentucky Speedway. While Newman hasn't performed as well in recent seasons at New Hampshire as he did earlier in his career, that shouldn't be a concern. He is riding a three-race Top 10 streak at NHMS into this weekend's event, so consistency has been king with the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran at Loudon.
Logano has been surging in recent weeks. It's taken some ups and downs earlier this season, but the Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy is finally starting to get comfortable with his No. 20 Toyota team in 2011. His finishes of sixth-, third- and 14th-place the last three weeks are a good sampling of his recent success. Logano won this event two years ago thanks to rain and sound pit strategy, but don't discount that victory at all. He returned to Loudon in the summer of 2010 and posted a nice ninth-place finish. We expect a similar performance in this Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Were it not for a late flat tire at Kentucky Speedway this past weekend, Earnhardt would have been a solid Top-10 finisher. Still, bad luck has dogged this team in recent weeks. We believe the Hendrick Motorsports star can shake off that bad luck with an appearance at Loudon this Sunday. Short tracks have been a mainstay in Earnhardt's NASCAR resume, and the one-mile New Hampshire oval is no exception. With 10 career Top-10 finishes and over 350 laps led, Loudon is a good venue for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. He picked up a pair of those Top 10's last season alone.
Ragan followed up his first career win with a solid Top 10 at Kentucky Speedway this past weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing youngster is finally coming into his own in the sport. Ragan doesn't have the most impressive Loudon resume. In fact, he's 0-for-8 in Top 10's for his career. Still, Ragan picked up his first career Top 10 at Martinsville earlier this season in 10 tries. In what has been a season of firsts for the driver of the No. 6 Ford, don't be surprised to see a career-best finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
Despite winning two years ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and carrying a respectable 50 percent Top 10 rate at the small oval, we have to move Martin to the flops list this weekend. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has struggled the last year and a half. Martin posted 21st- and 29th-place finishes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last season, and he's been mired in a summer swoon the last several weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has one Top-10 finish in his last seven starts entering this weekend.
While Ambrose has been one of our favorite fantasy spot-starts most weeks in weekly lineup leagues, we have to take a pass at Loudon. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has seen the wheels fall off of his consistent 2011 season. Outside of Ambrose's fifth-place finish at the Sonoma road course, he's not cracked the Top 10 since the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. Ambrose's four career starts at NHMS have yielded only one Top-15 finish, so the struggles should continue this Sunday afternoon.
The driver of the RCR No. 27 Chevrolet has shown some real ability this season. Menard has five Top 10's and enters this event ranked a respectable 16th in the championship standings. He has eight career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with no Top-20 finishes and a lowly 29.1 average finish at the one-mile oval. Considering that the season has had some bumps along the way, as evidenced by Menard's subpar Martinsville and Phoenix outings, we have very reserved expectations for him at New Hampshire.
This may be the only time you see Edwards' name in the flops list this season, so listen carefully. The Roush Fenway star has had a great campaign and is thick in the hunt for this season's championship. Still, he's not really been in race-winning form of late, and has struggled to nurse home some Top 10's. We come to a difficult oval for the No. 99 team this Sunday afternoon. Loudon has been a real puzzle for Edwards over his career. In 13 career starts he's only led 69 laps and picked up a pair of Top-10 finishes. That's far short of expectations for this driver and team. Edwards' 25th- and 11th-place finishes at this oval last season are indicative of what to expect this time around.