The thing you have to like about Johnson is that he went out on a limb a few weeks ago by saying his goal was to win eight championships, the mark that would pass Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, both of whom are tied for the all-time NASCAR Championship lead at seven wins. It was very un-Johnson-like to make such a claim, but I kind of dug it. We usually have this vanilla impression of Johnson being the corporate-type, but when you think about, he's really got no more goals to achieve in NASCAR except setting all-time marks.
The next task for the drivers is to take on New Hampshire and there are a few of the Chase drivers that will have a bit of an edge over the others. We can use past races held at Phoenix and Richmond as a good reference to find out who might do well this week, along with using the first New Hampshire race held on July 15.
All three tracks have different layouts, and aren’t even the same size, but they are all one-mile or less and are relatively flat. Drivers that do well on one usually do well on the other because crew chiefs use the same set-ups for each, and sometimes use the exact same chassis at all three.
Two weeks ago we saw Clint Bowyer win at Richmond and it’s no coincidence that he is a two-time winner at New Hampshire. In the first race held there in July, Bowyer finished third behind eventual winner Kasey Kahne and runner-up Denny Hamlin. This week, Bowyer will be using the exact same chassis that he won with at Richmond.
Hamlin, surprisingly, didn’t fare well at Richmond two weeks ago, but he was one of the best on these types of tracks all season. He won at Phoenix in March and was fourth in the first Richmond race held in April. He hasn’t won at New Hampshire since 2007, but has finished runner-up on three separate occasions and has a track best 8.5 average finish in 13 starts.
Hamlin has an uphill battle to climb after finishing 16th last week, running out of fuel on the last lap. But because of having several tracks of the nine remaining in the Chase, Hamlin should be able to make up the deficit quite easily. He's currently 9/2 to win the Chase and still the best value on the board.
Keselowski has finished fifth and runner-up in his last two New Hampshire starts and becomes even more of a candidate to win this week based on what he’s done on similar tracks, which includes a fifth-place finish at Phoenix. His team gave him a brand new chassis last week at Chicago and it was awesome. This week, he gets another new car that has never seen track time, and similar results wouldn't be a shock. We saw Tony Stewart win two in a row to start the Chase last season, so why not Keselowski?
As for Stewart, we can't forget about him. His win last fall at New Hampshire was his third in 27 starts to go along with 11 other top-5 finishes. He finished fourth two weeks ago at Richmond and third in the spring Richmond race, which should have him well prepared for Loudon's flat track this week.
Last year, The Stewart-Haas team swept New Hampshire with Ryan Newman winning in the spring. It was Newman's third career win at Loudon, and while he hasn't fared as well on these types of tracks this season, it should be noted that he will be using the exact same car from last year’s win. The car also won at Martinsville in 2010.
Newman isn't in the Chase, but can't be discounted because of it. The same goes for Kyle Busch who has to be considered a candidate because of winning at Richmond in the spring.
Jimmie Johnson is a three-time winner at New Hampshire, but hasn’t been his normal dominant self on these types of tracks this season. His only top-5 finish in the four races was at Phoenix in March. But with him being on a mission for another Championship, a top-3 finish would seem appropriate.
Jeff Gordon has won at New Hampshire three times over his career, but none since 1998. He’s finished runner-up multiple times since then and has finished 15th or better in his last 14 starts. The biggest reason to maybe support Gordon this week is that he was super strong at Richmond two weeks ago in the race he fought so hard to get runner-up and make the Chase.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
2) #15 Clint Bowyer (14/1)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (12/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)