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Sylvania 300 Preview: The 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.

For 13 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 to start the Chase for the Cup. 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 stock into the recent numbers at Loudon. Here are the loop stats for the last 17 races at the small oval in New Hampshire. (Click column headings to sort table.)

Tony Stewart10.15354089714,182111.0
Jeff Gordon8.65904162494,576109.4
Jimmie Johnson9.95654092484,157105.1
Denny Hamlin8.84912834173,263103.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.25492231843,79296.9
Clint Bowyer14.94392304753,23696.2
Ryan Newman15.54341543093,74493.1
Jeff Burton12.94131631783,34292.8
Kevin Harvick13.14001542523.27592.1
Kasey Kahne17.14603002433,16792.1
Kyle Busch15.84441973983,17291.9
Kurt Busch16.75011862683,21690.9
Mark Martin14.8234801501,75388.9
Greg Biffle12.644599862,89487.1
Carl Edwards13.8339141702,63186.6
Brad Keselowski12.821976241,31986.2
Martin Truex Jr.15.037784502,61785.4
Brian Vickers17.9353104782,18284.3
Juan Pablo Montoya20.5371891492,11880.6
Matt Kenseth15.239071372,52580.6

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 Brian Vickers' summer victory at NHMS. It was his first career win at the New England short track. By Las Vegas odds, he was a 50/1 shot to win on race day. To say that the MWR driver's win was a surprise is a huge understatement. If we step back in time and look at this event one year ago, Denny Hamlin picked up his first Loudon win since 2007 and his only win of the Chase in last year's Sylvania 300. We're not likely to see the No. 11 Toyota team defend their title this weekend as the JGR star is mired in a career-worst slump. For the moment, Toyota teams have wrestled control of this small race track from Ford and Chevrolet. Toyota drivers have taken the last two victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. One has gone to Joe Gibbs Racing and the other to Michael Waltrip Racing. So there seems to be a lot of balance and parity among the Toyota teams. Kyle Busch led a strong 53 laps here in July and finished runner-up to Vickers, so the Joe Gibbs Racing star and his No. 18 Toyota team could e the next in line to visit victory lane at this small oval. Clint Bowyer is a two-time Loudon winner and driver from the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota stable. Considering his recent success at New Hampshire, the driver of the No. 15 Toyota could be among the best of the stealth candidates to win on Sunday afternoon, despite his recent distractions with the MWR spinout scandal. Ford hasn't rolled into victory lane at Loudon since Greg Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing's victory here in 2008. Although he's probably not the best candidate for this camp, Ford should have fair representation this Sunday afternoon. Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski all have the ability to win here. Coming off his sixth victory of the season at Chicago this past weekend, the No. 20 Toyota team is one to keep a close eye on at the New Hampshire bull ring. Kenseth has never won at Loudon, but there's no better time to start that now, and he has the momentum coming in. 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

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 second overall at 8 points behind leader Matt Kenseth coming to Loudon this week. Busch should get down to business this Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire, a track that has held some good results for him in recent seasons. He is a one-time winner at NHMS and he finished an impressive second here in earlier in the summer. The last three trips to this oval Busch has led a combined 173 laps. There's little doubt the No. 18 Toyota will be fast this Sunday at the Loudon short track.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's quest for a sixth 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 70 percent Top 10 rate at this facility. Johnson has finishes of seventh-, second- and sixth-place in his last three trips to NHMS. He's been knocking on the door of victory lane here in recent visits, so it's a good bet the Hendrick Motorsports star will bring his “A” game to 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 37 starts at Loudon. He's led over 1,300 career laps at the small oval, including well over 100 in his last five visits combined. In this event one year ago the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet won the pole position and finished a brilliant third. There's ample opportunity for Gordon to pull a victory out of the hat at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

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 Furniture Row Racing star has spent most of 2013 exceeding expectations and the Chase for the Cup should be no different. We're still waiting for the No. 78 Chevrolet to pull into victory lane this season, and that weekend may have finally arrived. Busch is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and as recently as 2008. He qualified on the outside pole and led 102 laps in this July's Camping World RV Sales 301. Bad luck derailed Busch's efforts that day. Maybe he can put it all together this Sunday afternoon in the Sylvania 300.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The No. 2 Ford team may have missed the Chase but they're trying hard to get back into championship form. The Penske Racing driver has awoken from his mid-summer slumber and is racing as well as he has all season. As Keselowski showed at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend, he can race with the leaders and finish in the Top 10. The Penske Racing star's last four trips to the Loudon oval have netted second-, fifth-, sixth- and fourth-place finishes. 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.

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 a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last three trips to NHMS. Despite the challenges that he has faced in the wake of the Richmond spin out scandal, the MWR driver has been holding it together psychologically. Bowyer's ninth-place finish at Chicago this past weekend is evidence of that. He should be very happy to visit one of his favorite short tracks this weekend.

Brian Vickers -
For those of you who compete in weekly lineup leagues, you'll want to be sure to keep Vickers in mind for Loudon. The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran came to the New Hampshire short track in July and shocked the field by capturing his first win in four seasons. Vickers beat the changing conditions of the race and won the battle of fuel mileage to lead the final 16 laps and take the win. Three of his last four trips to the flat oval have netted Top-10 finishes. Vickers has been the closest thing to a short track specialist in the Toyota camp, so he will be a great performer in this Sunday's 300-lap event.

Kevin Harvick -
This season will be Harvick's last chance to win a Sprint Cup championship with Richard Childress Racing. It would be a great accomplishment indeed. 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 52 percent rate. His July appearance at NHMS turned into a solid seventh-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, and that should be a pretty good indication of what to expect for the No. 29 team this Sunday afternoon.

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

Matt Kenseth -
The championship standings leader gets just a tad of a downgrade this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off an impressive victory at Chicagoland Speedway this past weekend. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been a real challenge for the veteran driver. Kenseth has 13 Top 10s in 27 starts at the one-mile, flat oval. A mid-career slump at the track really hit his career numbers hard. However, he's began to reverse those trends in recent visits. Two of his last four trips to the Magic Mile have netted Top-10 finishes, including a solid 33 laps led and ninth-place finish in July's Camping World RV Sales 301.

Ryan Newman -
The No. 39 Chevrolet team has had a pretty good season in 2013 despite the soap opera that came with his late inclusion into the Chase field. Newman has managed 13 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 65 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at the New Hampshire short track. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran rides a three-race Top-10 streak into the Sylvania 300, so Newman is on a roll coming to the one-mile oval in Loudon.

Kasey Kahne -
The Sylvania 300 is a great opportunity to roll out Kahne in your fantasy racing lineups, and he has performed well on the short tracks this season. Kahne's most recent trip to NHMS in July saw the Hendrick Motorsports star qualify eighth on the grid and finish 11th in the Camping World RV Sales 301. The veteran driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has led well over 200 laps in just his last seven trips to the one-mile oval. Considering all the variables, and the pressure to perform in the championship chase, the upside with Kahne 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 10s in 15 career starts at this flat oval. Truex has Top-10 finishes in two of his last three 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 16th-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301. With his recent level of performance, we expect the No. 56 Toyota team to take things up a notch at Loudon Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Burton -
The veteran RCR driver may be in his final days with the No. 31 team, but that shouldn't stop him from performing well on his favorite tracks during his swan song with Richard Childress Racing. Burton has always loved the flat oval in New Hampshire. He's a four-time winner at NHMS and has 14 career Top-10 finishes at the facility. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet had a very memorable performance here in July of this year. Burton raced with the leaders and finished a season-best third in the Camping World RV Sales 301. Burton makes a good spot fantasy racing start in the Sylvania 300.

Aric Almirola -
It's been a while since we last featured Almirola in the sleepers list. He's been on an up-and-down ride most of the summer with his RPM No. 43 team, but he's been generally a Top-20 finisher each weekend. Almirola is fresh off a strong 13th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, and it looks like this streak driver is heating up for the stretch run of this season. The last time the series visited the Loudon oval, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver posted a season-best fifth-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301. Almirola returns this weekend to see if he can equal or improve upon that feat. Recent Top 15 and Top 20 performances at short tracks Bristol and Richmond fill us with confidence for his chances at New Hampshire this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is a statistical leader among active drivers at New Hampshire. In his 15 career starts at NHMS he has been near flawless with two wins, seven Top 5s and ten 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, but Hamlin and his ailing back have not been up to the task. He Top 10 drought has now hit 12 races in a row after last week's engine failure at Chicago. Hamlin's last trip to Loudon netted an uncharacteristic 21st-place finish. Continue to stay clear of the star driver in the Sylvania 300.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Aussie has hit the skids of late. After Top 10s at Michigan and Bristol recently, he's failed to crack the Top 10 in the last three races. Chances for a rebound this weekend at the New Hampshire oval 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.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Has the Montoya hot streak finally run out of gas? We believe so. After posting Top 10s in four out of six races during mid-summer, we've entered fall and the No. 42 team has begun to cool off. Montoya's last two efforts have been 16th- and 32nd-place finishes at Richmond and Chicago. The latter finish thanks to contact with the No. 30 car at Chicago. Montoya finished a subpar 24th in this season's earlier trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and that is just one in a recent series of finishes outside the Top 20 at this facility. It's time to play the odds with this driver and team on Sunday afternoon.

Mark Martin -
Martin will once again sub for the injured Tony Stewart this weekend at New Hampshire. He will pilot the SHR No. 14 Chevrolet in Sunday's Sylvania 300. While the veteran driver has been doing a commendable job to this point, we have to be very cautious about deploying Martin down the stretch run this season. His last few trips to the Magic Mile have not been the greatest with finishes of 22nd- and 24th-place. Those starts came all the way back in the 2011 season, so Martin hasn't had a lot of recent laps on the one-mile oval. Martin could make us eat our words, but just too many variables at work here for a confident fantasy racing endorsement.