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A No. 1 seed and an opening-round Chase victory must have Matt Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team on Cloud Nine heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Historically, it’s a great position to be in; the last two Chicagoland race winners went on to win the Chase. Kenseth’s next round, though, isn’t a gimme by any stretch of the imagination.
To put it bluntly, Kenseth isn’t good at New Hampshire. His team might have a good car this weekend, and he might improve upon his past performance — he has finished 13th or worse in nine of the last 11 races on the Magic Mile — but it won’t be easy sledding for the series point leader.
0.269 Kenseth’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) in his last 13 New Hampshire starts is 0.269, which ranks 33rd out of 52 drivers with four starts or more.
That production rating is the worst among all Chasers heading into this weekend, but it doesn’t mean he can’t score a points-padding finish. Earlier this season, he finished ninth in Loudon, after leading 33 laps — his most at New Hampshire since 2002 (77) —in a JGR car that looked like a machine on autopilot. The steady racer also showcased one of his best traits while behind the wheel in July’s race: restarting.
+18 Kenseth retained position 100 percent of the time on nine restart attempts in his most recent New Hampshire outing and gained a total of 18 positions.
He gained a total of 14 positions on six preferred-groove restarts and four positions on three, more treacherous restarts in the non-preferred groove. For the season, he has been a quality restarter at all tracks, but his performance in July was exceptional. It seems the past confusion on restart etiquette never bothered the driver of the No. 20 car; along with the Busch brothers, he is one of the most reliable restarters in an era where restarts decide races.
4.038 The best-producing driver at New Hampshire in the Car of Tomorrow/Gen-6 era is Jimmie Johnson, whose 11 top-10 finishes help push his PEER to 4.038.
Johnson has won three times at New Hampshire, but just once since the CoT was introduced (2010). Though he hasn’t been a standout, he has scored finishes of seventh or better in four of the last five races there, including a below-radar sixth-place run earlier this summer.
The track’s comfort zone can’t come soon enough for Johnson; Chicagoland served as his first top-5 finish since Indianapolis in July and the first finish inside the top half of the field since Watkins Glen (August).
100% Just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver has finished in the top half of the field in 100 percent of the last 13 New Hampshire races: Jeff Gordon.
Want a dependable New Hampshire racer? Look no further than Gordon, who averaged a 6.9-place finish over the aforementioned span with three runner-up results sufficing as his best outings. The last-minute Chase addition needs a jolt in the consistency department; the No. 24 team is the fourth-least consistent full-time Cup Series team with a 12.5 deviation through 27 races in 2013.
102 Kurt Busch led a race-high 102 laps (over a third of the total laps) in the July race at New Hampshire.
A 2.288 PEER (ranks 12th) across 13 New Hampshire races suggests that Busch should be a watched man this weekend. His collection in a lap 226 accident in that race foiled a real shot at contending for the win, making it one of two races dating back to Sonoma that Busch didn’t score a clean finish. In the 10 races he was able to score a result without accident, he averaged a 5.5-place finish (because of that, he is a legitimate, albeit quiet, title contender). If crashing isn’t in the agenda, anticipate this Chaser being a threat for both the pole (he qualified second in July) and the victory.
19.2 Bobby Labonte has averaged a 19.2-place finish in his five New Hampshire races with JTG-Daugherty Racing.
A healthy Labonte equals a happy Labonte, especially at New Hampshire, but will he be totally healed from a late-summer bicycle crash? He returns to the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty car this weekend, in search of his first top-15 finish since the season-opening Daytona 500. If that sounds farfetched, it isn’t. Labonte has been a serviceable producer (1.019 PEER) through the 13 CoT/Gen-6 era races at NHMS and finished seventh in his first attempt there with the JTG team in 2011. Rumors of having a substitute driver at the ready have already circulated, so Labonte fanatics and fantasy players should hold off on raising hopes until more concrete information surfaces before Sunday.
14.8 Dating back to the Watkins Glen race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t finished lower than 19th, averaging a 14.8-place finish.
Could the rookie continue his dandy late-season surge this weekend? He finished 34th in his only other Cup Series race at New Hampshire; however in three NASCAR Nationwide Series races from 2010 to 2012, he scored two top-5 finishes and led 10 percent of the race (26 laps) in his 2011 outing. His improvement from his first race (finished 16th) to his second (fourth) was a jump of 12 positions.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.