Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. What do these six drivers have in common?
They combined to lead all 301 laps this July in the summer Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a race Kenseth won by nearly two seconds over a surprising Tony Stewart. But the other trait those drivers all share is they’ve all easily made the Chase.
It’s not surprising, then heading into NHMS their previous event foreshadowed drivers expected to climb to the forefront and flex their title muscle in Round 1. Truex, the winner at Chicagoland last Sunday enters the race having already clinched an automatic bid. Hamlin, the winner at Richmond two weeks ago was ninth at NHMS in July and could have contended for a second straight win at Chicagoland if not for a horsepower problem. Johnson, 12th in that Chicagoland race could have won there as well if not for a pit road speeding penalty that cost him track position late.
Then there’s Kenseth, Busch, and Keselowski, all former champions who entered this Chase with both momentum and consistency on their side. Each had solid runs at Chicagoland and it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of the trio wound up sitting in Victory Lane; for Kenseth, it would be his third straight win at NHMS.
Whomever ends up on top, the message is clear: don’t look far for results when setting your fantasy roster this weekend for the race. What we see in July at NHMS, like we have in the past is teams and drivers shedding their poker hands and showing true colors for how strong they’ll be once the playoffs come ‘round.
2016 Bad Boy Off Road 300
Time: 2:00 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Yes, Martin Truex, Jr. was the driver who came out on top after a thrilling comeback at Chicagoland. After a tire issue, Truex lost a lap under green only to make it up and then charge through the field to earn a hard-fought victory. But the way Hendrick, who had struggled for much of the summer handled themselves through the race was impressive. Rookie Chase Elliott led 75 laps and was in position for his first career victory before a late-race caution. Johnson, before the pit road speeding penalty mentioned above was dominant up front, creating a 1-2 HMS scenario we haven’t seen virtually all season. The 118 laps he led Sunday was more than the past 21 races combined for a No. 48 team that has looked like anything but six-time series champs throughout much of the past few months.
Who’s at the Back: Aric Almirola
We’ve mentioned rookie teammate Brian Scott in this space but Almirola isn’t doing much better in an awful year for Richard Petty Motorsports. A Chaser just two years ago, driving for the same team he has yet to crack the top 10 or lead more than one lap all season. 32nd at Chicagoland, Almirola holds an average finish of 27th over the last three races and, while 19th at Loudon in July seemed to be running no different under new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer than he was with Trent Owens at the helm.
NASCAR made changes to its inspection policy this week after winner Truex and Johnson “barely” failed post-race laser inspection. The sport had made clear before the Chase consistent penalties would be assessed for these types of situations but they changed course, claiming it “wasn’t fair” for Johnson to be assessed a major penalty when the rest of the title contenders weren’t subjected to the same type of post-race scrutiny. (Truex, even with a point penalty has already secured a spot in the next round of the Chase with a victory.)
Going forward, all 16 Chase contenders will go through post-race laser inspection and be subjected to the same type of consequences. Remember, a failure of landing within the specs could cost someone 35 points, a $65,000 fine, a win to be “encumbered,” (in English, it wouldn’t result in an automatic ticket to the next round) and their crew chief would get docked a three-race suspension.
NASCAR Nation is grieving the loss of longtime reporter Bob Margolis this week. Margolis, who worked for a number of different publications throughout his long career in the sport as well as a PR representative. He was 65. Yahoo has a great column about Margolis’ impact on the sport and what he meant as a racing journalist; he’s someone whose writing and personality I looked up to through the years and will be sorely missed.
The first Chase race from Chicagoland didn’t deliver in terms of NASCAR TV Viewership. The 1.6 final rating was down 30% from numbers delivered just two years ago during the sport’s final year on ESPN. It’s also the smallest audience to watch a race from Chicagoland since the track’s existence, tying even a rain-delayed event from a few years ago that also served as a Chase opener. Needless to say, the sport’s executives down in Daytona are getting a tad nervous; these numbers might cost them millions during the final round of title sponsor negotiations to replace Sprint.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The number of points separating ninth place Carl Edwards and 15th place Kyle Larson in the Chase standings. Two races remain before the next “cutoff,” where the number of title contenders get cut from 16 to 12.
The number of top-5 finishes for Ryan Blaney in the last four races (fourth at Chicagoland). The rookie had just two top-5 finishes in his first 41 Sprint Cup starts.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kenseth. Kenseth. Kenseth. Why not? The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has won the last two races out in Loudon and hasn’t finished lower than 21st there during his tenure driving the No. 20 Toyota. You can’t go wrong with a veteran that knows how to advance his way through the Chase.
If you’re looking for a backup, JGR teammate Kyle Busch has six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts out in Loudon. That one outlier, though is a 37th-place result last fall and keep in mind it can sometimes be feast or famine for the sport’s defending champ. 38th in the Chase race of 2006 here, 34th in the Chase race of 2008… you can go on about some failures here that leave him just behind Kenseth on the depth chart.
Austin Dillon, fighting for his playoff life has a quietly decent track record out in New Hampshire. He’s never finished lower than 22nd in five career starts and owns an average finish of 13.6. That’s good enough to stash on your roster if you’re worried about the rollercoaster of two other playoff drivers making contact; Dillon, even though he’s a younger driver in the series knows how to run conservatively and keep his nose clean.
Ryan Newman, Dillon’s teammate may not be in the playoff hunt but he owns three straight top-11 finishes at NHMS. Newman, eager to prove himself while RCR finalizes its lineup for 2017 is one of the few non-Chasers I can see winning a race over the next two months.
Danica Patrick? Yes, indeed. Ms. Patrick earned a quiet 14th-place finish in the chaos of July’s finish up north and could benefit from the solid setups her Stewart-Haas Chase teammates bring into the race. Believe it or not, she’s stayed out of trouble for much of this season; her three DNFs and 22.3 average finish are both career bests. She’s a good sleeper if needed.
What Vegas Thinks
According to SportsBettingStats.com Friday morning three drivers are tied on the favorites list for New Hampshire at +650: Kyle Busch, Truex, and Kevin Harvick. Johnson, listed at +1150 is listed as a sleeper pick.
What I Think
Kenseth. Kenseth. Kenseth. Remember what happened between him and Joey Logano in last year’s Chase? I think the No. 20 team is out to prove something and they’ll start this Sunday with a convincing win.