Dale Earnhardt Jr. trumped the news cycle and surprised NASCAR nation last night by announcing he won’t race at Loudon, N.H., Sunday. Earnhardt, suffering from concussion-like symptoms, didn’t feel well last weekend at Kentucky; antibiotics didn’t make the situation better and the driver’s neurologist has advised he shouldn’t race. The news follows two hard wrecks in three weeks, at Michigan and then at Daytona July 4th weekend.
For Earnhardt, it’s not the first race he has missed due to concussions. Regan Smith filled in during the fall of 2012 for two weeks. Earnhardt’s struggles with head injuries have been well documented, dating all the way back to at least 2002 when he raced with a concussion following a hard, serious wreck out in Fontana, Calif. Earnhardt’s move to the sidelines put his ability to qualify for the postseason in jeopardy. Still winless, he sits just 32 points above the Chase cutoff line and could miss another race next week in Indianapolis.
What should you make of this injury from a fantasy perspective? Earnhardt is worth stashing on the bench, should you have room despite the potential to miss multiple events. His return will leave the No. 88 team squarely on the Chase bubble, possibly in need of a win to make the postseason and increase their level of focus and aggression upon his return. Need proof? See: Kyle Busch (2015) and Tony Stewart (2016), both of whom have come back strong.
As for Earnhardt’s subs, the prospect of a coming-out-of-retirement Jeff Gordon running Indianapolis, a racetrack where he’s won a NASCAR-best five times, is especially intriguing. But that’s for next week. Earnhardt’s sub for New Hampshire, Alex Bowman, is a young man who’s a high risk fantasy option, considering his lack of top-tier opportunities in Sprint Cup.
Bowman, who’s raced 71 times at the Cup level for underdog organizations, has yet to score a top-10 finish. He’s gone 4-for-4 in top-10 finishes this year for JR Motorsports, running a part-time schedule in the XFINITY Series but that equipment is clearly superior to most cars running around him. Add in a best finish of 28th in four Loudon starts and Hendrick Motorsports will be happy to leave the weekend earning a top-15 result with Bowman and the No. 88.
That’ll keep him off your fantasy team, unless you’re desperate but for a sport in need of big news lately this unfortunate injury has raised NASCAR’s profile heading into one of the rare visits to the Northeast this weekend at the one-mile oval up in Loudon.
2016 New Hampshire 301
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Brad Keselowski
It didn’t take long for Team Penske, fresh off their 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Daytona, to climb to all-time win No. 101. Keselowski, leading 75 laps at Kentucky, is now 3-for-6 at the newest track to hit the NASCAR schedule, winning an absurd 50 percent of the time he’s run there. Now, the driver goes for a trickier feat, attempting to win three straight races for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. With four victories overall this season, Keselowski leads all drivers and has entered his No. 2 ride into serious discussion versus four-car Joe Gibbs Racing as to who’s this year’s title favorite.
Who’s at the Back: Hendrick Motorsports
As I pointed out this week, Hendrick has just two wins at the midway point of the season, both by Jimmie Johnson. The four-car team, nicknamed the “New York Yankees” of NASCAR based on their championship pedigree, has looked anything like a front-runner in recent weeks. Earnhardt is now sidelined while Johnson, the six-time champ, has wrecked three times in the last five races. Rookie Chase Elliott, while primed to make the Chase, has three straight runs outside the top 20 and the oft-criticized Kasey Kahne? He has yet to lead a lap all season.
Earnhardt’s concussion has brushed aside all other news this week. It’s hard to gauge this type of injury but the fact Gordon has already been tabbed on standby for Indianapolis is not a good sign. HMS refused to speculate on the long-term impact the concussion symptoms could have on Earnhardt’s career Friday while claiming there’s no decision yet on who would drive the No. 88 beyond Indianapolis. Bowman, apparently had been tabbed to relieve Earnhardt during Sunday’s race, but as the week wore on it was increasingly apparent the 40-year-old veteran wouldn’t even be making the trip.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch won himself another award this week. Busch won the fan voting to receive the “Best Driver” ESPY. The NASCAR star edged IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon, 2015 Formula One titlist Lewis Hamilton and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, among others.
One week after another experiment with their “low low” downforce package at Kentucky, a race that received mixed reviews, NASCAR reiterated they won’t change the rules for teams during this year’s Chase. The “low low” rules may be run once more, perhaps at Michigan in August, but won’t be put into effect full-time until at least the beginning of the 2017 Cup Series season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight top-10 finishes for Greg Biffle, the first time he’s accomplished the feat in the Cup Series since 2014.
Laps led by Martin Truex Jr. at the season’s midpoint, a season high for the Cup Series and the best total of the driver’s career to date.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski has a great chance to make it three straight trips to Victory Lane this Sunday. In the last nine races run at Loudon, he hasn’t finished worse than 12th and earned a victory there as recently as 2014. With Loudon one of the Chase tracks, championship contenders will be out to make a statement and there’s no reason to think Team Penske’s momentum will slow down. That means Joey Logano also becomes a strong pick with an average finish of 2.7 over the last three races at Loudon.
Ryan Newman, third at Kentucky, enters the weekend with momentum and has three career wins at New Hampshire. Newman, whose contract status with Richard Childress Racing remains in doubt for 2017, needs to go out and impress; he’s also sitting squarely on the Chase bubble. With five straight top-20 runs at this type of track the No. 31 team is a fairly safe bet to cash in.
Greg Biffle, posting the strong finishes mentioned earlier, also enters NHMS on a roll. This race is a track position affair and it’s the home track of Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing co-owner, John Henry. Don’t be surprised to see RFR continue its recent resurgence and of the trio of drivers it’s Biffle, sponsored by NESN Fuel, who’s the strongest pick (he was fourth last fall).
Once upon a time, Tony Stewart used to rule the roost up in New Hampshire. The winner at Loudon back in fall 2011 during a run to his third straight title, the best Smoke has run since up there is seventh place. But the No. 14 team has turned things around, posting a top 5 at Kentucky last weekend just two weeks after a stirring Sonoma victory. The summer has traditionally been when this veteran heats up; with Indy up ahead next week, along with Stewart’s labor of love at Eldora in the Truck Series. It feels like another strong performance is dead ahead.
Clint Bowyer is another driver who’s experienced Loudon success; he was sixth as recently as July 2014. This season has been openly frustrating for a veteran driving for underfunded HScott Motorsports. However, the last two weeks have produced a middling average finish of 16.0. Bowyer’s team, numbered 51 last fall, also was a potential top-10 car at Loudon last fall before former driver Justin Allgaier crashed out. Keep an eye on this car over the weekend; with pit strategy likely playing a role in this race, you never know.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are tied atop the New Hampshire odds board at 5/1, according to VegasInsider.com but Brad Keselowski is close behind at 6/1. Among the longshots: Danica Patrick (300/1) and rookie Chris Buescher (1000/1).
What I Think
Brad Keselowski has proved the past two weeks that Team Penske is red hot. Drivers of his caliber add “three straight Cup wins” to their resume at some point and past success at New Hampshire makes him a favorite to finally do that on Sunday.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)