Loudon marks the halfway juncture of the 2003 NASCAR points race, the first of two dates at this New Hampshire site.
The track has hosted events for 11 years. In 1997, the track received an additional fall date that at the time was a success for NASCAR. However, that decision would have been seriously reconsidered with several higher markets available and sponsorship dollars at stake.
The past four races at Loudon over two seasons haven’t had a sponsor and television coverage has been relegated to cable. This will be the first Nextel Cup event shown on TNT. Within the next couple of years, look for NASCAR to re-evaluate tracks that have two dates like Pocono and New Hampshire. That’s good news for both Las Vegas and Texas Motor Speedway, which have great sponsorship, enormous seating capacity, and some of the best network television ratings.
The New Hampshire track configuration is different from all other tracks. It’s a mile track with 12 degrees of banking. Of Loudon’s first nine races, six were won by two drivers. However, there have been no repeat winners in the last seven races, mirroring the parity of the Nextel Cup series.
A good beginning strategy for handicapping the race is to examine the last two seasons.
Jeff Burton (18-1): Loudon’s all-time leader in wins with four. From ”˜97 through ”˜00, Burton notched four Top 5 finishes including a win. Since then, Burton’s best finish has been 11th. He knows how to perform on this track and shouldn’t be discounted as a candidate to win. However, Burton’s decline in the Cup series coincides with his decline at Loudon. Burton has lost a crew chief and rumors have him falling out of favor with car owner Jack Roush in part due to former crew chief Frank Stoddard. Things haven’t gotten any better for Burton this year. He’s only had two top 5 finishes this year, but could have good value this week in match-ups.
Jeff Gordon (7-1): New Hampshire’s all-time money winner. In 16 career starts, has eight top 5 finishes that include three wins. His last victory came in ”˜98, the year he captured 13 races and the third of his four driving championships. Has just one top 5 finish in the last four events at Loudon. In 2001, led the most laps in both races, but last season was mediocre at best. His consistency on all other tracks this season should make him contend this week .
Tony Stewart (7-1): Has been Loudon’s top performer over the last four races. The only driver to have three Top 5 finishes over that span. Has two career victories at Loudon and is the only driver to have a Top 5 in each of his first four seasons on the track. That’s why he is the co-favorite, despite struggles throughout this season.
Ryan Newman (9-1): Has a better start to his New Hampshire career than Stewart. Placed fifth in his first race last season and then won the fall event from the pole. Will be tough again this week, but he’s had trouble keeping his car on the track for the entire race.
Kurt Busch (9-1): Placed eighth and second last year. The runnerup finish in the fall started a string of dominance that catapulted him from 13th to third in the points race. The current series leader in wins with three, but has been sliding. T "due" theory and his success last year should get Busch back on track this week.
Three of the last seven winners at Loudon have paid off at 45-1 or higher. In ”˜99 Joe Nemechek (35-1) paid off at 50-1. In 2001, Robby Gordon (35-1) won at 60-1 and last year Ward Burton (45-1) won at 45-1.
Here are some longshots that look good this week.
Ricky Craven (32-1): From the Northeast. Has been struggling lately, but had a quality sixth place finish last fall. Both of his career wins have come on tracks under 1Â½ miles in distance.
Johnny Benson (40-1): In his only start at Loudon last year, he began second and finished fourth.
TOP 5 AT LOUDON
#20 Tony Stewart 7-1
#12 Ryan Newman 9-1
#97 Kurt Busch 9-1)
#24 Jeff Gordon 7-1
#32 Ricky Craven 32-1