While not often listed as a fan favorite, you had better believe there’s more than one top contender who has this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway circled on their calendar. For a couple of Chase contenders, it can’t come at a better time.
Tony Stewart is now in the top ten, and has a little momentum on his side after a runner-up finish at Daytona. Smoke has the top driver rating among active drivers at New Hampshire, and has three wins here. Trailing 8th place Greg Biffle by just 17 points, he has an excellent chance to fortify his position, knowing full well he has some other track where he’s strong coming up on the summer schedule. Kurt Busch is just two points in front of Stewart. the 2004 champion has four top tens in his last five races, and is well poised to score Furniture Row’s second victory in team history at a track where he’s taken the checkered flag thrice himself. This team is the pick of yours truly to be the next to get their first “w” of 2013.
While sitting in 14th place would not bode well for other drivers, keep in mind, Jeff Gordon only trails Stewart by 12 points. With three victories and 21 (yes, he’s getting that old) top tens, Gordon won’t need a compass to find victory lane.
Sitting in second place, Clint Bowyer is not a picture of desperation. by the same token, it’s safe to say he does not want to go into the Chase winless. New Hampshire is a place where Bowyer may just pick up that elusive 2013. He got his first career victory here in 2007, and it was at this track where he picked up a win and a penalty that killed his championship chances in 2010. With three straight top fives, the Kansas short tracker has momentum on his side, and a definite aptitude for this track. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another winless driver inside the top ten. He has the 6th highest driver rating among active Cup drivers at New Hampshire. Junior has good numbers, but he’s never won at Loudon before.
The list doesn’t end there. Ryan Newman is sitting in 16th, but only trails his boss by 17 points. Would you believe the Rocket has three wins at Loudon? You can look it up.
Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton may be racing more for pride, but Burton was a beast at Loudon in the 90s, and this is yet another track where Hamlin has been a stud himself in recent years. Neither one have anything to lose. It would take the edge off of what has been a season of sorrow for Hambone, and no doubt Burton would like to show he still has something left. Burton has four wins at New Hampshire, but he hasn’t won anywhere in nearly five years.
No discussion of foul fortune is complete without mentioning Kasey Kahne. The debacle with teammate Jimmie Johnson and Marcos Ambrose dropped Kahne into on of two wild cards spots (as they run) after limping home in 32nd at the Coke Zero 400. With a victory and 8 top tens in 18 NHMS starts, Kahne’s got the skill and got the Hendrick horsepower to offer him much more than a puncher’s chance this weekend.
As you can see, this track is no one driver’s playground. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson also have top ratings at Loudon. Harvick and Busch each have a career Cup win here, and Johnson has a trio of victories.
Given the wide open nature of the season’s race for the Chase, and the number of drivers who are competitive at New Hampshire, it could make for an interesting race Sunday. When you have this many drivers clustered this close together- 26 points separate 10th place Tony Stewart from 17th place Jamie McMurray- can you really afford to play it safe? For all the drivers on the bubble, wins for the wild card are going to become very important.
Stay tuned. This race could be oe we won’t forget soon.