Saturday, June 26, 2010

Phoenix and Richmond Best Places to Find New Hampshire Winner For Sunday

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The best approach in dissecting the top candidates to win at New Hampshire on Sunday is to follow a trend that has been pretty strong since the track first opened for NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in 1993 — and that’s to follow what happened at Phoenix and Richmond. Although the tracks are vastly different in configuration, the one constant among them is that they are all a mile or less with relatively flat banking.

The trend and correlation between the three facilities is so strong, likely because, it’s the crew chiefs who have kept it going. Any team that has any kind of success on any of the three tracks generally brings the identical chassis and setup for the other.

This process has led to several multiple winners between the three tracks on a given year. Last year, it was Mark Martin taking wins at both Phoenix and Richmond. The two previous years it was Jimmie Johnson, and before him, the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton were all multiwinners in a given season at the three combined tracks.

If just looking at what happened this year during April’s Phoenix and May’s Richmond races, it’s easy to see just how clear the correlation is with only two samplings. Of the top-10 finishers at Phoenix, six of the drivers finished in the top-10 again three weeks later at Richmond, including both winners, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch.

When looking at the practice times for this week's New Hampshire race and noticing what chassis those fast teams brought, it’s not irrational to believe that history will repeat itself.

At the top of the list this week is Jimmie Johnson, who is once again hitting his stride. He’s expecting to be a father any day now and even had a backup driver, Aric Almirola, take a few laps in his car during the early practice Saturday in case he has to leave Sunday. No one was better than Johnson during practice. He had the fastest single lap and average speeds for Saturday’s combined sessions. At Phoenix this year, he led the most laps and finished third, finishing 10th at Richmond. He will be using the same chassis on Sunday that he drove in those two races.

Kyle Busch won at Richmond this year and has had some success at New Hampshire, which includes winning in 2006. Busch looks to be the driver to give Johnson the most fits this week because of how close he has been to Johnson’s times during Saturday’s practice.

Jeff Gordon has done just about everything this year except win. He finished runner-up at both Phoenix and Richmond, and to boot, he finished as runner-up in this race last season. He is a three-time winner at New Hampshire but hasn’t won there since 1998. He had a fine practice session Saturday ending with the fourth-fastest lap during happy hour, and the only thing that may keep him from another quality finish, or win, is the payback that Martin Truex Jr. promised following Gordon punting him last week at Sonoma.

Ryan Newman is using the same chassis that he beat out Jeff Gordon with at Phoenix. Newman also finished eighth at Richmond and comes to New Hampshire with two career wins at the track. During practice, Newman was strong both Friday and the early session Saturday but tailed off a bit during happy hour. It’s likely the final times were more a testament to the team just trying different long-run strategies, because this car and team have proven to be very good on these type of tracks and just might be able to steal another one.

Jeff Burton is New Hampshire’s all-time leader in wins with four. As if his pedigree isn’t good enough on merit, his practice times and the chassis he brought seal the deal. Burton is a real contender this week. He is using the same car that finished fourth at Richmond in May and finished runner-up at Phoenix last fall. During happy hour, Burton laid down the second-fastest lap.

Tony Stewart has been awful at this type of track this season. He finished 23rd at both Phoenix and Richmond after being one of the favorites in each race last season. This is the type of track that got the new Stewart-Haas company rolling in 2009, showing they were a player to be respected and paid attention to as they rolled into the final 10-race Chase for the Championship and the one to stop Johnson from winning his fourth straight title.

After looking at practice times, Stewart looks vastly improved from his 2010 trends on the flat midranged tracks. Stewart was fifth-fastest during happy hour and began the practice sessions Friday with a strong fourth-fastest time while in race trim. The best news is that he brought a chassis this week that was thoroughly tested and reset at the Milwaukee Mile’s flat configuration in preparation specifically for this race. The team knows this is an important race, not only to make the chase, but to advance further as the next time they roll into town, it’ll be the first race of the Chase for the Championship.

Martin Truex Jr. hails from the Northeast and has always run better than usual at New Hampshire. He’s got an agenda with Jeff Gordon this week that he’ll either have to live up to his bold claims following Sonoma last week or pack it in and say he’s looking at the bigger picture. By the way Gordon has pleaded for forgiveness, it’s likely that Truex Jr. will go out and race his own race to not look like the villain in getting revenge with someone so apologetic.

It’s a good thing, too, because Truex Jr. looks pretty good on his own this week. He had the second-fastest average times during the first practice session Saturday and finished strong with the sixth-fastest single lap during happy hour.

Denny Hamlin didn’t have any practice session that gave insight into him possibly doing well this week, but what he does have is just a natural ability to get after it on flat tracks. It doesn’t matter whether it's Pocono, Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, or New Hampshire, Hamlin can wheel the heck out of his car with no banking and he’s going to need that Sunday. This week, he’s driving the same chassis that finished third at Phoenix last fall.

Juan Pablo Montoya has been one of the more consistent drivers on these type of flat tracks over the last year. He finished fifth at Phoenix and sixth at Richmond and is using the same chassis that finished third in the last race run at New Hampshire. He came out on fire Friday during practice in both race and qualifying trim, gaining the top slot in qualifying, but stalled a bit during Saturday’s practice. He’s been a tough driver to gauge this season, but not at these tracks. Look for a strong top-10 finish this week.

Mark Martin comes in as the last recipient to win multiple times on the combined flat tracks and had a good effort in practice to justify any lean his way, despite not having the same type of breakout resurgence year he had last season. He practiced well enough on Friday and Saturday to give an inclination that he can at least duplicate what he did the last time rolling out in the car he’s using this week, which was a fourth-place finish at Phoenix.

Carl Edwards is not a candidate to win this week, but he will be someone to contend with for a top-10 position based on what he did at Phoenix and Richmond this season. His practice times mirror what he did there and that shouldn’t be surprising since he’s using the car that finished seventh at Phoenix. Edwards also managed a fifth-place run at Richmond. If needing a driver to get points in fantasy NASCAR or betting matchups, there won’t be more than eight drivers you should bet against Edwards.
ROBERTS NASCAR NOTES on Radio - Archived New Hampshire Show 
Be sure to listen to my Post Practice report and preview for each race on Prime Sports Network following the final practice sessions three hours after happy hour. Listen live or at your leisure; all shows are archived. Host Greg DePalma and I will review each of the top drivers and steer you in a direction you should be going based on past/recent history along with critical practice information for your NASCAR Fantasy teams or wagers.


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