NASCAR's August sprint to the postseason begins with the Magic Mile
The 2020 Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway jumpstarts the final portion of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season after a 10-day layoff. It's a break stock car racing's top level desperately needed after squeezing 16 races into a little over 10 weeks, an exhausting schedule even for the most well-funded teams.
In a world where COVID-19 has taken a wrecking ball to sports all across the country, August will mark a milestone. By the end of it, NASCAR is on pace to be back on schedule to finish its season. That's impressive, especially considering how stick-and-ball sports tend to be sputtering in their attempted return. (Major League Baseball is rumored to be shutting down as soon as Monday following a slew of positive tests).
NASCAR's COVID-19 successful summer recovery has continued. But boy, what a sprint it's going to be to get to the finish line.
After toying with the midweek racing experiment throughout much of May, June and July, the sport's focus now turns toward a different idea: doubleheaders. Twin bills at Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway this month mean the Cup Series will run seven races in a 27-day stretch. That's over a quarter of the regular season still to go, turning the Dog Days of August into a heated sprint to set the 16-driver playoff field.
For the 10 who have all but clinched a bid, that's no big deal. They can breathe a sigh of relief, experiment and prep for the races that matter up next. But for Jimmie Johnson, William Byron, Clint Bowyer, and others sitting on the postseason bubble? The pressure is about to ramp up considerably.
This schedule might benefit seven-time Cup champ Johnson the most. Dover is the best track of his career, a place where he's earned a record 11 victories and led over 3,000 career laps. If there's a place he'll end a three-year winless streak, the Monster Mile is it.
The Busch brothers are also poised, on paper, to cash in at one of these ovals on the August schedule. Kyle, the reigning Cup Series champ, hasn't won a race yet during a frustrating 2020. Older brother Kurt, the 2004 Cup champion, has a great track record at Michigan and is in perfect position to steal one of those doubleheader events.
But all that bubble talk can wait a week. The northeast track of New Hampshire up next is a 1.058-mile oval expected to cater to those already at the top of the current Cup standings. Even with the sport's new handling package, it's a place where passing someone is an art form with its tight, flat corners.
That means you could be stuck for 15, maybe even 20 laps behind a slower car before moving around them. Add in clean air, a qualifying draw that automatically places the top 12 drivers in points up front and... voila! You've got a race tailor-made for the sport's best to dominate.
The current championship contenders already have a history of successful performances here. Points leader Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner. Denny Hamlin came in second last July and enters this weekend with momentum after winning at Kansas Speedway July 23. Both drivers start this weekend's race inside the top seven.
This race will also be about one last salute to fans at the track; up to 12,000 are expected to attend Sunday's event. As of now, fans will also be allowed at Daytona International Speedway later this month, but COVID-19 cases continue to peak down in Florida. Their continued rise casts doubt on whether NASCAR can ultimately follow through come race time. Will this weekend, then, be the last time we see a significant number of fans in the stands until the postseason begins?
This much we know for sure: the fans who do attend on Sunday are hopeful to see a better NHMS race due to the sport's short track package tweak. Can we see a boost in excitement to a facility that had put on races so mediocre in recent years NASCAR took a playoff race date away?
Foxwoods Resort Casino 301
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag at Kansas, the first time any JGR Toyota had visited victory lane since Pocono Raceway at the end of June. More importantly, though this four-car organization put all four of its cars inside the top 5, with Martin Truex Jr. (third) and Erik Jones (fifth) contenders all night long. Even Kyle Busch (11th) led 52 laps and won a stage before fading as the race wore on.
It's a good sign for a JGR group that, as a whole, took a slight step back this season after winning over 50 percent of the races during 2019. This year has been harder, but they're still plenty capable of putting three drivers in the Championship 4 a second straight year.
Who's at the Back: JTG Daugherty Racing
The last month or so couldn't have been worse for a two-car program hoping to grow into a playoff team in 2020. Ryan Preece's No. 37 has four straight DNFs, including three straight last-place finishes, while destroying multiple cars in some nasty wrecks. The Kansas one, in particular, was a harrowing ordeal in which the Connecticut driver was lucky to walk away unhurt.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., after sneaking into the fringes of playoff contention, hasn't fared much better. He's got three DNFs in the last four races, including a last-place finish of his own at Kansas, that's seen him slump from 30 points outside the bubble to an insurmountable 130.
An old NASCAR face is popping up in a new place: IndyCar racing. Cole Pearn, who left his role as Martin Truex Jr.'s crew chief at the end of last season, is moving to Ed Carpenter Racing to serve in an engineering role for the 2020 Indianapolis 500. Pearn had expressed a desire to spend more time with family last offseason, leaving JGR and temporarily retiring back to his native Canada. Pearn and Truex had made the Championship 4 together for three straight years, winning once with Furniture Row Racing in 2017.
SRX Racing continues to add a slew of drivers to its field for next summer's primetime debut on CBS. Former IndyCar star Paul Tracy, who last raced full-time in 2007, will join a 12-driver group that also includes Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan. Current NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon also is among those being pursued by his former crew chief-turned-SRX co-founder, Ray Evernham.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Maurice Petty passed away last week at the age of 81. The chief engine builder for Petty Enterprises was credited with a total of 212 victories, serving as King Richard's right-hand man along with crew chief Dale Inman in the glory years of the No. 43 team.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Ryan Newman since returning from the crash that nearly killed him in the last lap of February's Daytona 500. That ninth-place finish, skidding upside down across the finish line in a shower of sparks, remains his best of the year.
Straight races where 48-year-old veteran Matt Kenseth has been involved in a wreck that caused a caution flag. That's after his second-place surprise finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of just two top-10 finishes he's collected all season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Starting up front at New Hampshire is more of an advantage than most other tracks on the circuit. That means second-place starter Denny Hamlin is in position to lead early and often. He did that last year, pacing the field for 113 laps before ultimately winding up in second place. Eight straight top-15 finishes here mean the No. 11 team is poised to succeed again.
JGR teammate Kyle Busch should also have a strong performance at the Magic Mile. He's got six straight top-12 finishes, won a playoff race here in 2017, and led a race-high 118 laps last year before finishing eighth. Busch might have a slightly better price, due to this 2020 struggles, that'll make him an easier fit in your lineup.
Pole sitter Aric Almirola isn't poised to get you any position differential points. But how can you bet against a guy who hasn't finished outside the top 10 since the middle of June? A recent run of top performances should continue at New Hampshire, a track where he's run third and 11th in two career starts with Stewart-Haas Racing.
I'm going to keep riding the JGR momentum with Erik Jones and the No. 20 Toyota. Jones has two top-10 finishes in four New Hampshire starts, including a solid third-place effort last year. His recent run back to the fringes of the top 16 in points has been overshadowed a bit; another top-5 run Sunday almost certainly puts him on the right side of that playoff bubble.
Rookie Christopher Bell is going to be impossible to ignore. He won both his starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at New Hampshire, putting together picture-perfect runs with JGR equipment. The question is whether he can duplicate that on a single-car team, Leavine Family Racing, who doesn't quite have the same level of historical success. (In their defense, the team ran fifth in 2019 with Matt DiBenedetto.)
Keep an eye on Front Row Motorsports' Michael McDowell, one of the biggest surprises of 2020. His NHMS average finish is a putrid 33.9 but that stat is highly misleading; it includes a number of start-and-parks. McDowell's 17th-place finish here last July was his best and it came with the same No. 34 Ford team he'll drive with Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are on top of the charts for NHMS with 4/1 and 9/2 odds, respectively. Vegasinsider.com has Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. sitting right behind them at 7/1.
A decent longshot would be Matt Kenseth, a driver with a long history of success here with JGR (now driving Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42). He's sitting out there at 40/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin will make it a series-high six wins with an impressive run to the front at NHMS. Expect Kevin Harvick, pole sitter Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch to also be serious contenders.