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Sylvania 300 Preview: Quest for the Championship

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Chase for the Cup begins this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For 12 Sprint Cup Series drivers, the quest for the championship kicks off at one of the circuits' many short tracks. The flat, one-mile oval of Loudon, New Hampshire sets the stage for the start of NASCAR's postseason. Patience is the key to success at Loudon, 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 New Hampshire, you likely end up in the wall or other serious trouble. The first race 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.

We will be racing at a short track for a second week in a row, so we expect to see a lot of the same faces running up front this weekend that we saw at Richmond last weekend. 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 set 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 11 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart9.03473056992,578114.1
Jeff Gordon9.73732641382,961107.9
Jimmie Johnson9.53692842242,830107.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.93761861842,56299.8
Denny Hamlin8.232162742,06399.8
Mark Martin10.4180481011,50295.5
Jeff Burton12.52691161782,27694.0
Kurt Busch14.5349122942,24593.6
Kevin Harvick14.42241302512,07893.0
Ryan Newman15.52911031282,29291.2
Kyle Busch15.22841102251,90391.1
Clint Bowyer17.82511212451,72590.7
Martin Truex Jr.15.221675471,53787.5
Greg Biffle12.325773851,73886.8
Juan Pablo Montoya20.0234751471,27686.3
Carl Edwards14.3203102651,67885.9
Kasey Kahne21.62831431281,68483.4
Matt Kenseth15.72245331,58379.6
David Reutimann18.415320088174.8
Reed Sorenson20.718132411,01573.0

New Hampshire Motor Speedway had become a track of the unexpected. What used to be a predictable oval has become a facility won by wild cards in recent seasons. Three of the last four winners at NHMS were first-time winners at the flat oval. For the moment, Chevrolet teams have wrestled control of this small race track from Dodge, Ford and Toyota. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson have won the last two events at Loudon. While we don't expect to see the veteran Martin in victory lane on Sunday afternoon, there is a good chance that Johnson could be there. The defending Sprint Cup champion led just nine laps here in June, but it was his late pass of Kurt Busch for the lead that cinched the win. Aside from Johnson and Busch there were several other drivers that dominated segments of the last race at New Hampshire. Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton all had fast cars but the changing fortunes of the race and bad luck hampered all their efforts to win. There are several other 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 Chase race number one this Sunday at NHMS.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is finally racing for a championship. For the first time in a couple years Busch is in position to challenge for the Cup. He'll get down to business this weekend at Loudon, a track that has held some good results for him in recent seasons. Busch is a one-time winner at NHMS and he finished a solid fifth here in this event one year ago. The No. 18 Toyota led 46 laps here in June, so it shouldn't be too difficult to build on that success. The short tracks have been kind to Busch this season, and that bodes well heading into the first race of the Chase.

Tony Stewart –
The No. 14 team made it into the Chase this season and Stewart won't waste the opportunity to race for another championship as an owner/driver. Smoke usually brings very fast cars to Loudon and this weekend should be no exception. In Stewart's last 11 starts at New Hampshire short track he has collected one win, three runner-up finishes and six Top-5 finishes. During this span he's led close to 700 laps at the flat oval. Coming off the season's first win at Atlanta a couple weeks ago, there's little doubt that Stewart can win again in the Chase for the Cup.

Kurt Busch –
This weekend Busch will set out on a quest to win his second Sprint Cup championship. The No. 2 Dodge team has faced some adversity recently, but Loudon is sure to be a welcome sight for the Penske Racing veteran. Busch is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and as recently as 2008. He has led laps in four of his last five events at Loudon, and he's cracked the Top 10 in all those races. We expect to see Busch racing in the Top 5 with the leaders in the Sylvania 300.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson's quest for his fifth straight championship may be his toughest challenge to date. The No. 48 team has faltered in recent weeks, and the competition is as tough at the top as it has been in recent years. Still, we expect Johnson to get off on the right foot this Sunday afternoon. He has won three times in his career at Loudon, including the Sprint Cup Series' last trip to the 1.058-mile oval. Johnson has led over 200 laps in his last four trips to NHMS. We expect him to be a “closer” this weekend.

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

Jeff Gordon –
With the Chase for the Cup starting up, Gordon will be on his game this weekend. Despite limping into the Chase this season, we expect the veteran driver to return to his usual form this weekend. Gordon has 17 career Top 10's in 31 starts at Loudon and that calculates out to a 55 percent rate for breaking the Top 10 there. Gordon's last eight visits to NHMS have been particularly good with three runner-up finishes and five Top 5's. He finished fourth here in June, so the No. 24 team should be on their game on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his nine career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with one win, three Top 5's and six Top 10's. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been trying to shake off a bit of a late season slump, but we've seen indicators that Hamlin is returning to familiar form in the last couple races. All things being equal, we'll take the star driver any weekend on one of his better short tracks.

Ryan Newman –
Despite missing this season's Chase for the Cup, the No. 39 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2010. Newman has managed nine Top 10's to this point in the season with more sure to come. The first race of the Chase is a great venue for Rocket Man. Newman is a two-time winner at Loudon and he sports a 65 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. He qualified fifth here in June and finished a stellar sixth in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301.

Jeff Burton –
Burton leads all active drivers with four victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He nearly netted a fifth win a the small New England oval in June when he led 89 laps before bad breaks relegated the No. 31 team to a 12th-place finish. Burton has 13 career Top 10's at the 1.058-mile oval so he knows how to run up front with the leaders and challenge the Top 5 at this small oval.

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

Kasey Kahne –
The Sylvania 300 is a great opportunity to use Kahne in your weekly lineup leagues. Even though he's been a streaky driver this season, he has performed well of late, and he's been rock solid on his favorite tracks. Kahne's most recent trip to NHMS in June saw the Richard Petty Motorsports star qualify on the outside of row one and dominate the event leading 110 laps. However, an engine failure derailed Kahne's hopes for a win that day. The upside here is just too good to ignore.

Greg Biffle –
We have to drop Biffle and the No. 16 team to the sleepers list this weekend. This is due in large part to his six career Top 10's in 16 starts at NHMS. Still, we have a hard time forgetting the Roush Fenway Racing veteran's big win here in this event two years ago. Biffle visited the Top 10 again in this event in 2009, so it's clear that he steps up his performance at this track when Chase time rolls around. He's only finished outside the Top 20 once in his last six trips to Loudon, so there's a measure of security in starting him for this race.

David Reutimann –
Reutimann has been a fairly reliable fantasy racing play this season. He is fresh off Top 20's at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. The Michael Waltrip Racing star returns to New Hampshire this weekend as a non-Chase participant, but that's of no concern from a fantasy racing perspective. Reutimann's last four trips to the 1.058-mile flat oval have yielded Top-15 finishes in each race. The No. 00 team's current consistency and good performance on short tracks sets up perfectly for this Sunday afternoon.

Carl Edwards –
Edwards roars into this season's installment of the Chase. While he is an outside shot at winning the championship due to his abilities, we have to give him a nod due to his current hot streak. Entering this event Edwards has four Top-5 finishes in his last six races, and he's earned more points than any other driver in the series during this span. Despite his poor finish here in June, Edwards should crack the Top 10 in the Sylvania 300 at Loudon.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Simply put, Montoya has had cars capable of winning each of the last two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He's won the pole for the last two events at this small oval and he's led over 140 laps in those events. Montoya had the checkers well within his reach here in June before a late-race accident derailed that opportunity to win. The Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing star has this small oval pegged right now, and the luck has to even out at some point.

Marcos Ambrose –
Our deep sleeper this weekend is Ambrose. The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver has been coming on strong in recent weeks, and this streak is too good to ignore this weekend at New Hampshire. Ambrose has visited the Top 10 in two of his last five races entering this event, and he's not finished outside the Top 20 during this span. His last trip to Loudon yielded a career-best 13th-place finish at the small oval, and Ambrose could easily duplicate that effort in the Sylvania 300.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Mark Martin –
Missing the Chase for the Cup seemed an almost improbable idea before this season started for the Hendrick Motorsports star, but that is indeed what happened. Martin has posted a mere seven Top 10's to this point in the season, with his last coming in June at Pocono Raceway. Despite stellar career numbers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, we have to recommend avoiding the veteran driver this weekend. His unimpressive 21st-place effort at Loudon in June weighs heavily on our minds.

Matt Kenseth –
The "Chaser" that could be in trouble right off the start this weekend is Kenseth. The Roush Fenway Racing star enters this season's Chase for the Cup ranked 11th in the standings. Still, his poor career numbers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway suggest an immediate fall to the bottom after this race. Kenseth hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last five visits to Loudon, and he's failed to crack the Top 20 in three of those starts. The 1.058-mile oval has been a real bug-a-boo for the veteran driver of late, and that's simply too risky for rising fantasy racing stakes this late in the season.

Paul Menard –
Menard has demonstrated some fantasy racing worth on occasion this year. Recent Top 15's at Indianapolis and Pocono are evidence of this fact. Menard has slipped into a four-race funk since the end of June, so if you're looking for deep help at Loudon this weekend, you need to over look the No. 98 team. Menard has seven career starts at NHMS with no Top-20 finishes and a 29.3 average finish to his credit.

Sam Hornish Jr. –
The No. 77 team is trying to snap a four-race Top 20 drought coming to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Hornish has yet to post a Top-10 finish this season despite some good runs here and there. The Penske Racing driver has failed to crack the Top 30 in his last three trips to the New England short track, so it doesn't look very likely that Hornish will break his slump in the Sylvania 300.