Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Hampshire Preview - Green Flag to the Chase

By Micah Roberts

The 12-driver field in the Chase for the Championship has been set and this Sunday in Loudon, New Hampshire, the NASCAR playoffs begin.

It’s important for drivers to get out of the gate quickly, but also play it conservative along the way. Last season was one of the best Chases ever with two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, battling like a classic 15-round heavyweight title match.

Johnson ended up winning because he stayed consistent throughout and had flashes of dominance during the 10-race stretch that’s saw him three times. His worse finish down the stretch was a 15th.

Edwards was equally dominant winning three times and finishing in the top-4 a total of eight times in the 10 races. His downfall, which ultimately cost him the title was finishing 29th and 33rd in race four and five of the Chase. Any other year, against any other driver, and Edwards would have won.

Last season, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards finished 1-2-3 at New Hampshire. After the 10-race Chase, the final top three in the standings not surprisingly ended up with Johnson, Edwards, and Biffle as the top three finishers.

In 2004, the first year of the Chase format, Kurt Busch kicked it off with a New Hampshire victory. He didn’t win again during the Chase but that Week 1 win proved critical – he edged Jimmie Johnson for the championship by only eight points.

In 2007, Clint Bowyer, who was given little thought to be a real contender, got his first career NASCAR Cup victory to open the Chase – and rode that momentum to an eventual third-place finish in the final standings. ?

This year looks to be much of the same as it’s been the last three seasons, which is more of Jimmie Johnson. The guy is a machine and when it comes down to business, no one is better. He has more wins (14) and top-5 finishes in Chase races than anyone else by a large margin. He gets into a prime-time mode like a Joe Montana or John Elway late in games and it’s almost a given that he will not fail in the crunch.

To see who will do well for this weeks race at New Hampshire, looking back at who did well in both Richmond races, Phoenix, and the first New Hampshire race prior to the rain is helpful. Many of the teams use the same chassis’ from those races if successful and use them on all three tracks because the banking and distances are similar, despite the configuration being vastly different on all three.

Over the years there has been a strong correlation between winners at one doing well on the other two, and sometimes winning multiple times.

We can look back at last week’s race as a quick refresher to who those candidates are because they did well all season on these type of tracks. Denny Hamlin won last week at Richmond after nearly coming close on several occasions in the past. Mark Martin has been stellar on all the tracks and claims a Phoenix win.

In the rain shortened Loudon race won by rookie Joey Logano, the dominant driver was Jimmie Johnson who led the most laps prior to the rain. Look for Johnson to start the Chase in style with a great run and possibly a win this week. He doesn’t want to dig himself a hole by getting too racey and finding trouble, as Kyle Busch did last year, but his car should be good enough to capture his third New Hampshire win overall and propel him to the top of the standings.

Johnson is also bringing that same exact chassis that led the most laps the first time around in Loudon.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:

1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
2) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (9/1)
5) #14 Tony Stewart (7/1)

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