Race 2 of NASCAR's Chase for the Championship takes us to Loudon, New Hampshire for some flat-track racing. This will be the second time the series has stopped at the one-mile facility. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart had a 1-2 finish in July which gives us a lot to work with when breaking down who might do well this week.
In addition to the July race, we can also reference Phoenix and both Richmond races to get a read on who the top drivers might be this week. Although none of the three tracks have the same layout, the banking and short distances are similar which means that if certain teams do well on one track, they’re likely to do the same on the other.
Even though Martinsville is half the distance of New Hampshire, we’re seeing a lot more teams incorporate their chassis set-up -- and sometimes the actual car -- from there to the three other tracks just because of the banking, or lack thereof.
We also can put a lot more weight into what we just saw two weeks at Richmond because it is the most recent run, a race won by Kevin Harvick with Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon in tow.
However, based on how this wild season has gone with five first-time winners and 14 different drivers taking the checkers, it could be argued that past trends mean as little as they ever have.
It’s almost a crap shoot every week and it doesn’t help that this years ridiculous practice schedule with only two practice sessions happening and both come before qualifying. It’s become harder than ever to weed out the good practice times in race trim from those in qualifying trim. The fastest 10-consecutive lap stat helps, but there is nothing like having a ’Real’ Happy Hour where all the cars have their optimum set-up ready to race.
What we have now is teams getting their cars set perfect for race conditions and then having to reset it for qualifying. Even though they have notes to re-set the car back up that was the best during practice, it’s almost impossible to get it back as perfect after resetting it for qualifying. It’s like starting all over again and they don’t have a practice to show that they got it back correct, they have to make the changes needed during the race.
If anything, I think the practice schedule has a lot to do with all the parity we’re seeing right now.
However, we're in luck this week as we have the traditional schedule of practices. The first practice session will be held before qualifying, which will be used almost exclusively in qualifying trim. On Saturday, we have two sets of practices which will be used for race trim only. Those who are good in practice will be able to roll the exact same set-up out onto the track.
Harvick leads a list of drivers who should be keyed on this week just because of the car he's using. The 2006 New Hampshire winner will be using a chassis that most recently won at Richmond, which also happened to win at Martinsville. All flat tracks, and they account for half of his season wins.
It also helps siding with Harvick this week knowing that he loves racing on these types of tracks.
"I always look forward to going to New Hampshire," Harvick said earlier this week. "I like that type of track because it’s flat, similar to the tracks out west where I started my racing career. There’s a lot of braking. You have to really work on getting your car through the center of the corner and still have the forward drive you need up off the corner.”
Gordon has three Loudon wins over his career in 33 starts with his last win coming during his magical year of 1998. Since 2004, he’s been runner-up on four separate occasions and hasn’t finished worse than 15th. On the basis of his strong Richmond run recently, his Phoenix win and his current form everywhere, Gordon should be considered one of the favorites to win this week.
Gordon's 11th-place run in July may not looks so strong, but there was way more to the story in that race.
“We had a fast car that day," said Gordon, "and I’m really looking forward to going back there this weekend. Even after losing the lap because of the battery change, we were still able to work our way up through traffic pretty well. I wasn’t able to run any blowers (because of the electrical issues) and I think that’s what blew the right front at the end of the race. Hopefully, we don’t have any issues like that Sunday.
Denny Hamlin didn’t have a good run at Richmond two weeks ago, a track where he has always dominated, but he did show up for the last Loudon race with a third-place finish. He was also runner-up in the first Richmond race. In 11 starts on the track, Hamlin has finished in the top-10 eight times with a win in 2007.
Hamlin's goal will be to start his weekend off strong in qualifying trim.
"New Hampshire can be a tricky place to pass so we’ll be looking to qualify close to the front because that goes a long way at this track," explained Hamlin. "We know we need to be running in the top-five or top-10 all day to be in position at the end.”
Jimmie Johnson is a three-time winner at New Hampshire with the last win coming in the spring race last season. In 19 starts he’s finished 15th or better in 17 of them. This is the time that Johnson is supposed to turn it on like he has every year. No one has more Chase wins than Johnson.
Newman was strong in the first Loudon race this year and it gave him his third career New Hampshire win. He's always done well on the track over his career, but doesn't exactly know why.
“New Hampshire has always been a good place for me, I’m not a hundred percent sure why. It’s the place of my first win, when I hadn’t won in a long while, 70 some races. I won again there. This past July we were able to qualify and finish 1-2 at Stewart-Haas. It’s a fun race, it’s a very finesse racetrack."
Stewart settled for his fourth runner-up finish at New Hampshire since his last win in 2005. Stewart has two career wins on the track. Because of how good Stewart and Newman were the last time around, they should be again considered top candidates to win.
Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #29 Kevin Harvick (7/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (6/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
5) #39 Ryan Newman (15/1)