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Back after brief break

The 20th race of the NASCAR Cup Series season takes us to Loudon, New Hampshire for the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 which will also be a visit to the upper Northeast region of the country.

The drivers got their first semi-break since coming back May 17 from the pandemic shutdown with nine days of rest before Sunday’s race after racing at Kansas Speedway last Thursday night.

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Nobody’s complaining about needing a break. It has been quite the opposite. They have loved being the main live sporting event on TV as the other sports figured out a plan. They’ve all been ambassadors to the sport and their positive attitudes and high energy throughout while the nation has endured its most challenging moment of a generation has surely won over some new fans while also getting a big thumbs up from the regular fans. So yes, these drivers and teams deserve a break.

I’m going to take you through my process of handicapping and setting odds for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s flat 1-mile paperclip layout. I started the process immediately after Thursday night’s race and it carried into Friday. This has served me well for the last few decades, so I see no reason to alter it. I’d rather share so you can add to whatever you go through to handicap a race.

The first thing to take notice of is who has done well at New Hampshire, not necessarily the most wins, but drivers that are consistently good there at different phases of their career. It’s a good base to start with. Then I’ll match those drivers with how their current form is.

Are they struggling to get a win like Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, or Kurt Busch? Or do they seem to be leading at every track like Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, or Ryan Blaney? Hamlin leads the series with five wins but he probably should have about eight wins (Bristol, Pocono, Indianapolis). Imagine that, bad luck on a season with five wins in 19 races.

After that, we’re going to examine what race package is being used. Between the 19 races, the most used package has been the one with engines producing 550 horsepower which has been raced 14 times so far. Daytona and Talladega have used the superspeedway package and four races, including the non-points All-Star Race, have used the packages with engines producing 750 horsepower while featuring a tiny spoiler.

This is an area that surprisingly doesn’t get mentioned much on coverage during the race. Comparing what a driver did last week at Kansas has no relevance to New Hampshire whatsoever because they are completely different cars with different set-ups. I find separating the results by type of race package the past two seasons has been one of my most important aspects of the weekly handicapping process.

Next up is identifying any recent races on similar tracks. New Hampshire is special on its own like no other, but I picked up a trick early in the early 90’s listening to crew chiefs talking about their set-ups being similar at Richmond, Phoenix, and New Hampshire which are all different shapes and sizes ranging from a ¾-mile to 1-mile.

But the set-up secret that made them the same was that all those tracks have minimal banking. They’re all flat and if a driver does well at one they’re likely to do just the same at the other. The trends hold up well with every type of race package and the car used for the past three decades.

The 750 horsepower package has produced four different winners in four different races, including the All-Star Race at Bristol. Hamlin and Harvick don’t have any wins using it, but both have been stellar at New Hampshire over their careers. Hamlin’s 9.8 average finish in 26 starts is the best among active drivers as he’s piled up three wins and 10 top-fives. Harvick’s four wins there are the most among active drivers and is tied for the most all-time with Jeff Burton who will be announcing the race for NBC.

Team Penske has looked the best with the limited use of the 750 package with Joey Logano winning at Phoenix and Brad Keselowski winning at Bristol. Martin Truex Jr. won at Martinsville, but it was Logano that led a race-high 234 laps before finishing fourth. And then two weeks ago, Chase Elliott won the All-Star Race. Elliott also led the most laps at Phoenix (93) and was fifth at Martinsville. Harvick was good with two top-fives fives using it, but he was never the best like he’s been with the 550 package. Hamlin led a race-high 131 laps at Bristol, but his only top-five with this package was at the All-Star Race.

Logano has yet to win since the return of NASCAR, but he won two of the four races before the shutdown and one of them was with this race package. He has won twice at New Hampshire, including a rain-shortened win in 2009 for his first career Cup win.

He’s also going home, kind of. He’s from Middletown, Connecticut. Best of all, he should have great odds everywhere this week because Logano has not been winning lately. It’s all about the package and that’s the way I’m betting here.