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Camping World 301 Preview: Race the Track Not the Competition

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.

We make a return this week to the short track circuit after a long stretch of large ovals and road course racing. NASCAR 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 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, the patient 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 usually 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. That's where the NASCAR saying "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 eight years or 16 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart9.15203938873,882111.7
Jeff Gordon8.65624102494,333109.9
Jimmie Johnson10.15364052483,936105.8
Denny Hamlin7.94772824173,127104.8
Clint Bowyer15.14062304753,02797.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.35112191843,50596.9
Ryan Newman14.14211543093,65294.9
Kevin Harvick13.43831542523,17292.8
Kasey Kahne17.44262882432,89091.8
Jeff Burton13.63741391783,04491.6
Kurt Busch15.84791451662,99389.6
Kyle Busch16.74121663452,87389.6
Mark Martin14.8234801501,75388.9
Greg Biffle12.542397862,76987.5
Martin Truex Jr.14.936184502,52586.5
Carl Edwards14.1314139702,40486.3
Brian Vickers19.233381622,07282.8
Brad Keselowski14.019446101,02481.4
Juan Pablo Montoya20.2342891491,90180.5
Matt Kenseth15.63446142,25178.6

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 Chevrolet monopoly since 2009. Last season we witnessed the first crack in that fašade develop. Hendrick Motorsports star Kasey Kahne won this race one year ago and extended Chevrolet's streak at the New England race track to six straight victories. It was his first career win at the Loudon oval and one of his prime accomplishments since joining the Hendrick stable. NASCAR returned to the small track in the fall of 2012 and it was Toyota's time to put a stop to the Chevrolet streak at Loudon. Denny Hamlin pounded everyone's heads into the pavement and led 193 of the 300 laps en route to his second career Loudon victory and second for manufacturer Toyota. Given the struggles that the No. 11 JGR team has been experiencing, we doubt Hamlin will be able to pull into winner's circle again at NHMS but it could be that another dominant Toyota driver could take the baton. Among the leading candidates, two-time New Hampshire winner Clint Bowyer and new JGR driver Matt Kenseth 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 five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. He's a three-time winner at the one-mile oval in Loudon and riding a tidal wave of momentum into New England after his big Daytona victory this past weekend. 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, and not likely to end after this Sunday afternoon's race. Carl Edwards won earlier this season at Phoenix, so it's always within the realm of possibility, just not very likely that we'll see a Ford driver hoisting the trophy this weekend. 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 last year (third- and fourth-place finishes) are good evidence of that. Bowyer has somehow managed to break into the Top 5 seven times this season with two runner-up finishes yet he has no victories. If there's an event to get him off the "doughnut" it's this race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It's one of his favorite places to compete.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke comes to New England this weekend in search of his second 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 1,200 laps during his career at NHMS, and close to 200 of those laps in just his last five starts there. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet battled hard to lead 38 laps here last fall during the Chase and finish seventh in the Sylvania 300. All things considered, you have to greatly respect his stellar 50 percent career Top-5 rate at this facility. Coming off the runner-up finish at Daytona this past week, Stewart rides a wave of momentum into Loudon.

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 10 of the last 12 races here. Our last trip to NHMS yielded one of three career runner-up finishes for Johnson 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 346 laps from the pole at the similar short flat track in Martinsville and ran away with the victory that afternoon in Southern Virginia. The No. 48 team appears to be running downhill right now compared to everyone else, so victory number five of the 2013 season is quite possible this Sunday afternoon.

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 one year ago. Kahne returned to scene of his victory in the fall of 2012 and finished an impressive fifth in the Sylvania 300 last September. He has led 274 career laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the vast majority of those have come in just his last six starts at the speedway. Kahne should surprise in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301.

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

Ryan Newman -
Newman is a three-time winner at Loudon and he owns six career pole positions at the one-mile oval. His No. 39 team comes to New England this week scrambling to climb back towards the Top 10 in the championship standings, and fresh off a solid Top-10 finish at Daytona. Newman collected a pair of 10th-place finishes at this New England short track last season. Those added to his impressive 68 percent Top 10 rate at this track. It's clear that Newman and his team know Loudon inside-out, so the notebook should come in handy for the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran at New Hampshire.

Jeff Gordon -
The most prolific New Hampshire veteran is easily Gordon. His 36 career starts at this facility are tied with Bobby Labonte 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 21 Top-10 finishes that grab our attention the most. That figure is easily tops in the series and clears the next closest driver, Tony Stewart (17), by four. Gordon comes to New Hampshire this weekend with five Top 10s in his last six visits to the New England short track. The Loudon oval is like a comfortable old pair of shoes, and Gordon wears them well.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has had a great 2013 season. He enters the weekend with four wins and ranked sixth in the driver standings, and he's racing as consistently from week-to-week as anyone in the series. New Hampshire Motor Speedway could be another notch in the belt for this No. 20 Toyota team. 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 won the pole position, led 140 laps and finished seventh at a bull ring that also hasn't been kind to him over his career. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota could even challenge for the win in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has had a tough 2013 season. The back injury at Fontana ruined what was otherwise expected to be a championship-contending campaign. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been trying to get back into the groove ever since returning to the race track a few weeks ago. Loudon could be the race that jump-starts his lagging performance. Hamlin owns two wins and 10 Top-10 finishes in 14 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Those numbers include the 343 laps led, victory and runner-up finish in the two Loudon races last season. Hamlin also dominates the similar flat short track in Martinsville, so this level of performance is not accidental. If there's any race to get Hamlin out of his funk, it's this weekend's tilt at Loudon.

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

Kevin Harvick -
The amazing Top 10 streak marched on this past week after a brilliant third-place finish at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400. Harvick now stands at eight straight races with a Top 10 entering New Hampshire week. The good news for fans of the No. 29 Chevrolet team is that there are very good odds of this streak extending Sunday afternoon in the Camping World RV Sales 301. Harvick owns 12 career Top-10 finishes in 24 starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 50 percent rate at this flat oval ranks him among the best in the series. His finishes of eighth- and 11th-place here last season should be indicative of what to expect on Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
With three career victories and a solid 46 percent Top 10 rate at the track, Busch has to consider Loudon one of his best tracks. However, the Furniture Row Racing veteran has had a tough go at this oval in recent years. That is a trend that is turning in 2013. Busch's new team at Furniture Row Racing is not only performing at a high level each week, but it looks as though the veteran driver is headed back to the Chase for the Cup for the first time in many seasons. His body of work on the short tracks this season has been very good with a pair of Top 10s in four starts and an average finish of 15.5. Busch will look like the driver of old at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this Sunday.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers will climb into the seat of the No. 55 MWR Toyota this weekend and make his fifth start of the season for this race team. The journeyman driver has one Top-5 finish and three Top-15 finishes in his prior starts for MWR in 2013. Vickers has been sort of a short track specialist for this team since last season and the results have been impressive. His two New Hampshire starts in 2012 yielded ninth- and 15th-place finishes. His short track resume since joining Michael Waltrip has been five Top-10 finishes in eight starts on the small ovals. There's simply too much upside and homerun potential to keep this team on the bench this weekend.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been surging in recent weeks. It took a cut tire at Daytona this past week to slow the streaking driver down. He's taken some ups and downs earlier his career, but the young driver is finally heading in the right direction at Penske Racing. Logano has always liked racing at the Loudon oval, and it's shown in his finishes at the one-mile track. He has four Top 10s in nine career starts and he even won a rain-shortened event here in 2009. The driver of the No. 22 Ford should challenge the eighth-place result he collected here in last September's Sylvania 300.

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's fresh off a respectable 16th-place finish at Daytona and he's 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 has finishes of 16th-, 13th-, 21st- and 15th-place in his last four trips to the small oval. Another borderline Top 15 performance should be in store.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The Phoenix Racing driver had a tough go at Daytona this past weekend, but so did a lot of other good drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. He'll shake it off with a solid effort in the Camping World RV Sales 301 this weekend. Allmendinger has nine career starts at the New England flat track, but his best work has come in his most recent appearances there. He didn't race there in 2012 due to his drug-related suspension, but in his prior four starts the journeyman driver earned 10th-, a pair of 12th- and 21st-place finishes. That works out to a respectable 13.8 average finish. Allmendinger has been solid in his two short track outings in 2013 with 13th- and 14th-place finishes at Bristol and Richmond for this race team.

Jamie McMurray -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver's great performance at Daytona this past week is just the latest example of this driver's resurgence in 2013. McMurray enters the weekend with five Top 10s on the season, which is more than he scored in all of either the 2011 or 2012 seasons. He's 17th in the championship standings and actually relevant again when it comes to discussing the Chase for the Cup field. McMurray has a pair of Top 10s in the four short track races to-date, and one of those was a brilliant seventh-place effort at the similar flat track in Martinsville. His Loudon outings have been nothing to write home about of late, but that should change in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has had a good season overall, but he's had a tough go on the short tracks. His four starts on the ovals one-mile or less have yielded no Top-10 finishes and a lowly 26.8 average finish. Truex Jr. has made 14 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and he had a lot of success early in his career at the one-mile flat oval. However, his last six visits to NHMS have yielded only one Top-10 finish. While his MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers make great fantasy racing selections this weekend, it's best to shy away from Truex and the No. 56 Toyota team.

Kyle Busch -
While Busch has quite a short track racing reputation and he is a one-time winner at the Loudon oval, we have to give him a downgrade or at a minimum a caution tag this weekend. He's had a good go on the short tracks this season with three Top-5 finishes in four starts. However, the New Hampshire oval holds some kind of spell over the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Busch has qualified well and led laps in his recent Loudon starts, but the finishes just don't come. He has only one Top-10 finish in his last six starts at NHMS, and all this despite one pole position and 166 laps led in those starts. That works out to an undesirable 18.5 average finish at this track. This is probably a good week to leave the No. 18 Toyota team on the bench.

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, our defending champion has lost his mo-jo this season. Keselowski enters the weekend a lowly 13th in the driver standings and with only one Top 10 in the last 10 races. This is a funk of epic proportions. Despite his recent success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and clear short track racing skill, it's best to pass on the No. 2 Penske Ford team in this Sunday's race.

Casey Mears -
The driver of the RCR No. 13 Toyota is having a great campaign and he's coming off his first Top-10 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-20 finisher on the short tracks this season with three Top 20s 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 six Loudon starts is a 29th-place performance in 2010. His last five trips to the one-mile oval have been disastrous DNF's for one reason or another.