We make a return this week to the short track circuit after a long stretch of large ovals and road course racing. NASCAR's top division heads to the one-mile flat oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Camping World RV Sales 301 this Sunday afternoon. The bull ring at Loudon, New Hampshire is a true oval with variable banking of two to seven degrees in all turns, and one degree on both straightaways. 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 turns 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 be corrected over the course of a run, that 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 short track, as this typically 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 where the NASCAR adage "race the track, not the competition" was born. The oval at Loudon embodies this statement to the highest degree.
This event is the first of two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this season. For tips on what we might expect this weekend, look no further than the earlier races at Martinsville and Phoenix. 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 nine years or 18 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||13.8||568||236||201||3,976||97.3|
|Martin Truex Jr.||14.7||405||112||148||2,916||87.6|
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 Toyota monopoly since 2012. In this event one year ago we witnessed Brian Vickers upstage some of the biggest stars in the Sprint Cup Series with a surprising performance at the New England short track. He had the right pit and fuel strategy and used it to beat Tony Stewart and a handful of other strong teams. Vickers led the final 16 laps en route to his first New Hampshire victory. NASCAR returned to the small track in the fall of 2013 and Toyota continued their win streak at Loudon. Matt Kenseth pounded everyone's heads into the pavement and led 106 of the 300 laps en route to his first career Loudon victory and third in a row for manufacturer Toyota at this facility. Given the struggles that the Toyota teams have had this season at getting into victory lane, it could be a tough trick to see Kenseth, Vickers or any other Toyota driver extend this Loudon win streak to four in a row. Among the leading candidates unseat the Toyota camps, three-time New Hampshire winner Jimmie Johnson and Penske Racing star Brad Keselowski immediately come to mind. They should be players for the victory in the Camping World RV Sales 301. If Chevrolet hopes to get back into victory lane at Loudon, those hopes will primarily rest with six-time champion Johnson. Kasey Kahne is the last Chevrolet driver to visit victory lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he shouldn't be taken lightly either. No Ford driver has won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since Greg Biffle pulled the feat in 2008. It's been a long dry spell for this manufacturer at the flat oval, but it could end Sunday afternoon if Keselowski and his teammate Joey Logano can get on a roll. Kurt Busch won earlier this season at the flat track in Martinsville, so he's yet another possible candidate to take the checkers. Busch is a three-time Loudon winner, and things in the No. 41 team have been looking up of late. 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
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 5 at this facility. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver loves racing at Loudon and his two brushes with victory lane at the short track in 2012 (third- and fourth-place finishes) are good evidence of that. Bowyer has managed to up his game in recent weeks. He's cracked the Top 10 in three of the last four races leading up to this weekend. If there's an event to get him off the "victories doughnut" it's this race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It's one of his favorite places to compete.
Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is a three-time winner at Loudon, including the victory in this event in 2010. He has finished in the Top 10 in the last four races here, including a runner-up finish in the fall of 2012. Our last trip to Loudon yielded an impressive fourth-place finish at the New Hampshire short track. To underscore his abilities on flat short tracks, we need only look back to April of this season when Johnson led 296 laps at the similar short flat track in Martinsville and finished runner-up that afternoon in Southern Virginia. The No. 48 team appears to be running at good speed on these short tracks, so victory number four of the 2014 season is quite possible this Sunday afternoon.
Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth waited 14 years into his Sprint Cup career to win at Loudon, but he did it in style in last fall's Sylvania 300. He led 106 laps and out-battled teammate Kyle Busch down the stretch to ink his first win at this one-mile oval. Kenseth hasn't been the lifetime performer of choice at this facility, but he's been redefining his abilities since the move to Joe Gibbs Racing. In our last short track event at Richmond, Kenseth led 35 laps and finished fifth at a bull ring that also hasn't been kind to him over his career. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has been painfully close to breaking through for his first win of the season, there's good reason to believe a short track is where he'll break out of the rut.
Kurt Busch -
With three career victories and a solid 42-percent Top 10 rate at the track, Busch has to consider Loudon one of his best short tracks. However, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran has had a tough go this season. That is a trend that is now turning around. His Top-5 finish at Daytona this past week certainly helps. But even more impressive was his victory early in the season at the flat short track in Martinsville. The veteran driver qualified on the outside pole and led 102 laps in this event one year ago before bad luck took him out of contention. Busch will look like the driver of old at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this Sunday.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Kevin Harvick -
Harvick owns 13 career Top-10 finishes in 26 starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 50-percent rate at this flat oval ranks him among the best in the series. He finished seventh in this event one year ago and that should be indicative of what to expect on Sunday afternoon. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has 76 laps led on the short track circuit so far this season, with a solid seventh-place finish at the Martinsville oval. We should see a consistent and strong No. 4 Chevrolet throughout Sunday's 301-lap battle.
Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been one of the stronger performers on the small ovals in 2014. Logano has one victory and three Top-10 finishes on the tracks one-mile in length and less this season. He has always liked racing at the Loudon short track, and it's shown in his finishes there. Logano has four Top 10s in 11 career starts and he even won a rain-shortened event here in 2009. The Penske Racing driver should continue to build on his short track success this weekend and extend his Top 10 totals at the New Hampshire oval this weekend.
Brad Keselowski -
Another driver we think of when it comes to short tracks is Keselowski. He's known for his Bristol and Dover victories, and he's also known for his solid starts and Top-10 finishes on the other small ovals of the circuit. However, the Penske Racing star has just started building his Loudon resume. Keselowski enters the weekend with the second-best finishing stats at this oval over the last two seasons. In the last four starts at NHMS, the veteran driver has earned one pole position, 23 laps led, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes over the span. Keselowski should be in Top 10 form in the Camping World RV Sales 301.
Jeff Gordon -
The most prolific New Hampshire veteran is easily Gordon. His 38 career starts at this facility are tied with Bobby Labonte, Joe Nemechek and Jeff Burton for active starts at the short track. His three career victories at Loudon also command a lot of respect. However, it's his amazing 22 Top-10 finishes that grab our attention the most. That figure is easily tops in the series and clears the next closest drivers, Jimmie Johnson & Tony Stewart (17), by five. Gordon comes to New Hampshire this weekend with four Top 10s in his last five visits to the New England short track. The Loudon oval is like a homecoming every time for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at New Hampshire who can provide a solid finish
Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon has never been a top performer at this small oval, but he's been coming on stronger in later years and building the consistency we look for in fantasy racing. Earnhardt has four Top 10s in his last eight trips to New Hampshire and that only bolstered his career Top-10 rate to 41-percent overall (12 in 29 starts). His last start at the one-mile oval last September netted 17 laps led and an impressive sixth-place finish. The No. 88 team has a lot on the line as the series comes to Loudon, so Earnhardt should be at his best.
Kyle Busch -
Years of inconsistency have marked Busch's record at New Hampshire, but he's been reversing those trends quickly the last few seasons. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has also been climbing the driver rating rankings in this track has his performances have bettered. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota picked up a pair of runner-up finishes at Loudon in last season's two events at the track. Busch's eight Top-10 finishes now come in at a respectable 44-percent rate. The veteran driver won the pole position and led 22 laps at the short, flat track in Martinsville earlier this season, and that bodes well for Sunday's race.
Kasey Kahne -
Kahne took what was a less-than-impressive record at the New Hampshire short track and turned it completely around after the move to Hendrick Motorsports. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet had only one Top-5 finish in his first 16 starts at the one-mile oval, but then he won his first start with Hendrick at this facility two years ago. Kahne returned to scene of his victory in the fall of 2012 and finished an impressive fifth in the Sylvania 300. He has led 305 career laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the vast majority of those have come in just his last four seasons at the speedway. Kahne should surprise in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301.
Tony Stewart -
Smoke comes to New England this weekend in search of his first win of the season. He is a three-time winner at New Hampshire (2000, 2005 and 2011) and has finished in the Top 3 at the short track on numerous occasions. Stewart has led well over 1,300 laps during his career at NHMS, and well over 100 of those laps in just his last two starts there. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet battled hard to lead 84 laps here last summer before the leg injury that ended his 2013 season. All things considered, you have to greatly respect his stellar 48-percent career Top-5 rate at this facility. Just something about this driver and team comes to life each time NASCAR visits Loudon.
Brian Vickers -
Vickers will attempt to defend his race win of one year ago when he out-battled the best in the series to win last season's Camping World RV Sales 301. The veteran MWR driver has been sort of a short track specialist for this team since joining a couple seasons ago. His last five New Hampshire starts yielded one win and four Top 10s. His short track resume since joining Michael Waltrip Racing has been pretty spotless. Vickers makes a good deep lineup fantasy racing play at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
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 has generally been a Top-15 finisher at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in recent years. It's his expertise and level of comfort at this track that makes him such a good fantasy racing play for the Camping World RV Sales 301. Burton had finishes of third- and eighth-place here one year ago when he was still at RCR. He should be a Top-15 finisher for the No. 66 team this week.
A.J. Allmendinger -
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver should be a sneaky-good play this week at New Hampshire. Allmendinger's short track numbers to this point have been pretty strong. He's earned 11th-, sixth- and 21st-place finishes at Martinsville, Richmond and Dover. The 11th-place finish at Martinsville is particularly interesting since it's also a very flat oval. Allmendinger's three Top 15s in his last five trips to Loudon show his strength at this short track. He should be steady enough to pilot the No. 47 Chevrolet to another border-line Top-15 finish this Sunday afternoon.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Jamie McMurray -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has had a tough time on the series' short tracks this season. A pair of Top-15 finishes has been offset by 38th- and 42nd-place finishes at Bristol and Martinsville. McMurray's New Hampshire stats show only five Top-10 finishes in 22 career starts. That works out to a lowly 23-percent rate. While 2014 has been a bit of an up-and-down season, these small ovals have really been a point of struggle for the No. 1 Chevrolet team. McMurray is probably better left on your fantasy racing bench for the Camping World RV Sales 301.
Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran has had a tough season overall, and his short track performances have been a part of those struggles. Truex has six Top-10 finishes and a decent 14.7 average finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But his chemistry with his new race team and lack of performance are unsettling heading into this weekend's race. Truex finished outside the Top 20 at the flat oval in Martinsville and that's likely a good indication of where he'll end up this Sunday afternoon.
Casey Mears -
The driver of the RCR No. 13 Toyota is having a great campaign and he's coming off his first Top-5 finish in a very long time at last weekend's Daytona race. However, the history of Loudon looms large this weekend for the Germain Racing driver. Mears has generally been a Top-25 finisher on the short tracks this season with three Top 25s in four starts on the small oval circuit. However, New Hampshire has been a nightmare for the veteran driver. Mears best finish in his last eight Loudon starts is a 25th-place performance in 2013. Five of his last seven trips to the one-mile oval have been disastrous DNF's for one reason or another.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The young Roush Fenway Racing driver has only two career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Neither was very memorable. Finishes of 34th- and 24th-place were his efforts in last season's two Loudon starts. The short tracks have been tough for the No. 17 Ford team in 2014. A surprise runner-up finish at Bristol has been dampened by finishes of 40th-, 38th- and 41st-place at Martinsville, Richmond and Dover in 2014. The indicators are not good going into the Camping World RV Sales 301. It's best to stay away from this young driver until he picks up his games on these small ovals.