RotoWire Partners

Sylvania 300 Preview: Quest for the Championship

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

For 12 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, N.H., 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 circuit's version of a "change up" 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 them selves 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. This second event of the 10-race Chase sets the tone from here on out, 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 to start the Chase for the Cup. 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 stock into the recent numbers at Loudon. Here are the loop stats for the last 15 races at the small oval in Loudon.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Tony Stewart9.24943868493,586112.0
Jeff Gordon8.95393952424,033109.3
Jimmie Johnson10.74963572463,646105.1
Denny Hamlin8.54501842242,857101.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.34922181843,40397.8
Clint Bowyer15.93812254752,72896.0
Ryan Newman14.33981533093,36194.8
Kevin Harvick13.63461472522,87492.4
Jeff Burton13.53611391782,91492.4
Kurt Busch15.24641451662,98491.7
Kasey Kahne18.34012562422,59090.3
Kyle Busch15.93931432972,69689.3
Mark Martin14.8234801501,75388.9
Greg Biffle12.139396862,57287.9
Carl Edwards13.8306138702,35987.1
Martin Truex Jr.14.833781502,26686.2
Brian Vickers20.031777571,90382.2
Juan Pablo Montoya20.0342821491,90082.0
Brad Keselowski15.315544675978.8
Matt Kenseth15.73135931,99378.0

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 Kasey Kahne's summer victory at NHMS. It was his first career win at the New England short track. If we step back in time and look at this event one year ago, Tony Stewart picked up his first Loudon win since 2005 and rode it to last season's championship. For the moment, Chevrolet teams have wrestled control of this small race track from Dodge, Ford and Toyota. Chevy drivers have taken the last six victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Three have gone to the Hendrick stable, two to Stewart Haas Racing and one to Richard Childress Racing. So there seems to be a lot of balance and parity among the Chevrolet teams. Denny Hamlin led a dominant 150 laps here in July and finished runner-up to Kahne, so the Joe Gibbs Racing star and his No. 11 Toyota team are probably the biggest threat to Chevy dominance at this small oval. Clint Bowyer is a two-time Loudon winner and driver from the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota stable. Considering his recent NHMS resume, the driver of the No. 15 Toyota could be among the best of the stealth candidates to win on Sunday afternoon. Dodge hasn't rolled into victory lane at Loudon since Kurt Busch and Penske Racing's victory here in 2008. Not to be outdone, Brad Keselowski represents fair value to win the Sylvania 300. Coming off his fourth victory of the season at Chicago this past weekend, the No. 2 Dodge team is one to keep a close eye on at the New Hampshire bull ring. 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

Brad Keselowski -
The real hot hand of the Sprint Cup Series the last several weeks has been Keselowski and his No. 2 Dodge team. The Penske Racing driver has put on a driving clinic for the second half of the summer. As Keselowski showed at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend, he can win anywhere despite what his career numbers say. The Penske Racing star's last two trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway have been pretty good. Keselowski owns second- and fifth-place efforts dating back to this race one year ago. The momentum of this driver and team in near tsunami-like in proportions right now, and that's all you need to know entering the Sylvania 300.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's quest for a sixth championship may be his toughest challenge to date. The No. 48 team has not been in race-winning form most of the season, 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 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 led 2 laps and finished seventh in his last trip to NHMS. We expect him to up the ante in this weekend's Sylvania 300.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his 13 career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with one win, six Top 5s and nine Top 10s. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been trying desperately to get back into championship contention, and we've seen indicators that Hamlin is returning to his familiar level of performance in the last month. He has finished in the Top 3 in four of his last six Loudon races. So Hamlin's performance level at this small oval has been quite high in the last three seasons.

Kasey Kahne -
The Sylvania 300 is a great opportunity to roll out Kahne in your fantasy racing lineups, and he has performed well on the short tracks this season. Kahne's most recent trip to NHMS in July saw the Hendrick Motorsports star qualify on the outside pole, lead 66 laps and pick up his first career NHMS win in the Lennox Industrial Tools 301. The veteran driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has led well over 200 laps in just his last five trips to the one-mile oval. Considering all the variables, the upside with Kahne is just too good to ignore.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has two victories already this season and he's competing well on his best tracks. Bowyer is surging at a great time with the start of the Chase, and coming to one of his favorite ovals this weekend. He is a two-time winner at Loudon, including this event in 2010. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota made his first Loudon start with Michael Waltrip Racing this summer and celebrated the occasion with a brilliant third-place finish. Bowyer is in the best position ever to challenge for the championship, and he'll show that urgency in Sunday's Sylvania 300.

Tony Stewart -
The No. 14 team made it into the Chase this season, despite some poor performance down the stretch run of the regular season. Good runs at both Richmond and Chicago show that Smoke is ready to defend his title. Stewart usually brings very fast cars to Loudon and this weekend should be no exception. In his last 15 starts at New Hampshire short track he has collected two victories, four runner-up finishes and eight Top-5 finishes. During this span he's led close to 850 laps at the flat oval. In this event one year ago, Stewart rolled to the win en route to his Sprint Cup Series championship. Coming off the Top 10 at Chicago, we can only boost our expectations for this driver and team.

Jeff Gordon -
Even with the disappointment of last weekend's crash at Chicago, we expect Gordon will be on his game this weekend at Loudon. Needing a rebound performance after the DNF at Chicago, the Hendrick Motorsports star has to be seen as a top performer coming to New Hampshire. Gordon has 20 career Top 10s in 35 starts at Loudon and that calculates out to a 57 percent rate for breaking the Top 10 there. Gordon's led over 1,300 career laps at the small oval, including 78 circuits in this event one year ago. In addition to his three career victories at Loudon, Gordon has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five trips to the New England short track.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is thick in the middle of the championship hunt after starting the Chase with a Top 10 at Chicagoland Speedway. He comes to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend ranked seventh in the Chase Standings and needing to make up some ground on the leaders. The Hendrick Motorsports star should deliver on this flat short track. Earnhardt owns 11 career Top 10s at NHMS and three in his last five trips to Loudon. In this summer's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet earned a stellar fourth-place finish after 301 laps of action on the small oval. We expect similar results in Sunday's Sylvania 300.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Loudon who can provide a solid finish

Ryan Newman -
The No. 39 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2012 despite missing the Chase for the Cup field. Newman has managed 10 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, including this season's Lennox Industrial Tools 301, and he sports a 67 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran broke out of a slump this past weekend at the Chicago intermediate oval, so he should be looking forward to a race at one of his favorite short tracks.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star may yet have some value in the final 10 races of this season. It would have been easy to write him off after failing to make the Chase, but he proved his critics (including us) wrong with a great run at Chicago this past weekend. Busch should get down to business this Sunday afternoon at Loudon, a track that has held some good results for him in recent seasons. He is a one-time winner at NHMS and he finished a solid 11th here in this event one year ago. The last time we saw the No. 18 Toyota team in action on this short track, Busch won the pole and led 72 laps before poor pit strategy relegated him to a 16th-place finish. The No. 18 Toyota will be fast at Loudon.

Kevin Harvick -
This season could be Harvick's best chance to win his only Sprint Cup Series race this season. He surely won't waste the opportunity to build on the No. 29 team's current momentum with a great effort at Loudon. 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 turned into a solid eighth-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, and that should be a pretty good indication of what to expect this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing star should be happy to see the small confines of New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Biffle has really taken his game to an all new level racing at this facility in recent seasons. After recording only four Top-10 finishes in his first 12 career starts at the flat short track, the driver of the No. 16 Ford has racked up one victory and four Top 10s in his last eight trips to the speedway. With third- and ninth-place finishes in his last two trips to Loudon, Biffle is the choice Ford driver to roll in this Sunday's 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 five Top 10s in 13 career starts at this flat oval. Truex has Top-10 finishes in four of his last six races entering this event, so consistency has been on his side. When the Sprint Cup Series visited here in July, Truex raced in the Top 10 for a majority of the event and peddled home a respectable 11th-place finish in the Lennox Industrial Tools 301. With the championship now on the line, we expect the No. 56 Toyota team to take things up a notch.

Brian Vickers -
For those of you who compete in weekly lineup leagues, you'll want to be sure to keep Vickers in mind for Loudon. The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has been quietly been putting up solid numbers in a part-time effort in the No. 55 Toyota this season. He has three Top 5s in just six starts entering this weekend. The one-mile flat oval in Loudon should hold another great finish for Vickers. His last two trips to the short track have yielded fifth- and 15th-place finishes. Vickers should fall somewhere in that range this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
If you're willing to gamble a bit, veteran driver Busch could pay good returns this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Phoenix Racing star has spent most of 2012 in our flops list, but he could put up a decent finish at this small oval. The No. 51 Chevrolet team has faced adversity all season long, but Loudon is sure to be a welcome sight for the former champion. Busch is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and as recently as 2008. He has led close to 80 laps in just his last five trips to the New England short track. We expect to see Busch crack the Top 25 much like he did in this summer's Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Carl Edwards -
IEdwards enters this season's installment of the Chase with not as much momentum as he would like. In fact, this is the first season in his Sprint Cup Series career that he's not a participant in the field of 12 drivers for this season's championship. Edwards will spend the next 10 races preparing for next season, and that means some experimentation. Not the ideal situation for fantasy racing leagues. Loudon is also one of Edwards' worst tracks on the circuit with only three career Top 10s in 16 starts. A Top-20 finish is not what we look for in a driver like Edwards.

Matt Kenseth -
I The "Chaser" that could soon be in trouble this weekend is Kenseth. The Roush Fenway Racing star currently stands 11th in the Chase standings after his subpar performance at Chicagoland Speedway. That makes three finishes out of the last five outside the Top 15 entering this event. Kenseth has only two Top-15 finishes in his last nine trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The 1.058-mile oval has been a real puzzle for the veteran driver in recent seasons, and that's simply too risky for rising fantasy racing stakes this late in the season.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
I The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star has struggled through the entirety of the 2012 season. Currently, the No. 42 team appears to be a Top 20 outfit each week, but no where near challenging the Top 10. Montoya has spotty career stats at Loudon's flat oval with two poles and two Top 10s, but in 11 career starts. Montoya's 25th-place finish in this July's Lennox Industrial Tools 301 could be a good indication of what to expect for this weekend in New Hampshire.

David Gilliland -
Gilliland has demonstrated some fantasy racing worth on occasion this year, but luck seems to have departed this driver and team of late. His last three starts in the No. 38 Ford have netted finishes of 31st-, 31st- and 28th-place finishes. Gilliland finished an uninspiring 27th at this small oval in July and that's only marginally better than his 30.4 career average finish at this facility. The Front Row Motorsports veteran is one to pass on this Sunday at Loudon.