1. Keselowski concerned, not panicked about Chase chances
Amidst the revelry and celebration of his Sprint Cup series title last fall, Brad Keselowski was picking up various awards, honors and mentions in a manner that could quickly fill a small house (or an exceptionally large beer mug). Unfortunately, one of those unlocked achievements wasn't a provisional starting spot into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Keselowski, who hasn't finished higher than 12th since the 400-miler at Dover six races ago, has now spent two weeks at a season-low 13th in points. He's currently unqualified for the 10-race title bout. With just eight races left until the Chase, it's time to sound the alarms, right?
“It would be really easy for me to say that we need to hit the panic button if we didn’t have speed in our cars. Speed is something that can take months — or even years — to develop. That would make me really uneasy," Keselowski said this week. "But the fact is that we’ve been fast almost everywhere we’ve been. We just need execution and luck."
Fortunately, Keselowski is right. Teammate Joey Logano had been fast and consistent, too, before a blown tire ruined his race at Daytona.
Keselowski caught the wrong line at the end of last week's wild finish at Daytona to finish 21st. He was wrecked inexplicably by Kurt Busch at Kentucky. He crashed at Darlington and Charlotte. A blown tire doomed his race at Richmond.
It's been one hit after another.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway could key the turnaround for Keselowski — he has four top-10 finishes in seven starts — to begin the march forward. He's just 13 points behind Busch in ninth.
"(NHMS is) one of the tracks where (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) has experience as a driver. It’s very hard to emphasize how much of a difference that can make," Keselowski said. "After testing up there two weeks ago, I feel really good about our package for the race."
2. New Hampshire a good place to change Jeff Gordon's luck Another 2012 Chase driver riding a swell of poor results is Jeff Gordon. Just one spot and one point behind Keselowski in the point standings, the only break Gordon has seemed to catch in the last few months came in a fast car that came home second on the road course in Sonoma.
But even there, an ill-timed caution set him deep in the field before his late-race scramble. At other stops it's been wrecks he was swept into (Daytona, Charlotte and Michigan) that have left points on the table.
All of those stomach punches likely have Gordon looking forward to the 300-lapper at New Hampshire thanks to how consistent he's raced at the 1.058-mile track throughout his career.
While Gordon hasn't won in Loudon since 1998, he's still currently the Sprint Cup leader in several categories including top 5s (16), top 10s (21) and laps led (1,316). And those numbers aren't just records because of longevity. Gordon enters this weekend with the series' best average running position (7.2) in the last 16 races at NHMS.
"We don't have any choice but to go out there and race hard and be aggressive," said Gordon. "I feel like we have so much more potential."
That potential, Gordon says of his team, is title-fight worthy.
"If we live up to our potential, we can earn a Chase spot."
3. Will NHMS work as a Chase for the Sprint Cup predictor?
Speaking of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it's a bit of a wonder how well the system has worked as a method to keep drivers and their struggles to make the championship race in the spotlight for several weeks in the summer stretch. Say what you will about the gimmick nature or complete reversal of tradition that the format brings — I'll agree on many fronts — but the marketing aspect of the format works especially well in the summer months.
Another interesting yet unplanned mechanism of the Chase is how well the first NHMS of two last season exhibited who would be in the championship mix after Richmond in September.
NASCAR's statistical services reports the 10 drivers who were in the series' top 10 in points after the July New Hampshire race all secured entries to the championship runoff. Additionally, nine of the 10 top-10 finishers in last year's July event wound up being Chase drivers.
While interesting, I should note that this year's point standings situation looks much, much different. After New Hampshire last season, Keselowski was 10th and had a whopping 46-point lead on Carl Edwards in 11th. This time around — before the New Hampshire event, mind you — 10th-place Tony Stewart leads Martin Truex Jr. in 11th by three total points. In fact, the gap from seventh to 15th in the point standings is just four points larger (50 points) than Keselowski's advantage over 11th last season.
4. Passing opportunities put track position at a premium in Loudon
New Hampshire's long straightaways bounded by tight, lengthy and flat corners presents a handling nightmare for a 3,000-plus pound race car. For drivers, each lap creates a tough decision: Should they brake late and hope the tires stick, or should they slow early, get the car set in the corner and hope for a fast corner exit?
The one-mile oval had a bit of a notorious streak a decade ago when fans and competitors decided the track simply lacked passing opportunities. In response, the corners were re-worked to add some variable banking in hopes of creating more passing lanes.
To Jeff Burton, the extra space has almost created a similar effect to the widened groove at Bristol Motor Speedway. Cars can run side-by-side, he says, but passing is a tougher chore.
"I am one of the few drivers that think it is harder to pass at New Hampshire than before," Burton says. "It used to be when you had position, the spot was yours. Now you gain that track position and the fight for the spot has just begun. I think it is much harder to pass now than it was with the old track."
5. NHMS has been busy with testing
In a bid to both improve passing as a whole in Loudon and for teams to improve their own personal ability to pass at the Granite State track, there has been no shortage of testing miles at the facility in the last couple of months. All told, at least 13 different teams spent time in Loudon in the race's run up.
Burton, Gordon, Dave Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano worked a Goodyear tire test at NHMS May 14-15 after input from teams last year identified a possibility of increasing grip in the allotted tire combination.
"Driver feedback from Loudon last year identified that track as an opportunity to increase grip," said Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race tire sales. "The focus of that test (was) to come up with the right balance of grip, wear and fall off for the new car on that surface."
But the test wound up bringing no new results. Goodyear's tire construction remains identical to what was used in the 2012 NHMS races.
That's good news for Keselowski, all three Stewart-Haas Racing teams and all three Roush Fenway Racing teams who tested NHMS on their own accord because it means the tires and notes used during their personal sessions will match the conditions on return.
"We are bringing a new car that we tested there," Biffle says. "We’ve been working really hard on our short track program this year and we’ve learned a lot leading up to now."