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 challenging short 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 of their persistence and patience. 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 the Loudon oval. The loop stats shown below cover the last seven years or 14 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.||15.1||474||205||184||3,103||96.5|
|Martin Truex Jr.||15.1||307||80||50||1,976||85.8|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||19.5||342||82||149||1,900||84.6|
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 for the time being. Last season we saw Stewart Haas Racing sweep the New England short track. The winner of this event one year ago, Ryan Newman, dominated from the pole position and led 119 laps en route to the win. It was the most dominant victory for Newman in quite some time. Newman's boss Tony Stewart finished a very noteworthy second that day. NASCAR returned to the small track in the fall of 2011 and it was Stewart's turn to visit victory lane. Last season's champion ran down Clint Bowyer and passed him with two laps to go to win the Sylvania 300 for the Stewart Haas camp and Chevrolet. It was his third career victory at Loudon. This season could see yet another Chevrolet driver take the win in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Newman won this season's Martinsville race, so it could be the teams of Stewart Haas in the spot light yet again this weekend. As for teams just off the radar screen, we can't discount Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jimmie Johnson. He is a three-time Loudon winner and has the potential to show up with a winning race car any given weekend. Among the other manufacturer's to keep an eye on, we need to pay close attention to Toyota. Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing is about the closest thing we have in the Sprint Cup Series to a short track expert. Additionally, new Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer has two wins at the New Hampshire short track in recent seasons, so he should carry that expertise to the No. 15 Toyota team this weekend. We'll take a look at the loop stats, the past history of NHMS and current trends to determine who will dominate this Sunday afternoon at the one-mile oval in Loudon.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Tony Stewart -
Smoke comes to New England this weekend in search of his fourth win of the season. He is a three-time winner at New Hampshire (2000, 2005, 2011) and has finished in the Top 3 on numerous occasions. Stewart has led close to 1,200 laps over the years at NHMS, and 150 laps in just his last three starts at the New England short track. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet battled hard to win here last fall during the Chase and march to his third championship. All things considered, you have to greatly respect his stellar 54 percent career Top-5 rate at this facility.
Denny Hamlin -
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 at the Loudon oval after some brushes with victory earlier in Hamlin's career. He won this event in 2007 and has finished in the Top 3 in three of his last five races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Short tracks are Hamlin's specialty and that could help him to rack up his third win of the season on Sunday afternoon in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Jeff Gordon -
Gordon will be making his remarkable 35th career Loudon 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 three 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 44 percent rate for cracking the Top 5 at New Hampshire. In our last race at NHMS, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet led 78 laps and mixed it up with the leaders before finishing fourth.
Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is a three-time winner at Loudon, including the victory in this event two years ago. He has finished in the Top 10 in eight of the last 10 races here. Despite the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion's recent lull in performance on short tracks, you can never count out the Lowe's Racing team and this weekend is no exception. We need only look back to April of this season when Johnson led 111 laps at the similar short flat track in Martinsville and battled with teammate Jeff Gordon for the win before a last-lap multi-car crash took him out of contention. The No. 48 Chevy team should show up with a fast car again this Sunday afternoon.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Ryan Newman -
Newman is a three-time winner at Loudon and he owns six career pole positions at the one-mile oval. His No. 39 team comes to New England this week scrambling to climb back into the Top 10 in the championship standings, and fresh off a brilliant Top-5 finish at Daytona. Newman won both Loudon poles last season and he marched to a dominant victory in this event one year ago. He led well over 180 laps in both those events at this New England short track, so the notebook should come in handy for the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran at Loudon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The most consistent driver in the series will saddle up in the No. 88 Chevy this Sunday at NHMS. We believe the Hendrick Motorsports star can shake off that last lap crash at Daytona this past weekend. 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 most popular driver in NASCAR. Those 10 Top 10s work out to a respectable 40 percent rate. Earnhardt had a dynamite car earlier this spring at Martinsville, so we expect big things for him in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has had a great 2012 season. He enters the weekend with the championship standings lead by 15 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. 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. 17 Ford team. Kenseth hasn't been the lifetime performer of choice at this facility, but he finished sixth here last fall during the Chase for the Cup. The veteran collected Top 5s earlier this season at short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville so we know he'll be on his game for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer owns two career victories at the flat Loudon oval, and when he's not winning he's leading laps and racing in the Top 10 at this facility. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver loves racing at Loudon and his brush with victory lane at the short track last fall is good evidence of that. Bowyer should carry this expertise to his new No. 15 Toyota team at MWR. He and crew chief Brian Pattie should prove to be a dynamic duo for this very important short track event.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at New Hampshire who can provide a solid finish
Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has cooled a bit of late, but his short track numbers this season have been really good. That's more than enough evidence to endorse a start for the No. 56 MWR Toyota this Sunday afternoon. Truex Jr. has made 12 career starts at the New Hampshire oval and he's reeled-in five Top-10 finishes over those starts. That works out to a respectable 42 percent Top 10 rate at this oval. Truex picked up eighth- and 16th-place finishes here last year and we have good reason to believe he'll be much better than that this weekend.
Brad Keselowski -
In his brief Sprint Cup Series career, Keselowski has already made his mark on New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and in the process he continues to further carve out a reputation as a very good short track driver. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge owns one pole position and two Top-6 finishes in just five starts at this one mile oval. Last fall he finished runner-up to Tony Stewart at Loudon during the Chase. Keselowski's short track stats this season have been among the series' best with one win and four Top 10s on ovals one mile or less in length.
Brian Vickers -
Vickers will climb into the seat of the No. 55 MWR Toyota this weekend and make his fourth start of the season for this race team. The journeyman driver has a pair of Top 5s in his three prior starts for MWR and he looks to add more to this short but impressive dossier this weekend. Vickers led 125 laps and cracked the Top 5 at Bristol earlier this season, then he went on to the short flat track in Martinsville and had a very impressive run there before finishing a respectable 18th. Vickers' most recent outing in the car yielded a very impressive Top 5 at Sonoma a few weeks ago. There's simply too much upside and homerun potential to keep this team on the bench this weekend.
Jeff Burton -
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, but that's no reason to shy away from the veteran driver on Sunday. Burton's fresh off a runner-up finish at Daytona that is sure to energize him going to Loudon. It's his expertise and level of comfort at this track that makes him such a good fantasy racing play for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Burton has finishes of 12th-, 15th-, 16th- and 13th-place in his last four trips to the small oval. Another Top 15 performance should be in store.
Joey Logano -
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 2012. His finishes of 10th-, 22nd- and fourth-place the last three weeks are a good sampling of his recent success. Logano won this event in 2009 for his first Sprint Cup Series victory. He finished fourth- and 14th-place here in the two Loudon events last season. We expect a similar performance in this Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Sam Hornish Jr. -
The suspension of A.J. Allmendinger this past weekend at Daytona has kicked open the door for Hornish to revive his Sprint Cup Series career. Allmendinger's positive drug test and pending long term suspension could put Hornish in the seat of the No. 22 Dodge for the remainder of 2012. We expect this veteran driver to take full advantage of this situation. Hornish has six career starts at the Loudon oval, so he's not short on experience at this facility. His last two starts at the track came in 2010 and netted finishes of 23rd- and 10th-place. Hornish could be a great fill in driver for Penske Racing during this messy Allmendinger controversy.
Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been pretty steady on the short track circuit this season. Since taking the wheel of the historic No. 43 Ford, Almirola has posted short track finishes of 12th-, 19th-, eighth-, 26th- and sixth-place this season, so the bull rings have netted his only two Top-10 finishes to this point in the year. That includes Almirola's strong eighth-place finish at the flat oval in Martinsville. Even though he has only three career starts at the New Hampshire short track, we feel strongly that Almirola will be an over-perform candidate in Sunday's 301-lap battle at Loudon.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
Kyle Busch -
While Busch has quite a short track racing reputation and he is a one-time winner at the Loudon oval, we have to give him a downgrade or at a minimum a caution tag this weekend. Outside of his Richmond victory, Busch has had a very tough go on the short tracks this season. That includes finishes outside the Top 25 in three of the five events on ovals one-mile or less. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has failed to lead a lap in his last three starts at NHMS, and he posted finishes of 36th- and 11th-place here last season. This is probably a good week to leave the No. 18 Toyota team on the bench.
A.J. Allmendinger -
The Penske Racing driver was the big news of this past weekend, and for all the wrong reasons. Allmendinger was suspended by NASCAR in the waning hours prior to last Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona due to a failed random drug test. The “B” specimen of that test will be tested during the week and we won't have those results until the weekend, but it's painfully clear that Allmendinger won't be racing this weekend or any time soon for that matter. If the second sample comes back positive later this week, we've likely seen Allmendinger's last laps of the season at Kentucky two weeks ago.
Kurt Busch -
With three career victories and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the track, Busch has to consider Loudon one of his best tracks. However, the Phoenix Racing veteran has had a tough go on even some of his best tracks this season. Busch has no Top 10s in any of the short track races this season and a very sub-par average finish of 23.6 on these bull rings. We expect more struggles for the No. 51 Chevrolet team at Loudon on Sunday afternoon. Busch finished a disappointing 33rd at Martinsville Speedway earlier this season and that could very likely be a preview of this Sunday afternoon.
Paul Menard -
The driver of the RCR No. 27 Chevrolet has shown some real ability this season. Menard has four Top 10s and enters this event ranked a respectable 13th in the championship standings. He has 10 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with only one Top-20 finish and a lowly 27.7 average finish at the one-mile oval. Considering that the short track circuit has been tough on the RCR driver, as evidenced by Menard's subpar Martinsville and Phoenix outings, we have very reserved expectations for him at New Hampshire.