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New Hampshire 301 Preview

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Only eight races remain until the playoffs start as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolls into New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first of two races in 2017. Sunday's Overton 301 starts the second-half of the season and we're going to see a mixed bag of strategies by the drivers.

So far, 10 drivers have clinched a berth as being one of the 16 qualified for the playoffs. Another driver, Joey Logano, has a win but had it away stripped because of failing a post-race inspection which makes him 17th in points -- outside and looking in. What is the best strategy for Logano here who is just 7-points outside of the 16th position?

Obviously winning is the best way to get in. Logano won his first career race at New Hampshire in 2009 and he's also got a 2014 win to his credit and has finished in the top-5 in four of his past five starts there. But he's also got to play it smart as he's essentially points racing now. It's apparent that all things are not well in Logano's camp, which is odd because his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski leads all drivers with nine top-5s this season.

Following Logano outside looking in to the playoffs is Erik Jones (426 pts), Daniel Suarez (373) and Trevor Bayne (352) to round out the top-20 in points.

The most interesting part of this eight-race Chase to the playoffs is the drivers sitting 11 through 16 that don't have wins on the season and have yet to qualify. And these are some of the biggest names in the sport with Kyle Busch (609), Chase Elliott (560), Jamie McMurray (545), Denny Hamlin (538), Clint Bowyer (495) and Matt Kenseth (478).

“The pressure cooker is certainly turning up,” said Bowyer, who has scored the second-most points of any driver in the last three Cup Series races. He's also a two-time winner at New Hampshire which gives him some source of comfort.

“Those (past NHMS) wins allow you to go into this race with more confidence than you would at a track where you haven’t won,” Bowyer said. “I feel like we can win again at New Hampshire this weekend. We really want to win, but we also want to make sure we don’t do anything that will knock us out of the points.”

Every driver wants to win, but the points racing aspect is definitely something to consider when wagering. Drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson will all be stage racing for playoff bonus points and they can also make the risky moves and calls at the end of the race to accumulate more wins.

All that stuff aside, the first thing I did to prepare for handicapping New Hampshire's 1.058-mile, flat layout was a take a glance at what happened in the March 19 race at Phoenix as well as the Apr. 30 race at Richmond. Both those tracks are similar in size and banking and if a driver does well on one they're more likely to do well on the other.

Ryan Newman held on for the win at Phoenix, but Kyle Busch led a race-high 114 laps and Elliott led 106 laps and finished 12th. Logano led 82 laps and finished 31st after being involved in a wreck and Keselowski would finish fifth.

Six weeks later, it was Logano getting the win at Richmond, but would have the points taken away after......cheating. Keselowski would finish second and lead 110 laps. Kenseth would lead a race-high 164 laps and finish 23rd.

The name that jumps out at me the most here is Kenseth, who has won three times in the past seven New Hampshire races. He was second last fall. The Richmond race coupled with his obvious like for this layout gave me reason to immediately search for the best odds in Las Vegas on him.

Joe Gibbs Racing still hasn't won a race yet, but I'm liking Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin to all fare well. Both Busch and Hamlin have each won twice at New Hampshire. Think of how good Hamlin is at Martinsville's half-mile flat layout and you kind of get the idea why he's so good on this larger paperclip. Hamlin also has four runner-up finishes there.

One longer shot to keep an eye on here is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who finished fourth at both Phoenix and Richmond. Newman has also won at New Hampshire three times.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (15/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
5) #42 Kyle Larson (7/1)

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