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Expect fun at N.H.

Jul 20, 2004 3:58 AM

This week we’re off to beautiful Loudon, New Hampshire to make the first of two visits on the season.

New Hampshire International Speedway is a fun track that promotes good racing, but rarely gets a sponsor, something that should be a prerequisite for any track to host a Nextel Cup event let alone two.

As for the network, NBC won’t being doing the race this week which may temporarily ease the pain and future agony of sitting through another non-Fox race, But get ready, because Allen Bestwick and Wally Dallenbach will be doing the race on sister network TNT.

Here’s a look at some of the top drivers to watch this week in the Siemen’s New England 300.

Jeff Burton (15-1): It’s sort of unusual to see Burton with odds this low due to his struggles and turmoil over the last three seasons. Coming to a track like New Hampshire where he has done so well, he’s an intermediate favorite. Part of Burton’s resurgence may lie with getting some of Mark Martin’s hand me downs. Both drive for Roush racing, but Martin’s long term Viagra sponsorship buys many more good parts than Burton’s deal, which goes week to week to anyone willing to give some money.

Burton is the track’s all time leader in wins with four, his last in 2000. His spirits had been down because of the teams poor performance, but due to his surge lately you can tell just by his voice that they are all pretty inspired as a group right now. He is definitely one of the good guys out there. He may not win this week, but it’s likely that he’ll have one of his better finishes.

Ryan Newman (9-1) is on the verge of not even making the 10-race chase for the championship after being considered one of the favorites coming into the season. He’s been in a dogfight the last six weeks and lost pretty badly in five of those. He’s been hit and miss all season with mostly misses. This just isn’t his year, much like Kurt Busch (11-1) who also had big things expected of him this year.

Newman was fifth and first at New Hampshire in his rookie year and followed that up with a fourth and ninth last season. In two of his last three starts at New Hampshire, he’s also began from the pole, a position he hasn’t started from lately. Newman got off strong with three poles through March, but none since.

Jimmie Johnson (6-1) looks more like a champion every week. Hendrick Motorsports has really been flexing their muscles lately with every car in the garage, but Jimmie’s transition into being one of NASCAR’s elite is very impressive. Johnson has 13 top 5 finishes in 18 starts and is getting to the status of a ”˜98 Jeff Gordon. That was the year Gordon had 13 wins.

Last season, Johnson swept New England. This year he’s leading the series comfortably by 105 points and has no fear of blowing at this juncture. He can put it on the line each week until the tournament starts.

Tony Stewart (9-1) is the only driver close to being as hot as Johnson since June. T-Stew has the second most points since then and claimed his first victory two weeks ago at Chicago. He’s struggled his last two races in New England, but does have a win along with four other top 5 finishes in 10 career starts. He’s been known over his short career as a strong finisher.

Not only is Stewart a nice pre-qualifying selection to win this week, but he’s also a great candidate to win the driving championship. Stewart is anywhere from 5-1 to 8-1 to capture the season title.

Jeff Gordon (8-1) has not had much luck at New Hampshire. His best finish was 14th, but much is to be expected of him after winning three times in 18 attempts and claiming more money than driver. His last Loudon win was during that magical ”˜98 season. He has been on a tear lately and looks closer to the Evernham Gordon more and more every week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (10-1) is just quietly hanging around. Not too many making a fuss about him in the media lately either. He’s still second in points and hanging around, but many are suggesting that Junior may be the opposite of Tony Stewart down the stretch, somewhat of a poor finisher. That’s to be determined.

This week Junior gets back to Loudon after having great success there last year. He finished fifth and sixth in those two starts and actually led the most laps the last time he visited. A win here would be a nice boost for the team who may be feeling the pressure.

Mark Martin (15-1) has never won in New Hampshire, but does claim three second place finishes along with four other top 5’s in his 18 career starts. Things with the team have been on a real upswing. Following their win at Dover, another mile track, they have been strong in nearly every practice session.

Two weeks ago at Chicagoland, Martin was in the top 3 average Happy Hour times and ran his race perfectly until his engine blew with a few laps to go. The team is trying out new equipment and should benefit in the long run.