Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as NASCAR's Chase moves north to Loudon, N.H.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
New Hampshire Motor Speedway hosted the opening race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup until 2011, when it was replaced by Chicagoland Speedway. That’s a shame, since the 1.058-mile track in Loudon has turned in some of the best racing and most memorable Chase moments over the last 10 years. The weather looks beautiful this weekend, the Red Sox are out of playoff contention and the Patriots are sure to destroy the Raiders, so there are no excuses for the Chowds to miss this one. If you say you have something better to do than hit the track, that’s a load of GAH-BAGE.
The obvious answer here: Morgan Shepherd … or is that too soon?
In all seriousness, if the July edition at NHMS was any indication the Team Penske twins are going to be a hard to handle (and that’s without even factoring their performance last week at Chicagoland). Brad Keselowski dominated the action two months in Loudon, leading 138 of 300 laps, while Joey Logano tangled with the aforementioned Shepherd while running second, sending him into the wall. The duo has conspired to win three of the last four Cup races on the schedule, with Keselowski already locked into the playoff’s second round and Logano showing signs of Chase blessings as his engine blew coming to the finish line on Sunday.
Elsewhere, Jeff Gordon was running third at NHMS in July before his car ran out of gas as the yellow came out, forcing him to stop for fuel after having led 19 laps. He and teammate Jimmie Johnson have enviable records here with three wins apiece. Also in the Hendrick camp, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne were 10th and 11th, respectively, in July.
Additionally, all four were at the track two months ago trying to figure out how to speed up the No. 5, so they have test notes galore from which to work.
Last week I said all Ryan Newman needed to do was ride things out and aim for a top 15 in Joliet, as his bread ‘n’ butter track was next on the docket. So what’d he do? He finished 15th and is headed to the site of first career win — and arguably his best track on the circuit. He has three wins, seven top 5s, and 16 top 10s at NHMS and finished fifth in July. Anything less than a top 5 should be viewed as a disappointment for a team that needs to make a splash.
Don’t count out the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, either. While I was ready to throw dirt on the latter going into Chicago, what with the way they bumbled and stumbled through the end of the regular season, Busch managed a respectable seventh-place showing. Hamlin was one better, slotting in sixth.
Busch was second at NHMS in July, leading 62 laps, with Hamlin eighth after leading 20 circuits. Busch seems legitimately pleased with the new power TRD brought to the track at Chicago, but can the Toyotas pull the Hendrick and Roush-Yates engines off of Loudon’s slow sweeping corners? It’s all about getting off to a decent start and avoiding any points disasters; this is a comparatively short race, too, so early mishaps can spell disaster. I’m still a little leery of the No. 18’s performance — particularly with Kansas looming as the first race in Round 2.
The sleeper pick for the weekend? Kyle Larson — though at this point he may not qualify in that category. The rookie finished third last weekend after a spirited battle for the win against some savvy vets, and was third at Loudon in July. Crew chief Chris Heroy won here in 2009 as car chief for Mark Martin, so he obviously knows how to set up a car to win. Mark it down: Larson wins a race before the season is over.
After the measured improvement the Roush Fenway cars showed the past month with increasingly strong runs at Michigan and Atlanta, it was a forgone conclusion that they’d be contenders at Chicagoland, right? Eurrggh, wrong answer, Hans!
What an absolute disaster that first race was for a team that appeared to have found some answers. How bad were things? Carl Edwards: 20th, Greg Biffle 23rd (worst among Chase drivers who finished), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the highest finishing RFR car — 17th (and that was with the right side smashed in from tangling with his girlfriend for the umpteenth time). If I didn’t know any better, it looked like they brought whatever cars they ran at Michigan in June and didn’t change anything on them. Edwards and Biffle came home 13th and 15th at NHMS in July, but replicating those showings won’t do much good following last weekend’s momentum-killer.
So whatever good vibes RFR had are suddenly DOA — The Cat in the Hat needs to send The Captain a gift basket, post-haste and garner whatever intel he can. Heck, even The King’s car was a top-5 contender until the engine blew. Something is amiss here once again, and at the worst possible time.
Aric Almirola, running Roush Fenway garage sale specials, was running sixth in Joliet before his engine expired with just handful of laps remaining. Almirola isn’t out of this Chase yet, but it’s not looking good. The Chicago disappointment spells trouble in that the team, which finished 12th at Dover in June, could have hobbled its way through a so-so finish at Loudon with the hope of a second top-15 run in two of the first three Chase events.
That’s not happening now.
That said, Almirola and the Roush Fewnay duo best do something of substance this weekend, otherwise Ford is in danger of losing three-fifths of its Chase contingent in Round 1.
The other hapless fellow here: AJ Allmendinger. No offense to the ‘Dinger or the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty team, but they’re just not ready for prime time. Allmendinger finished 18th here in July and after a 22nd-place run at Chicagoland, the reality check I predicted last week is coming to pass. If only NASCAR had a road course or a plate track in the first elimination round for teams like these. Hey, don’t look at me — the sanctioning body is the one that’s trying to manufacture drama …
New Hampshire Winner: Joey Logano
Last week I picked Kevin Harvick to win in Joliet and, after leading 77 laps, it looked like he was going to hold off Kyle Larson — right until Brad Keselowski shot that Chevy gap and road off into the sunset.
With that image burned onto my retinas and until someone proves to me they have something for the Penske Fords, I say ride those two horses as long as they’ll gallop. Keselowski dominated here in June, but his teammate was just as fast prior to tangling with a lapped car. This is Logano’s home turf (he hails from Middletown, Conn.) as well as the site of his first career Cup win. Could Keselowski run the table in Lob-stah Land? Absolutely, and he has nothing to lose if a roll of the dice comes into play. But then again, ensuring the second Penske team car makes it into Round 2 may be of greater importance this week.
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.