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New Hampshire 301 Preview
Editor's Note: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will miss Sunday's race due to concussion-like symptoms.

We go back to some normalcy this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway where the 19th race of the Sprint Cup schedule will use a race package that has been used most of the season, a familiar tire and surface, and we probably won't see qualifying cancelled because of NASCAR being uneasy about the situation they put every team in last week at Kentucky Speedway.
 
Let's just say the racing last week with so many alterations didn't come close to matching what happened last year at Kentucky, but with Sunday's New Hampshire 301 we should see some great racing on the flat 1-mile paperclip.

Even before Friday and Saturday practice results are known we can get a head start on buying some value on early odds to win based on what happened during earlier races on similar tracks at Phoenix and Richmond. The trends between the three tracks hold well.
 
It may sound repetitious if reading this column through the years, but I'll go through the process again because it's important. Think in terms of horse racing where there are good horses for certain courses. In NASCAR it's similar as well whether it's a driver that really likes a certain type of track or his crew chief has been able to set-up a car perfectly for that type.
 
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In the case of New Hampshire, we have the luxury of reviewing results from the 1-mile layout at Phoenix and the 3/4-mile layout at Richmond.

Although both tracks look very different from New Hampshire, all three are relatively flat which puts a premium on the balance of the car. A couple drivers can be identified as favorites to win just because of what they did at Phoenix and Richmond and then we can also look at past New Hampshire history to identify who continuously runs well.
 
Three of the top-five finishers at Phoenix (Mar. 13) also finished in the top-five at Richmond (April 24) and six drivers were in the top-10 of both. That's a strong correlation to be respected this week.

Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix leading a race-high 139 laps and then led 63 laps at Richmond finishing fifth. Carl Edwards led 65 laps at Phoenix finishing second -- barely by a bumper -- and then won at Richmond (led 151 laps). Those two should be the starting point this week as drivers to beat. But then you've also got Kyle Busch with a fourth and third, respectively, in the two races. Denny Hamlin was third and sixth, Kurt Busch sixth and 10th and Matt Kenseth was seventh in both.
 
For a driver like Kenseth, his finishes get a strong double take because he was good on these tracks last season winning the last time at NHMS (Sept. 27) and also the fall Richmond (Sept. 12) where he led 352 laps.

When the aero-package was changed over to the low-downforce package for all tracks other restrictor-plate tracks, there was a little bit of change in how the cars ran, but we still saw the drivers who liked the track fare well because the speeds don't get high enough at places like Phoenix or Richmond to have the package matter much. Kenseth had struggled with poor luck most of the season until winning at Dover, but his runs on these tracks were his most consistent. Over his career at NHMS he's got two wins in 32 starts with an average finish of 12.6 which is fifth-best among active drivers.
 
The top NHMS average finish in the series has been Denny Hamlin at 10.2, which is aided by his two wins (2007, 2012). His runner-up last fall was his first top-five there since winning in 2012. This is a spot Hamlin would like to win at since his only win on the year has been the season opening Daytona 500, but I think you're going to see his team utilize the time on the track to prepare their set-up for the 10-race Chase where New Hampshire and Phoenix both have dates.

Yes, winning is important, but getting ready for the Chase, when races really matter, is also a component to consider. Getting a contract extension is also important for Hamlin and winning a championship would certainly make him highly sought after. Not sure what Joe Gibbs is waiting for, but Hamlin has FedEx as a full-time sponsor already and they're going wherever he goes.
 
For some drivers, they're feeling pretty good about how things will flow in the Chase and they just want to win. Brad Keselowski with his series leading four wins, including the last two on the schedule, fits that criteria. His team is running strong right now on all types of tracks and they're ready for the Chase to try and win his second championship. He's always had the mentality of trying to win at all costs no matter who he offends and he'll continue along those lines this week. He's got a 2014 win at NHMS at has averaged a 10.3 finish in 13 starts.
 
Kyle Busch won his second career NHMS race last July and his brother Kurt Busch has three wins. Kurt swept the season in 2004 while driving a Roush Ford and his 2008 came in a Penske Dodge. He now drives a Chevy, which hasn't won at NHMS in the past seven races -- Toyota has five wins, Ford two.
 
With one more NHMS win, Kurt Busch would tie Jeff Burton for most all-time NHMS wins with four and he feels confident every time he races there. 
 
"It’s a track that has been pretty good to me since I started racing in the top series of this sport," the Las Vegas native said. "I raced there for the first time in the Truck Series and won that race. Then, it’s a track where I have three wins in the Cup cars and, when you’re able to go to a track where you’ve had that kind of success, it just gives you that confidence. Because of the wins and everything, it’s a place we go to where I feel like I especially know what it takes from the car and the driver to be successful.”

The top Chevy candidate to end the recent bow-tie slide might be Jimmie Johnson who won for the third and final time at NHMS in 2010. He was third at Richmond in the spring. Like Busch and Johnson, Tony Stewart is also a three-time winner, the last coming in 2011. Kyle Larson had a amazing rookie campaign in 2014 at NHMS finishing third and second, but was 31st and 17th last season. He was 12th at Phoenix in the spring.
 
Harvick has always fared well on the flat tracks like this, but he hasn't won at NHMS since 2006. He also won at Richmond and Phoenix that season. His only win this year came at Phoenix which extended his track record to eight career wins. He's going to be in the mix, but he's hard to trust in odds to win wagers because it seems like he settles too easily for second-place or thirds too often -- third in two of past three NHMS races. Driver match-ups or fantasy lineups, yes, he's hard to beat, but his short odds weekly make him a very unattractive bet to win.
 
Keselowski's teammate Joey Logano has also been on a nice run at NHMS lately finishing fourth of better in his last three, which began with his second career win on the track in 2014 when Team Penske swept the season. He won his first career Cup race there in 2009.
 
Watch the final practices on Saturday to better help the handicapping equation, but there's a good look right now on who should perform the best.
 
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
3) #19 Carl Edwards (10/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)

  
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