Last week at Kentucky Speedway we had all kinds of variables to worry about in the handicapping process in order to find the winner, but all things are back to normal this weekend.
The 19th race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season takes us to the flat one-mile layout of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. There’s no new paving issue, it’s the same aero-package that has run most of the season and the race also features a familiar tire, unlike last week.
Despite having all kinds of obstacles stacked in front of us at Kentucky, we still managed to sniff out the winner early before all the practice data came in. This week’s practices for the New Hampshire 301 will be almost as important as Kentucky, but we can get a head start on buying some value on early odds to win, based on what happened during earlier races on similar tracks at Phoenix and Richmond.
It’s important to think in terms of horse racing where there are good horses for certain courses. In NASCAR it’s similar, whether it’s a driver who really likes a certain type of track or his crew chief has been able to set-up a car perfectly for that type.
Although Phoenix and Richmond look very different from New Hampshire, all three are relatively flat, which puts a premium on the balance of the car. A couple drivers can be identified as favorites to win just because of what they did at Phoenix and Richmond, and then we can also look at past New Hampshire history to identify who continuously runs well.
Three of the top-five finishers at Phoenix (Mar. 13) also finished in the top-five at Richmond (April 24) and six were in the top-10 of both. That’s a strong correlation to be respected this week. Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix leading a race-high 139 laps and then led 63 at Richmond finishing fifth.
Carl Edwards led 65 laps at Phoenix finishing second – barely by a bumper – and then won at Richmond (led 151). Those two should be the starting point this week as drivers to beat. But then you’ve also got Kyle Busch with a fourth and third, respectively, in the two races. Denny Hamlin was third and sixth, Kurt Busch sixth and 10th and Matt Kenseth was seventh in both.
For a driver like Kenseth, his finishes get a strong double take because he was good on these tracks last season, winning the last time at NHMS (Sept. 27) and also the fall Richmond (Sept. 12) where he led 352 laps. When the aero-package was changed over to the low-downforce package for all tracks other than restrictor-plate, there was a little bit of change in how the cars ran.
We still saw the drivers who liked the track fare well because the speeds don’t get high enough to have the package matter much. Kenseth had struggled with poor luck most of the season until winning at Dover, but his runs on these tracks were his most consistent. Over his career at NHMS he’s got two wins in 32 starts with an average finish of 12.6, which is fifth-best among active drivers.
The top NHMS average finish in the series has been Denny Hamlin at 10.2, which is aided by his two wins (2007, 2012). His runner-up last fall was his first top-five there since winning in 2012. Hamlin’s only win has been the season opening Daytona 500, but I think you’re going to see his team utilize the time on the track to prepare their set-up for the 10-race Chase where New Hampshire and Phoenix both have dates.
Yes, winning is important, but getting ready for the Chase, when races really matter, is also a component to consider. Getting a contract extension is also important for Hamlin and winning a championship would certainly make him highly sought after. Not sure what Joe Gibbs is waiting for, but Hamlin has FedEx as a full-time sponsor already and they’re going wherever he goes.
For some drivers, they’re feeling pretty good about how things will flow in the Chase and just want to win. Brad Keselowski with his series leading four wins, including the last two on the schedule, fits that scenario. His team is running strong right now on all types of tracks and they’re ready for the Chase to try and win his second championship.
Keselowski always has the mentality of trying to win at all costs no matter who he offends and he’ll continue along those lines this week. He’s got a 2014 win at NHMS and has averaged a 10.3 finish in 13 starts.
Kyle Busch won his second career NHMS race last July and his brother Kurt Busch has three wins. Kurt swept the season in 2004 while driving a Roush Ford and his 2008 win came in a Penske Dodge. He now drives a Chevy, which hasn’t won at NHMS in the past seven races – Toyota has five wins, Ford two.
The top Chevy candidate this week is Jimmie Johnson who won for the third and final time at NHMS in 2010. He was third at Richmond in the spring. Tony Stewart is a three-time winner, the last coming in 2011. Kyle Larson had an amazing rookie campaign in 2014 at NHMS finishing third and second, but was 31st and 17th last season. He was 12th at Phoenix in the spring.
Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano has also been on a nice run at NHMS lately finishing fourth or better in his last three, which began with his second career win on the track in 2014 when Team Penske swept the season. He won his first career Cup race there in 2009.
Watch the final practices on Saturday to better help the handicapping equation, but there’s a good look right now on who should perform the best.