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Sylvania 300 Preview: Quest for a 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.

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 postseason. 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 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.

We will be racing at a short track 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 13 races at the small oval in Loudon.

Tony Stewart9.64233818473,153114.0
Jeff Gordon9.54713101593,446107.3
Jimmie Johnson10.44113192433,140105.8
Denny Hamlin7.238796742,437100.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.94241961842,87497.1
Kurt Busch14.04121441602,80195.4
Jeff Burton12.93341341782,76695.0
Ryan Newman13.83391362472,78894.6
Clint Bowyer16.22972114252,15294.5
Kevin Harvick14.22551332512,32491.1
Carl Edwards13.9250130702,16588.4
Mark Martin13.8197511041,58488.3
Kyle Busch16.33191192252,19388.2
Martin Truex Jr.15.025677471,77586.1
Greg Biffle13.130381861,98085.6
Kasey Kahne19.83251651332,02185.0
Juan Pablo Montoya20.7304791471,71484.7
Brian Vickers22.023267531,51680.0
David Reutimann17.21872301,26378.6
Matt Kenseth16.62335431,63676.9

New Hampshire Motor Speedway had become a track of surprises. What used to be a predictable oval has become a track often won by wild cards in recent seasons. Three of the last five winners at NHMS were drivers like Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. These are not the guys we typically think of when it comes to winning races most Sprint Cup Series weekends, so this small oval has been a track for the underdog in recent seasons. For the moment, Chevrolet teams have wrestled control of this small race track from Dodge, Ford and Toyota. Chevy drivers have taken the last four victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Two have gone to the Hendrick stable and one each to Childress and Stewart-Haas. So there seems to be a lot of balance and parity among the Chevrolet teams. Jimmie Johnson led just 19 laps here in July and finished a respectable fifth, so the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion will be in the mix with the leaders, but not a prime contender to win this event. Ryan Newman was the surprise winner in July's Lennox Industrial Tools 301. He took the lead late from Bowyer and cruised into his second career win at the small New England oval. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon all had fast cars but the changing fortunes of the race and bad luck hampered all their efforts to win. 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 this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick
This season could be Harvick's best chance to win his first Sprint Cup Series championship. He surely won't waste the opportunity to build an early lead in the standings 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 5 at about a 25 percent rate. His July appearance at NHMS fell way short of expectations with a 21st-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, but that should only provide more motivation for the outstanding No. 29 Chevrolet team.

Jeff Gordon
With the Chase for the Cup under way and a possible fifth championship in the realm of possibility, Gordon will be on his game this weekend. Needing a rebound performance after running out of gas at Chicago, the Hendrick Motorsports star has to be seen as a contender coming to New Hampshire. Gordon has 18 career Top 10's in 33 starts at Loudon and that calculates out to a 55 percent rate for breaking the Top 10 there. Gordon's led over 1,200 career laps at the small oval, including 19 circuits earlier this season. In addition to his three career victories at Loudon, Gordon has six Top-3 finishes to his credit.

Tony Stewart
The No. 14 team made it into the Chase this season, with a late summer surge 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 13 starts at New Hampshire short track he has collected one win, four runner-up finishes and seven Top-5 finishes. During this span he's led close to 850 laps at the flat oval. The last time the Cup Series visited NHMS, Stewart led 48 laps en route to a brilliant runner-up finish. Coming off the win at Chicago, we can only boost our expectations for this driver and team.

Kurt Busch
This weekend Busch will continue on a quest to win his second Sprint Cup championship. The No. 22 Dodge team has faced some adversity in recent weeks, 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 significant laps in four of his last five events at Loudon, including 66 laps led in July's Lenox Industrial Tools 301. We expect to see Busch racing in the Top 5 with the leaders in the Sylvania 300.

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

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's quest for his sixth straight championship may be his toughest challenge to date. The No. 48 team has not been in race-winning form all season long, and the competition is as tough at the top as it has been in recent years. Still, we expect Johnson to defend his title and 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 led 19 laps and finished a brilliant fifth in his last trip to NHMS. We expect him to be a safe Top 10 play this weekend.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his 11 career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with one win, five Top 5's and eight Top 10's. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been trying desperately to get back into 2010 form, and we've seen indicators that Hamlin is returning to his familiar level of performance in the last couple races. All things being equal, we'll take the star driver any weekend on one of his best short tracks.

Ryan Newman
The No. 39 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2011. Newman has managed 14 Top 10's 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 68 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has cracked the Top 10 in four of his last five races entering this event, so momentum is on his side.

Kyle Busch
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has another shot at the championship, but he'll have to overcome his let down at Chicago this past week. Busch should get down to business this weekend 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 ninth here in this event one year ago. The last time we saw the No. 18 Toyota team in action on a short track, Busch finished a respectable sixth at Richmond a couple weeks ago. A similar performance should be in store for the Sylvania 300.

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

Carl Edwards
Edwards enters this season's installment of the Chase with not maybe as much momentum as he would like. Still, he is an outside contender at winning the championship due to his abilities, so we have to give him a nod due to his team's current momentum. Edwards enters this event on a four-race Top-10 streak and he's displaying the type of consistency that adds up to championship contention. Despite his sub-par 13th-place finish here in July, Edwards should crack the Top 10 in the Sylvania 300 at Loudon.

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 on the short tracks, and he's been rock solid on his favorite ovals. Kahne's most recent trip to NHMS in June saw the Red Bull Racing star qualify in row 5, lead five laps and finish sixth in the Lennox Industrial Tools 301. Considering all the variables, the upside with the No. 4 team is just too good to ignore.

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 10's in 11 career starts at this flat oval. Truex has Top-15 finishes in four of his last seven 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 eighth-place finish in the Lennox Industrial Tools 301.

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. Keselowski's last visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway was nothing to write home about, but it came prior to his summer hot streak. We're willing to bet Keselowski can equal or better his career best finish at this oval of sixth-place.

Clint Bowyer
The Richard Childress Racing veteran snapped a three-race Top 10 drought with his seventh-place finish at Chicago this past week. Bowyer seems to be turning things around at a good time, and coming to one of his favorite ovals this weekend. He is a two-time winner at Loudon, including this event one year ago. Even though Bowyer finished a lowly 17th at NHMS back in July of this year, we have to give him due respect at this facility. Bowyer may not be in the No. 33 Chevrolet next season, but he's going to go out with a bang.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has been a fairly reliable fantasy racing play this season. His subpar finish at Chicago interrupted a five-race Top-15 streak for the No. 43 Ford team. The Richard Petty Motorsports star returns to New Hampshire this weekend as a non-Chase participant, but that's of no concern from a fantasy racing perspective. Allmendinger's last three trips to the 1.058-mile flat oval have yielded finishes of 10th-, 12th- and 12th-place. The No. 43 team's current consistency and good performance on short tracks sets up perfectly for this Sunday afternoon.

Marcos Ambrose
Our deep sleeper this weekend is Ambrose. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been coming on strong ever since his big win at Watkins Glen and this streak is too good to ignore this weekend at New Hampshire. Ambrose has visited the Top 10 in two of his last three short track events. His last trip to Loudon yielded a career-best ninth-place finish at the small oval, and Ambrose could easily duplicate that effort in the Sylvania 300.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

David Reutimann
Reutimann is normally a dependable performer at this small oval, but the No. 00 team is in tall weeds right now. He's failed to crack the Top 25 in his last four races, and Reutimann is fresh off a disappointing 32nd-place finish at Chicago. That's a stark performance considering how well the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran performs at that Midwest oval. Reutimann finished an uninspiring 19th at Loudon earlier this summer, so clearly stay away from this driver and team this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth
The "Chaser" that could soon be in trouble this weekend is Kenseth. The Roush Fenway Racing star currently stands 10th in the Chase standings after his subpar performance at Chicagoland Speedway. That makes two straight finishes outside the Top 20 entering this event. Kenseth has only two Top-20 finishes in his last six 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
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star has struggled through the entirety of the 2011 season. Currently, the No. 42 team appears to be a Top 15 outfit each week, but no where near challenging the Top 10. Montoya has good career stats at Loudon's flat oval with two pole and nearly 150 laps led, but his last three trips here have been nothing short of disappointing. Montoya's 30th-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.

Paul Menard
Menard has demonstrated some fantasy racing worth on occasion this year, but luck seems to have departed this driver and team of late. He raced in the Top 10 for much of the race this past week at Chicago, only to run out of gas in the last couple of laps and finish well below expectations. Menard finished an uninspiring 24th at this small oval in July and that's not far off his 28.6 career average finish at this facility. The No. 27 Chevrolet team may have a fast car this weekend, but the breaks have not been going their way this summer.