NASCAR critical stretch begins

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Seven NASCAR Cup races remain before the green flag waves for the Playoffs with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Vegas race will also be the next race on a 1.5-mile track which gives us lots of different types of racing on a variety of tracks while using different race packages.

It’s going to be a critical stretch that that begins with Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 on New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s flat 1.058-mile layout. Then it’s off to Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile tricky triangle, the road course at Watkins Glen, the 2-mile Michigan oval, the half-miler at Bristol, the 1.366-miler at Darlington on Labor Day weekend and closes out at the 2.5-mile Brickyard in Indianapolis. 

It might be the most exciting seven-race stretch of the season and all the while the drivers will be jockeying for playoff points and attempting to be one of the top-16 drivers in points to qualify for the playoffs.

The drivers sitting 14th through 16th in the standings (Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, and Erik Jones) are only 10 points ahead of the 17th-place driver (Ryan Newman) and 12 points ahead of 18th-place (Daniel Suarez).

Then there’s also the desperation of the drivers further back in points where they have to swing for the fences and try to get a win in one of these next seven races to qualify for the playoffs. The teams will take more risks in the pits and be a little more creative in engineering and set-ups. Right now, there are only eight drivers qualified by virtue of winning a race in 2019.

New Hampshire has always been a good track to handicap because there’s great data from two other tracks to utilize that translates well. Phoenix and Richmond’s configuration looks nothing like the paperclip of New Hampshire, but it’s the distance coupled with very little banking that makes the set-ups almost identical. And if a driver does well on one they’re likely to do well on all three. It’s not uncommon to see a driver win on all three tracks during a season.

When looking at results from the March 10 race at Phoenix and the April 13 race at Richmond there were nine drivers that finished in the top-12 between both tracks. Kyle Busch led a race-high 177 laps in his Phoenix win and had teammates Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin with him in the top-5. Truex led a race-high 186 laps at Richmond for his first career short-track win, Hamlin was in fifth and Busch was eighth after leading 101 laps.

There’s no reason to believe those three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers won’t be competing for the win Sunday. Hamlin and Busch both have three wins each at New Hampshire, including when they combined to sweep the 2017 season, the last season the track had two races — Las Vegas took their other date away beginning in 2018.

Truex has never won a Cup race at New Hampshire, but there is plenty of data to show that Sunday might be his first and it all begins with the race package being used that features engines producing 750 horsepower.

There are no aero ducts so the package is almost the same as the cars used last season, just with much taller spoilers. The significance of this package is that Truex has won the last three races using it — Sonoma, Dover, Richmond. The package has only been used six times through the 19 races this season.

The thing I found interesting about the Truex angle this week is this a track that has lots of meaning to his family beginning with his father Martin Truex Sr. winning a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race there in 1994. It’s the same series where Truex Jr. got his start in NASCAR and he’d win at New Hampshire in 2000 and 2003. He’d win there again when moving up to the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2005 and the next season was his full-season debut into the NASCAR Cup Series.

In 2010, his youngest brother Ryan Truex would win both New Hampshire races in the K&N Pro Series East and win the season title for the second consecutive season.

Truex has led at least 83 laps in each of the past five races there. That’s 596 laps led between five races when only 1,505 total laps could be led. That’s some serious domination and makes it all the more puzzling that he has visited victory lane in his 25 Cup starts. He’s won the first stage of the past three races there and ended up with a top-five in each.

Kyle Busch has been winning at New Hampshire in all phases of his career, in all NASCAR series, using multiple race packages over the years. The first of his three Cup wins came in 2006 and the last came in the fall of 2017. His 1,010 laps led are the most among all active drivers. He’s also got six Nationwide wins — all coming in the last 10 races there — and won three straight Truck Series races from 2009-11.

This week’s race package has also been very good to him with wins at Phoenix and Bristol and two other top-five finishes.

Much like Busch, Denny Hamlin’s three New Hampshire wins have been spread across all junctures of his career. The first win came in 2007, then he waited until 2012 to win in dominant fashion leading 193 laps and the last one was in the spring of 2017. He’s led a total of 549 laps between his 25 Cup races and his 10.2 average finish is the best among all active drivers.

Hamlin’s best tracks have always been the flat tracks. It’s built in from his early roots of racing. This weeks race package has been stellar for him with five top-fives in the six races using it so far.  With Truex and Busch being big favorites, the best value on the board might be Hamlin.

Joining Hamlin and Busch as the active leaders with three New Hampshire wins is Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, and last week’s winner, Kurt Busch.

Brad Keselowski has a 2014 New Hampshire win and two others in the Nationwide Series. He’s the only non-Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win a race with this weeks race package. He crushed the field at Martinsville in one of the most dominant wins in NASCAR history leading 446 of the 500 laps. Martinsville is a flat half-mile paperclip shape, but Phoenix and Richmond are still more relevant in comparisons.

It should also be noted that his Martinsville win is his only top-five finish in the six races using this race package. However, his Penske teammate Ryan Blaney has three top-fives using this package.

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