New Hampshire 301 Preview: Short-Track Change-Up

New Hampshire 301 Preview: Short-Track Change-Up

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

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 New Hampshire 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 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. This short track embodies
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 New Hampshire 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 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. This short track embodies that 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 10 years or 20 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jeff Gordon10.76764573045,266107.3
Tony Stewart10.95574129714,347106.9
Denny Hamlin10.55703204693,936103.2
Jimmie Johnson11.06264322494,758102.1
Kyle Larson2.551141444399.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.46252512014,43597.1
Brad Keselowski11.03362292422,14795.6
Clint Bowyer14.54982455163,76095.0
Kyle Busch14.15322324603,97594.7
Kevin Harvick13.84652193564,00293.1
Ryan Newman15.25041693114,34291.8
Kasey Kahne18.15343402743,78191.3
Kurt Busch17.55481872693,52988.1
Martin Truex Jr.14.44341121483,15186.3
Carl Edwards13.7414158703,09685.9
Brian Vickers16.9424133932,86585.9
Matt Kenseth14.24911291553,35285.7
Greg Biffle12.5481101863,13085.4
Joey Logano17.918268921,63577.2
Austin Dillon12.513105174.5

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has turned into a track of streaks the last few seasons. Once a manufacturer gets this place figured out, the teams tend to pile up the wins until the competition catches up and unseats them. From 2009 to 2012 Chevrolet reeled off six straight victories at the Magic Mile. Denny Hamlin's victory in the fall of 2012 broke the Chevy string and set Toyota up to win three-straight at the one mile oval. Most recently, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano's victories here in 2014 turned the streak over to Ford and ended Toyota's dominance at the track. Will Ford and Penske keep this streak going this weekend or will Toyota and Chevy drivers figure out a way to dethrone the Ford camp?

Last year, we witnessed Keselowski out-duel Kyle Busch in the closing laps at the New England short track. He had the right pit and fuel strategy and used it to beat Busch and a handful of other strong teams. Keselowski led the final 36 laps and held on through the green-white-checkered finish en route to his first New Hampshire victory. NASCAR returned to the small track in the fall of 2014 and Ford continued their win streak at Loudon. Joey Logano pounded everyone's heads into the pavement and led 73 of the 303 laps en route to his second-career Loudon victory and second in a row for manufacturer Ford at this facility. Given the struggles that the Ford teams have had this season at getting into victory lane, it could be a tough trick to see Keselowski, Logano or any other Ford driver extend this Loudon win streak to three in a row. However, considering their strong Loudon history and excellence at short track racing, it would be foolish to count them out. Among the leading candidates unseat the Ford camps, one-time New Hampshire winner Kyle Busch and his teammate Denny Hamlin immediately come to mind. They should be players for the victory in the New Hampshire 301. Hamlin won earlier this season at the flat track in Martinsville. That bodes well for the No. 11 team coming to New Hampshire. If Chevrolet hopes to get back into victory lane at Loudon, those hopes will primarily rest with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, or reigning champion Kevin Harvick. It's been a long dry spell for this manufacturer at the flat oval, but it could end Sunday afternoon if Johnson or Harvick can get on a roll. 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

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 has one pole position and three runner-up finishes at the Magic Mile in the last four events there. Those efforts bring his Top-5 and Top-10 rates at Loudon to respectable 35- and 50-percent rates. Considering that the Joe Gibbs Racing star won at Sonoma a couple weeks ago and is fresh off a dominant Kentucky victory, he has to be seen as a top contender Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been one of the stronger performers on the small ovals in 2015. Logano has two poles, 237 laps led 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 is a two-time winner at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he's our most recent winner at the oval taking last September's Sylvania 300. The Penske Racing driver should continue to build on his short-track success this weekend and challenge for the win in Sunday's New Hampshire 301.

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 best finishing stats at this oval over the last three and a half seasons. He won this event one year ago and that adds to a tally that includes two poles, well over 200 laps led and four Top-5 finishes in his last seven Loudon races. The driver of the No. 2 Ford should lead laps and battle with the other contenders for the win in this one.

Denny Hamlin -
Eight of Hamlin's 25-career victories have come on the circuit's short tracks. From an average finish standpoint, the bull rings are by far his most successful and consistent tracks in the Sprint Cup Series. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is fresh off a strong performance at Kentucky and he should ride that momentum into New Hampshire this Sunday afternoon. Hamlin led 91 laps and won at the flat oval in Martinsville earlier this season. That has historically been a good indicator for what could happen in the Loudon race. Hamlin is a two-time winner at this facility and should be viewed as a decent odds contender for the victory.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick owns 14-career Top-10 finishes in 28 starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 50-percent rate at this flat oval ranks him among the best in the series. He led 103 laps and finished third in our last visit to NHMS last September and that should be indicative of what to expect this Sunday afternoon. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has a whopping 655 laps led on the short-track circuit so far this season, with a solid eighth-place finish at the Martinsville oval. We should see a consistent and strong No. 4 Chevrolet throughout Sunday's 301-lap battle.

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 five of the last six races here, including a fifth-place finish in the fall of 2014. To underscore his abilities on flat short tracks, we need only look to his 12 combined Martinsville and Phoenix victories. The No. 48 team will be looking to rebound from their struggles at Kentucky Speedway this past weekend, so his 14th Top-10 finish of the season is very likely this Sunday afternoon at the Magic Mile.

Matt Kenseth -
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. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has already won on a short track this season with his surprising victory at Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring. That win gives him three Top 10s in five short-track events this season. The JGR star's Loudon resume is good as well. Kenseth has 15 Top-10 finishes in 30-career starts at the New Hampshire oval. That includes his strong fourth-place finish in this event one year ago.

Carl Edwards -
With Edwards' surprising performance at Kentucky Speedway last weekend, there are finally some signs of life in the new No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. This veteran driver doesn't have great career numbers at the Magic Mile, but his performances have turned north of late. Two of Edwards' last four trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway have yielded Top-10 finishes. He's never posted a DNF at this historic short track, and that's across 21-career starts. Edwards has finished on the lead lap of every Loudon race since the 2011 season. That bodes well for this driver and team with some newfound momentum.

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

Kurt Busch -
With three career victories and a solid 40-percent Top 10 rate at the track, Busch has to consider Loudon one of his best short tracks. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has always had success on the series' short tracks. Good evidence of that was Busch's dominant performance and win at Richmond earlier this season. The veteran driver qualified on the outside pole and led 102 laps in this event two years ago before bad luck took him out of contention. Busch will look like the driver of old at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this Sunday.

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 six trips to New Hampshire and that only bolstered his career Top-10 rate to 45-percent overall (14 in 31 starts). His last start at the one-mile oval last September netted a hard-fought and respectable ninth-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.

Jeff Gordon -
The most prolific New Hampshire veteran is easily Gordon. His 40-career starts at this facility make him the all-time leader in that category by one over Jeff Burton. 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 (18), by four. Gordon comes to New Hampshire this weekend a perfect five-for-five in Top 10s on the short-track circuit this season. The Loudon oval is like a homecoming every time for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

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 NHMS 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.

Kyle Larson -
With only two-career starts the sample size is small, but the results have been stellar none-the-less. Larson made his debut at the Magic Mile last season and opened some eyes with a pair of impressive performances. The CGR driver led 14 laps and finished a brilliant third-place in this event one year ago. Larson returned in the fall and one-upped that performance with an even more impressive runner-up finish in last September's Sylvania 300. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is three-for-four in Top 10s on short tracks this season, so he should be poised for another great Loudon performance.

Jamie McMurray -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has been as consistent as any driver in the series on short tracks this season. With a pair of Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the five races to-date, you'll be challenged to find a more consistent driver right now on the circuit's bull rings. McMurray's Loudon resume doesn't read like a dream story, rather it's been a tough career at this one-mile oval. However, with recent seasons the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has started to come around at this track. Two of his last three visits to the New Hampshire oval have yielded Top-5 finishes.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

A.J. Allmendinger -
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has had his short-track struggles this year. Allmendinger has labored to three finishes outside the Top 20 in the five short-track races to-date. Two of those efforts have been DNFs. At New Hampshire Motor Speedway the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has only one-career Top-10 finish. That works out to a lowly 23.2-career average finish at the Magic Mile. That position will likely end up being close to where he finishes this Sunday in the New Hampshire 301. Not the thing that fantasy racing starts are made of by any measure.

Martin Truex Jr. -
After grabbing 14 Top-10 finishes in the season's first 15 races, could it be that the No. 78 team has finally ran out of bullets? It would appear so, at least for the time being. Truex's last three efforts leading up to this weekend have been 42nd-, 38th- and 17th-place finishes at Sonoma, Daytona and Kentucky. Truex has six Top 10s in 18-career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. More recently, the veteran driver has only one Top 10 in his last seven starts dating back to the 2011 season. It would not appear that Truex will rediscover his groove again this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle's struggles this season have been well documented. Entering the weekend he has only two Top-10 finishes this season and enters the New Hampshire 301 a lowly 18th in the driver standings. His short-track struggles are big part of the problem. With only two Top-20 finishes in the five races to-date, just finishing on the lead lap on these bull rings has been a problem for the driver of the No. 16 Ford. Biffle has only one Top 10 in his last five starts at the Loudon oval. That doesn't inspire much faith in a fantasy racing start this weekend.

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. However, despite all that good history, we have to recommend avoiding the No. 14 team this weekend. Recent struggles can only be described as "titanic". The bloom at Loudon started to fall off for this driver over the last two seasons. Two of his last three finishes at the Magic Mile have been outside the Top 25.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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