Seven down; one to go.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway, host to Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 (1 p.m. ET on TNT, Performance Racing Network Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio), is the eighth and final stop during the regular season at a track that also hosts a race in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
Advantage? So far, no one.
Seven different drivers have taken the new, Gen-6 car to Victory Lane on Chase tracks. All but surprise Talladega winner David Ragan rank among the current top 10. The box score shows three wins by Chevrolet and two each by Ford and Toyota.
Parity or pandemonium – whatever you want to call it – is reflected across the board and especially in the ongoing struggle to qualify for the post season.
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, both four-time winners, have established themselves as the championship favorites. The race to determine their 10 rivals is unsettled to say the least.
Just 44 points cover drivers ranked ninth through 21st. Jeff Burton, 21st and currently ineligible even for a Chase Wild Card, is 42 points out of the top 10 – a ranking that would give him automatic entry into the post season. Burton is the track’s most prolific winner with four victories including a season sweep in 1998.
One year ago, after the season’s first 18 races, the difference between 10th and 12th places was 56 points. Juan Pablo Montoya, then the 21st place driver, was 139 points outside the top 10.
The importance of the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway can’t be understated. In 2012, seven of July’s top-10 finishers earned a Chase berth on points. Each member of the top 10 in points after the season’s 19th race also moved into NASCAR’s post season.
New Hampshire’s summer event has seen eight consecutive different winners with the Granite State track minting 10 straight different winners overall. Last year’s winners – Kasey Kahne in July; Denny Hamlin in September – are outside the championship top 10. Kahne holds a potential Chase Wild Card. Hamlin is 122 points outside Wild Card eligibility.
Four drivers – Johnson (2010), Tony Stewart (2005), Kurt Busch (2004) and Jeff Gordon (1995) – have won New Hampshire’s July race and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in the same season. The quartet has won 12 of the track’s 36 races.
Over the past 16 races, Stewart ranks No. 1 in Driver Rating (111.7) and has led the most laps (887). Gordon owns the track record for top–five (16) and top-10 (21) finishes.
Busch’s charge elevates Furniture Row’s profile
Furniture Row Racing, a single-car organization headquartered in Denver, Colo., is racing in unfamiliar territory. Barney Visser’s team, which enjoys a technical relationship with Richard Childress Racing, has put a driver into the top 10 for the first time this late in the season since fielding its first NASCAR Sprint Cup entry in 2005.
Proving the volatility of this year’s championship battle, Kurt Busch has gone from 20th to ninth in just three races – fueled by a trio of top 10s capped by last weekend’s sixth-place finish at Daytona.
An unlikely pick to qualify for this year’s Chase, Visser and Busch are proving the experts wrong although the driver cautions about reading too much long term into the recent surge.
“We’re not putting the cart before the horse; we still have a long ways to go with a lot of hard work ahead of us,” said Busch. “You can go down as quickly as you can go up in the point standings.
“Look at us. We were 20th in points just four races ago.”
Busch’s future appeared cloudy after being released by Penske Racing after the 2011 season. Visser effectively got the 2004 champion off the “waiver wire” running Busch in last year’s final six events. Busch responded by ending the year with three consecutive top-10 performances.
The early season showed promise. Busch was spectacular at times but the finishes were uneven. Things began to click at Charlotte Motor Speedway where Busch finished third in May’s Coca-Cola 600 to kick off a run of five top 10s in seven races.
“We always felt the potential was there but the costly combination of mistakes and bad luck kept us from advancing,” said Busch, a 24-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winner. “We kept plugging away and the positive work effort is paying off.”
High speeds, broken records highlight first half
Eighteen up, 18 to go. And if the second half resembles the first, expect high speeds and passing – lots of passing.
A number of race tracks have seen their record books rewritten during the first half. A sampling…
• At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there were 31 green flag passes for the lead, a new track best since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.
• At Auto Club Speedway, there were 41 green flag passes for the lead, which tied a track record.
• The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway saw 35 passes for the lead, which tied a race best.
• Dover featured 25 passes for the lead, which set a track Loop Data record
• During last week’s Daytona night race, there were 9,574 green flag passes – a new track record.
Those figures, as well as qualifying speeds, underlined the Gen-6 race car’s 2013 debut. In all, eight qualifying records have been set this season. The list: Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Richmond, Darlington, Charlotte and Kentucky.
Among some of the other impressive first-half stats generated by Gen-6 car:
• 10 different race winners, and 10 different Coors Light Pole winners
• Through 18 races, 52.3% of cars have finished on the lead lap versus 41.1% last year
• The average margin of victory has dropped to 1.403 seconds, the closest since 2010. Additionally, 10 races have ended with an MOV under one second, the most since 2010.
• 81.7% of cars are finishing the race through 15 races, versus 75.8% last season.
New Hampshire could be what Hamlin needs
When Denny Hamlin returned in May from a four-race hiatus to heal his back, questions ran rampant regarding whether his time off created too large of a chasm for him to climb out of before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup reset the field for the postseason. With eight races remaining before that day arrives, the answer is that he must start winning races now.
If Hamlin is going to climb into Chase Wild Card contention, his best shot at winning might be this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In 14 starts at the 1.058-mile track, he’s won twice, most recently last September. He has seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, and has only finished outside the top 15 once. He could have – and maybe should have – swept last year, leading 150 of the 301 laps last July and finished second to Kasey Kahne.
Among active drivers at New Hampshire, Hamlin has the best average finish (7.9) and has led the third-most laps (417). His driver rating (104.8) ranks fourth among active drivers.
In order to win, he’ll need to overcome his recent four-race slump in which he’s finished 30th, 23rd, 35th and 36th. Even if he wins on Sunday, Hamlin still has his work cut out for him. He is in 26th place, 122 points behind Paul Menard in 20th place – the magic number for Chase Wild Card consideration. The two drivers from 11th-20th with the most wins will earn a Wild Card spot.
Bowyer eyes Granite Stat victory
Clint Bowyer has come full circle from his career-best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship finish of 2012.
Following last weekend’s fourth-place finish at Daytona, the driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota has moved to second in the standings, 49 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. That’s the same ranking Bowyer held when last year’s final checkered flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Bowyer has been a rock of consistency this year – especially over the past month and a half. He’s riding a streak of three top-five finishes with six top 10s in the past seven races. He’s one of three drivers in the current top 10 without a victory – seconds at Martinsville and Richmond are tops so far in 2012 – but history suggests that may change in New Hampshire.
Bowyer posted his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at the track in September 2007 and won again in 2010. Bowyer’s New Hampshire score card features a pole, four top fives and sixth top 10s. He finished top five in both of last year’s races on the 1.058-mile track – third in July and fourth in September.
In 14 races at the track, Bowyer ranks fifth in Driver Rating (97.2) and sixth in Average Running Position (12.0). He’s also led 475 laps, second only to Tony Stewart’s 887.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Morgan Shepherd, entered in the No. 52 Toyota this weekend at New Hampshire, is scheduled to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start since 2006 (which, coincidentally, was also at New Hampshire). At 71 years old, he would become the oldest driver to start an NSCS race; the previous oldest was Jim Fitzgerald when he was 65 years, 6 months and 20 days when he started at Riverside on June 21, 1987. … Ryan Newman hasn’t won a Coors Light Pole in quite a while – September 2011. He’s been sitting on 49 career poles for almost two years, and the next would make him the ninth driver with 50 or more NSCS poles. His last pole came at New Hampshire, and he has a track-record six poles at NHMS.
Highlights from first half of 2013
With 16 races in the books and halfway through the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ 33-race schedule there have been a lot of first-half highlights. As drivers and teams prepare for Saturday’s CNBC Prime the Profit 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, here are three highlights from the season thus far that could have lasting implications on the championship race.
Points Battle: Currently, Regan Smith sits only six points in front of runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. in the standings. The top-10 drivers in the standings are only separated by 70 points; the top six are separated by fewer than 50 points. The points battle has been as close as one point after the spring Richmond race and as distant as 58 points after Michigan. The current close points battle and the swing in point differential from race to race (e.g., going into Talladega Hornish carried a one-point lead over Smith, but trailed Smith by 27 points after the race; a 28-point shift) are both indicative of how close the championship race is and that it’s still too early to predict.
Rookie Race: Overall, the eight drivers competing for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year have been impressive in 2013, led by Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Nelson Piquet Jr. Through 16 races, Larson has four top fives and 11 top 10s with a runner-up finish at Michigan. He holds a 57-point advantage over Bowman, who has one top five, three top 10s and one pole. Piquet, who is third in the rookie of the year race, has two top 10s. Larson, Bowman and Piquet are sixth, 11th and 13th, respectively, in the championship standings.
Dillon’s Qualifying Prowess: In June, Austin Dillon became the first driver in series history to capture four consecutive poles when he broke his own track qualifying record with a speed of 191.882 mph. The following week he qualified 14th. However, he’s currently working on a streak of two consecutive poles that he’s looking to extend to three in New Hampshire. Unfortunately for Dillon, he’s been unable to convert any of his six poles into victories.
Sadler wins first Dash 4 Cash
A third-place finish in last Friday’s Daytona race earned Elliott Sadler an extra $100,000, and if everything unfolds over the next three weeks just as he would like, his $100,000 will turn into a cool $1 million.
Sadler, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Brian Vickers all competed for the first $100,000 bonus as part of Nationwide’s Dash 4 Cash program with the highest-finishing among the four winning. Sadler’s finish was two and three spots in front of Dillon and Larson. Vickers finished 13th.
By winning the first leg, Sadler automatically qualifies for the program’s second leg at New Hampshire. Dillon and Larson were among the top-four points-eligible finishers at Daytona, thus qualifying them for the second week in a row. Sam Hornish Jr., who finished seventh at Daytona, replaces Vickers.
If Sadler is able to win the cash bonus again this weekend in the CNBC Prime the Profit 200 and then next week at Chicagoland, he would win an additional $600,000 provided by Nationwide if he were to win the Indianapolis race outright.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Announced recently as one of 13 members of the NASCAR Next program, Ryan Preece will make his NASCAR national series debut at New Hampshire in the No. 8 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet. The Berlin, Conn. competitor counts three wins in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and five wins in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series during the past month. … For every lap (up to 10) he leads at New Hampshire, Parker sponsor, North American Power, will donate $1,000 to the Speedway Children’s Charities with the money directed toward the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth (N.H.). … Preece, Brett Butler and Chad Hackenbracht will all try to qualify for their first NNS starts. Seven other drivers - Alex Bowman, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Billy Johnson, Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Dexter Stacey – will make their New Hampshire NNS debut.
Elliott could be factor at Iowa
Although Chase Elliott has only made three NCWTS so far in his young career, the Dawsonville, Ga., native has made an immediate impact finishing in the top 10 in each start.
Elliott’s average finish in his first three series starts is 5.0, tying him with 2000 rookie of the year Kurt Busch for the best three-race debut for a true NASCAR national series rookie in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history.
Elliott has finished sixth, fifth and fourth in starts at Martinsville, Rockingham and Dover, respectively.
Elliott has shown his learning curve in the NCWTS has been smooth as the 17-year-old driver has adapted quickly to the national series machines, which could mean more history this weekend. This weekend at Iowa could be another record-setting one for the series if Elliott can return to Victory Lane at Iowa.
Elliott picked up his first NASCAR Touring Series victory at Iowa Speedway winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series race in 2012 and if he is able to pilot his No. 94 Chevrolet to the checkered flag he would break Ryan Blaney’s record as the youngest winner in the history of the series. Blaney won the most recent NCWTS race held at Iowa Speedway last September.
Elliott, along with veteran crew chief Lance McGrew, will enter the next two truck series events as they will also compete at Eldora after the trip to America’s heartland this weekend.
Blaney goes for two in row
Ryan Blaney enjoyed a record-setting night the last time the trucks raced at Iowa Speedway becoming the youngest winner in series history in just his third career start.
Last year he won the event in a Brad Keselowski Racing RAM. On Saturday night, Blaney will go for two in a row and possibly give Ford its first NCWTS win at Iowa.
Blaney has raised his performance in the series up a notch recently coming off of his second top-five finish in the past three races and also scoring his first national series pole during qualifying in Kentucky.
Blaney surprised the NASCAR world when he scored the win driving for Keselowski, and while a win this weekend wouldn’t catch anyone off guard, another win could be just as important for his team.
“This date couldn’t have come sooner, I’ve been waiting to get back to Iowa in the Truck Series ever since I left there last September victorious. Our team has really buckled down over the past month and my confidence is at an all-time high.”
BKR is the only team competing full-time in a Ford and Blaney’s boss Brad Keselowski finished second at Kentucky while Blaney finished fifth. While those are impressive finishes, the last time Ford visited Victory Lane in a NCWTS race was on June 13, 2009 when Colin Braun won driving a Roush Racing Ford.
Points battle remains tight
Although he had to finish strong at Kentucky to keep his season-long streak of top-10 finishes alive, Matt Crafton has used his consistency to remain atop the points standings since picking up his win at Kansas Speedway back in April. Crafton enjoys a 22-point lead over Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Jeb Burton, while Ty Dillon used his win at Kentucky to move up to third in the standings just 40 points out of first place.
Three of the top-10 drivers in the current points standings heading into the weekend have won at Iowa Speedway. Crafton won in 2011, with Ryan Blaney (6th) winning in 2012 and Timothy Peters (10th) the defending winner of this weekend’s event.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Johnny Sauter has finished among the top five in all five NASCAR Camping World Truck races at Iowa Speedway with a best performance of second to Austin Dillon in 2010. ThorSport teammate and 2011 winner Matt Crafton is five-for-five in top 10s. …Two-time series champion Todd Bodine returns to the No. 13 ThorSport Toyota this week. … Steve Wallace makes his first NCWTS appearance since running four races in 2010 which included a 30th-place Iowa finish. … Last summer’s race featured Iowa’s largest margin of victory (1.586 seconds) with the smallest margin of victory (0.168 seconds) recorded in September.
Preece looks to join Evans, Stefanik
Ryan Preece and the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour head to Loudon, N.H., this Saturday for the first of two events this season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Preece will attempt to become just the third driver in tour history to win four races in a row, done previously by Mike Stefanik (1997) and NASCAR Hall of Famer, the late Richie Evans (1985). Saturday’s Town Fair Tire 100 will be broadcast live on SPEED (1 p.m. ET).
Preece will race up to four times this weekend. The 22-year-old from Berlin, Conn., will also attempt to make his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at New Hampshire for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Preece will also run twice in Connecticut in his NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modified (Thursday at Thompson & Friday at Stafford).
Also this Saturday will be the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 at Motoplex Speedway and Event Park in Vernon, B.C.
This past weekend saw three touring series in action across three countries. Quebec native Andrew Ranger gave the hometown crowd at Circuit ICAR (Mirabel, Que.) something to cheer Sunday with a win in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. George Brunnhoelzl III went wire-to-wire at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C., Saturday to score a record 20th career win in the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour. Across the Atlantic in Tours, France, Frédéric Gabillon recorded his first victories in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series as he swept Saturday and Sunday’s 100-lap events.