The NASCAR Cup Series playoff system is built to reward winning. Anyone inside the top 30 in points remains eligible to compete for a championship as long as they find their way to victory lane in Sunday’s Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
All it takes is one perfect weekend to erase a season’s worth of disappointing performances. Think it can’t be done? Just ask Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola.
Almirola, who is retiring from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of 2022, surprised virtually everyone with a victory at NHMS last summer. He entered the race 27th in the standings, posting just one top-5 finish and leading just 26 laps on the year. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran known for taking care of equipment had already experienced more DNFs for crashes (five) than the previous two seasons combined.
With that track record, the No. 10 team winning New Hampshire wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen, not with SHR as a whole struggling in a year where none of their four drivers had won. But there Almirola was, in the stretch run of a race delayed by rain, passing Matt DiBenedetto with 20 laps to go to cruise to the checkered flag.
“We show up most weekends as the underdog and we just believe in ourselves,” Almirola said of his mentality behind that success. “We show up every weekend knowing that if we do all the small things right and have a good car, we’ll have a chance at a win.”
Just like 2021, NHMS could become the savior again for a SHR organization struggling to maintain its place in NASCAR’s top tier. Only Chase Briscoe has won among the quartet with Almirola, Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer currently sitting outside playoff contention. With 13 Cup winners in the first 19 races, plus a winless driver, Ryan Blaney, challenging for the point lead, it feels like victory lane is the only way forward for everyone else to make the 16-driver postseason field.
It’s also why we’ve seen certain teams, like Spire Motorsports and Corey LaJoie’s No. 7 program at Atlanta last week, go for the jugular at tracks they feel are in their wheelhouse. Expect SHR to do the same with a track type that has some similarities to Gateway last month, where Briscoe won the pole, Almirola finished fifth and Harvick was inside the top 10 before crashing late in the event.
If not SHR, then who at this uniquely flat one-mile oval that hosts just one NASCAR event each year? Joe Gibbs Racing has won half of the last 10 races here and seemed to have the fastest fleet in 2021 before NASCAR’s delay on throwing the yellow for rain wiped out three of their four Toyotas. Kyle Busch is another driver who could use a victory with his JGR future still undecided (sponsorship pending) in the midst of four straight races without a top-15 finish.
At least no bad weather is expected this year at the Magic Mile. Who will be able to find a way to the front at New Hampshire in 2022?
Date: Sunday, July 17
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
Elliott is arguably on the hottest streak of his career since winning back-to-back races to capture the 2020 NASCAR Cup championship. His Atlanta win Sunday was the first at his hometown track and capped a three-race streak of first, second and first as his lead in the championship standings has ballooned to 47 over Blaney.
“I’ve witnessed guys win at their home tracks and you can always tell it means a lot to them, but until you start competing somewhere at a sport’s highest stage like this, I’m not sure you fully understand the meaning of it and what it could mean to you,” Elliott said. “So, to be able to have this moment is really special and one I’m very grateful for.”
Who's at the Back: Denny Hamlin
A second run-in with Ross Chastain in a month highlighted another miserable Hamlin afternoon, running 25th at Atlanta for his fourth result in five races outside the top 20. Despite two victories, the 41-year-old sits 19th in the standings, his worst regular-season performance since missing four races in 2013 as the No. 11 team struggles to find consistency.
In a stunning announcement this week, Tyler Reddick revealed he’s been signed by 23XI Racing and will move to that organization beginning with the 2024 season. The news comes just two weeks after Reddick won Road America with his current team, Richard Childress Racing, which owns the rights to Reddick through the end of 2023. RCR was stunned by the news, taking some emotions to Twitter but has reiterated thus far they will honor the remainder of Reddick’s contract.
Silly Season continued picking up with Ty Dillon announcing this week he’d be leaving Petty GMS Motorsports after the season. Dillon, who made his full-time return to Cup competition in 2022, has just one top-10 finish through 19 races and sits 27th in the standings out of 32 full-time drivers. The No. 42 Chevrolet driver has underperformed compared to teammate Erik Jones, posting an average finish that’s 4.4 positions lower while leading just a single lap all season.
Christopher Bell’s team avoided the dreaded four-race suspensions and fines that have come with losing a wheel on-track this season. Bell had a left rear wheel come off at Atlanta but NASCAR deemed that since the incident happened on pit road, not at full speed, no additional penalties would be assessed.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Hendrick Motorsports this season, the most of any NASCAR Cup team.
Laps led by rookie Todd Gilliland of Front Row Motorsports. He’s the only full-time Cup driver yet to lead a lap this year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I mentioned at the top JGR’s long-term success at this facility. Before last year’s disaster with the rain, Martin Truex Jr. had six straight top-10 performances at the Magic Mile, leading 473 laps during that stretch. He’s a good, sneaky pick near the top of your roster as he’s yet to score a Cup victory here, lowering his cost slightly.
Ryan Blaney had a strong race here last summer, leading 64 laps and coming home fifth for his second top-5 finish in nine career starts at NHMS. Blaney is fighting on two fronts; yes, a win would lock him in the postseason field, but he can also get there by becoming the regular season point leader. That means Blaney will be careful not to put himself in any awkward positions, giving greater confidence the No. 12 will keep it in one piece and post a solid top-5 finish.
It's now or never for Kevin Harvick, who has two wins in his last four New Hampshire starts while finishing no worse than sixth. Like Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola in 2021, there have been subtle signs Harvick has emerged a bit from his funk, posting five top-12 finishes in the last six races while posting a position differential of +35. That should serve him well at NHMS; the question is whether there’s enough speed in this camp to win.
Count Brad Keselowski as another NHMS success story where speed is a question mark. The driver/owner of the No. 6 Ford hasn’t run better than ninth all season, struggling in his first year with RFK Racing. But at New Hampshire, he has six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts, including a 2020 win where he led 184 of 301 laps. At some point, this 2012 Cup champion will start turning it around, right?
What can Corey LaJoie do for an encore after nearly winning Atlanta last weekend? Well, he posted a career-best 23rd-place finish at New Hampshire last summer, finishing just one lap off the pace while posting three position differential bonus points. It’s not glamorous but could be enough if you leave him the final pick on the roster.
Despite his involvement in Atlanta’s last-lap wreck, Cole Custer came across the line ninth for his best finish with SHR in nearly two years. It’s good timing heading to a track where his career average finish is 11.0 in Cup; can Custer join his teammates in keeping up the momentum here?
What Vegas Thinks
So vegasinsider.com has Ryan Blaney on top of the odds list for New Hampshire, sitting at +600 ahead of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano (+700). Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are right behind at +800 followed by a surging Chase Elliott (+900).
Think someone like Brad Keselowski can get it done among the longshots? The 2020 winner is probably the best bet you got at +10000.
What I Think
It’s hard for me to believe Kyle Busch ends the regular season with just one Cup victory (and a gift, at that, after Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe collided during the last lap of Bristol Dirt). Expect Busch to bring it home one year after that rainstorm dealt him a crushing blow.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.