Sylvania 300 Preview: Quest for the Championship

Sylvania 300 Preview: Quest for the Championship

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

For 16 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 schedule's version of a change of pace 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 themselves 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, so knowing how to pace yourself and not "force" the car are valuable traits. 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 in pursuit of the championship. 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 confidence into the recent numbers at Loudon. Here are the loop stats for the last 19 races at the small oval in New Hampshire.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Tony Stewart9.95574129714,347110.0
Jeff Gordon9.96384373044,989107.7
Denny Hamlin8.95693024373,843103.6
Jimmie Johnson11.36024312494,459102.1
Kyle Larson3.030131421199.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.65962392014,25597.3
Clint Bowyer14.54752455163,65295.9
Kyle Busch14.45042324603,76894.7
Brad Keselowski11.43201901641,89093.8
Kasey Kahne17.85283402743,70992.6
Ryan Newman15.04901683114,13192.3
Jeff Burton13.14421751783,56391.2
Kevin Harvick14.34531782523,70091.0
Kurt Busch16.55311872693,44889.5
Martin Truex Jr.14.54301121483,13587.5
Greg Biffle12.3480101863,12986.6
Carl Edwards13.5381157702,87286.1
Matt Kenseth13.84711261553,11985.5
Brian Vickers17.4403114782,56284.3
Joey Logano19.316018191,33572.8

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 Brad Keselowski's summer victory at NHMS. It was his first career win at the New England short track. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick were much greater favorites to win that day at Loudon. To say that the Penske Racing driver's win was a surprise is a big understatement. If we step back in time and look at this event one year ago, Matt Kenseth picked up his first career Loudon victory in last year's Sylvania 300. So when we look at the last three races at this facility, we find three-straight first time winners at the Magic Mile. Surprise has been the overriding theme at this track for the last two seasons. For the moment, Ford has wrestled control of this small race track from Toyota and Chevrolet. Keselowski's win earlier this year snapped a three-race Toyota win streak at NHMS. Our last Chevrolet winner at this oval was Kasey Kahne in 2012. That was one of only two Hendrick Motorsports victories at the facility in the last five years. So this super stable hasn't had a tremendous amount of success here. Championship contender Jeff Gordon will hope to reverse that trend and make his first trip to victory lane at the Magic Mile since way back in 1998. While some surprises could be in store, it might be just as likely that Chicago winner Keselowski comes steam rolling into Loudon and pulls the season sweep. It's not unheard of at this short track, but it hasn't been done since Kurt Busch last did it in 2004. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is peaking at the right time and could be pointed towards a second championship this November. 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 No. 2 Ford team is rounding out nicely into championship-contending form. Keselowski is fresh off victories at Richmond and Chicago, and now set up well heading into the second race of the Chase. As the Penske Racing driver showed at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend, he can take over and dominate a race at just the right time. He won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway earlier this season, and that was one of four career Top-5 finishes at the short track. The momentum of this driver and team is huge coming to New Hampshire, and that's all you need to know entering the Sylvania 300.

Jeff Gordon -
With the big performance at Chicago, Gordon comes to the flat New England oval in good position in the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports star has to be seen as a top performer coming to New Hampshire. Gordon has three career victories and 22 Top 10s in 39 starts at Loudon. He's led well over 1,300 career laps at the small oval, including well over 50 in his last two visits combined. In this event one year ago the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet started on the inside of row 2 and led laps, but finished 15th after pit strategy come back to haunt him. Given his skill at this oval and current level of performance, there's ample opportunity for Gordon to pull a victory out of the hat at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick comes to the Magic Mile in search of his first Sprint Cup Series championship. It was a feat he couldn't accomplish at Richard Childress Racing, but now seems very possible with his new Stewart Haas Racing team. He comes to New England fourth in the Chase standings and looking to make a big splash. Harvick is a one-time winner at the flat oval in New Hampshire, and he finishes in the Top 10 at about a 48-percent rate. His July appearance at NHMS turned out poorly in the Camping World RV Sales 301, but that should be a of little concern. The Chase is like the biggest "reset button" there is in the world of NASCAR, and racing for a championship can turn all things positive. Harvick's last short track start at Richmond two weeks ago netted laps led and a strong Top-5 finish. He should be in that same mix this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star may be in the best position of his career to challenge for the Sprint Cup Series championship. He sits eighth overall at 18 points behind leader Brad Keselowski coming to Loudon this week. The tough luck that has dogged this team in recent weeks seemed to disappear with his strong effort at Chicago. Busch should get down to business this Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire, a track that has held great results for him in recent seasons. He is a one-time winner at NHMS and he has finished an improbable runner-up here in the last three events at this small flat track. He's led a combined 115 laps over those last three races, and has established himself as the current driver to beat at Loudon.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in on the solid plays list this week at Loudon. Kenseth is coming off a hard-fought Top 10 at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend to start the Chase. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been a real challenge for the veteran driver. Kenseth has one victory and 15 Top 10s in 29 starts at the one-mile, flat oval. A mid-career slump at this track really hit his career numbers hard. However, he's began to reverse those trends in recent visits. His last three trips to the Magic Mile have netted Top-10 finishes, including the victory in this event one year ago.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is a statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his 17 career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with two wins, seven Top 5s and 11 Top 10s. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been trying desperately to climb out of the slump they've been mired in all season long, and last week at Chicago we got a glimpse of this team's capabilities. The return of crew chief Darian Grubb and Hamlin's Chicago Top 10 may signal that he has a strong Chase ahead of him. Hamlin's last trip to Loudon netted 20 laps led and a solid eighth-place finish. He should be up to the task in the Sylvania 300.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's quest for a seventh championship may be his toughest challenge to date. The No. 48 team has not been in race-winning form for the last couple months, 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 to defend his turf this Sunday afternoon. He has won three times in his career at Loudon, and has managed a stellar 68-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Johnson had a four-race Top-10 streak at Loudon ended in July when he crashed and DNF'd in the Camping World RV Sales 301. He should be up for a rebound performance Sunday afternoon in New Hampshire.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is coming to one of his favorite ovals this weekend. Bowyer is a two-time winner at Loudon, including this event in 2010. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota has been strong in recent trips to the New Hampshire short track. Bowyer has three Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to NHMS. Despite missing the Chase for the Cup field he's been handling it well and displaying a good attitude. Bowyer led 36 laps and grabbed a strong sixth-place finish in July at the one-mile New England oval. He should be very happy to visit one of his favorite short tracks this weekend.

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

Kurt Busch -
If you're willing to gamble a bit, veteran driver Busch could pay great returns this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing star has spent most of 2014 battling to build chemistry within his team, and now that the Chase is rolling around it's beginning to take hold. Last week's steady Top 10 at Chicago was a great way to kick off the Chase for the Cup. Busch is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and as recently as 2008. He struggled here a bit in July, finishing a sub-par 17th, but his No. 41 team is in a much better place now. Maybe he can put it all together this Sunday afternoon in the Sylvania 300.

Ryan Newman -
The No. 39 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2014 despite the drama that came with his late inclusion into the Chase 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, and he sports a 64-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. The Richard Childress Racing veteran finished a stellar fifth-place at this oval earlier in July, so Newman and his team are dialed-in on this short track. He may have a hard time equaling that Top-5 finish, but he shouldn't be too far off that mark at the Magic Mile.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Sylvania 300 is a great opportunity to roll out Earnhardt in your fantasy racing lineups, and he has performed well on the short tracks this season. Earnhardt's most recent trip to NHMS in July saw the Hendrick Motorsports star qualify 28th on the grid and finish 10th in the Camping World RV Sales 301. The veteran driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has led well over 300 career laps at this one-mile oval. Considering all the variables, and the pressure to perform in the championship chase, the upside with Earnhardt is just too good to ignore.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
For those of you who compete in weekly lineup leagues, you'll want to be sure to keep Stenhouse in mind for Loudon. The Roush Fenway Racing youngster came to the New Hampshire short track in July and surprised the field by capturing his first-career Top 10 at the track with a ninth-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301. Stenhouse beat the changing conditions of the race and won the battle of fuel conservation to post one of his five Top 10s this season. The driver of the No. 17 Ford looked pretty sound and sure cracking the Top 20 at Chicago last weekend, so he will be a good performer in Sunday's 300-lap event.

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 six Top 10s in 17 career starts at this flat oval. Truex has 10th- and 12th-place finishes in his last two races at NHMS 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 12th-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301. With his recent level of performance, we expect the No. 78 Chevrolet team to take things up a notch at Loudon Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Larson -
The rookie driver once again threatened to break into victory lane this past week at Chicago. Larson was battling door-to-door with Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski in the closing laps and just came up short of breaking through for his first-career Sprint Cup win. We could easily see a repeat performance this Sunday at the Magic Mile. Larson's debut at this oval in July netted 14 laps led and a brilliant third-place finish. We've said it more than once this season, Larson races like anything but a rookie in that fast No. 42 Chevrolet. He should be battling it out at the front once again in the Sylvania 300.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie has hit the skids of late. It could be that his mind has been on his home country Australia after this week's announcement that he'll be heading home in 2015. After a runner-up at Watkins Glen and 12th-place at Michigan recently, he's failed to crack the Top 20 in the last four races. Chances for a rebound this weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway look unlikely as his career numbers aren't that very good at Loudon. Ambrose has three finishes outside the Top 20 in his last five trips to the Magic Mile. The driver of the No. 9 Ford performs well on some short tracks, but for some reason he just never has clicked on this one.

Joey Logano -
As hot as the No. 22 Penske team has been this is a noteworthy downgrade this week. Logano posted a strong Top 5 at Chicago last week, but the change of pace to Loudon will have an impact. He's won in his career at this oval, but recent visits have been problematic for some reason. Logano has only visited the Top 10 once in his last five trips to the New Hampshire short track. Two of those results have been 40th-place finishes, with one coming as a crash and DNF this past July. Whatever Logano was doing early on in his career to have success at this oval has clearly been lost at this point.

Michael Annett -
Annett has been one of our favorite bottom tier drivers on the intermediate and larger ovals this season, but he gets the downgrade for short tracks and this week for recent performance. After a poor Chicago finish the No. 7 TBR team limps into the Magic Mile. Annett's first career start here in July netted a poor 32nd-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301. After short track finishes of 38th and 37th recently on the ovals of Bristol and Richmond, we have all the data we need to recommend a "stay clear" label for this rookie driver and team at New Hampshire.

Casey Mears -
This veteran driver actually made some noteworthy finishes at this oval earlier in his career. Mears posted a pair of Top-10 finishes for team owner Rick Hendrick and a pair of Top-15 finishes for team owner Richard Childress at this oval in the last decade. However, those results might as well be ancient history. Since moving to Germain Racing in 2010 it's been nothing short of a struggle for the No. 13 team at this historic short track. Mears has only one Top-25 finish in those eight Loudon starts. Five of those starts resulted in DNF's. His appearance here in July netted a typical 38th-place finish for this driver and team at NHMS.

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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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