Monday, September 22, 2014

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series notes heading into Dover

New Hampshire costs Chasers like Denny Hamlin some positions 
Chasers Can Help Break Record At New Hampshire
Thirteen different drivers have taken the checkered flag in the last 13 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – tied with Texas Motor Speedway for the all-time record streak without a repeat winner.
And there’s a better than average chance the Magic Mile takes sole possession of the record after this Sunday’s Sylvania 300 (2 p.m. on ESPN) as Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all missing from the 13-in-13 stretch.

Gordon owns three victories at New Hampshire, but has not won there since 1998. He has been knocking on the door for his fourth win of the season after posting runner-up finishes the last two races. The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports driver will attempt to improve on his last Loudon showing in July when he finished 26th, but did lead for 19 laps. Despite his Granite State drought, Gordon boasts the highest average running position in the series at the 1.058 oval (7.7) where he has competed in all 39 of its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events – tied with Jeff Burton for its all-time starts record.

Similar to Gordon, Harvick has one win at New Hampshire, but he notched it eight years ago (September 17, 2006). In his last two races at the track, he has finished 30th and 20th, respectively. Harvick can likely count on a solid starting position, at least. He boasts a series-best six Coors Light Pole Awards on the season and has started lower than sixth once his last eight races, ironically at New Hampshire. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver opened the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a fifth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. 
After posting three wins, his highest total since he racked up six in 2004, Earnhardt will try to automatically advance to the Chase’s Contender Round with a New Hampshire checkered flag. In 30 starts at Loudon, he has seven top fives and 13 tops 10s to his credit, but has never finished higher than third. Since Earnhardt’s emphatic win at Pocono, he has posted one top-10 finish in the last six races, a fifth-place showing at Michigan.

Keselowski Heads To Contender Round; Looks For Three Straight
Entering the Chase as the No. 1 seed, Brad Keselowski lived up to the billing by registering a win in the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, automatically advancing to the Contender Round.

The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion driver hopes the win is a good omen. He last won at Chicagoland in the 2012 Chase-opener, the same year he clinched the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Keselowski, who also took the checkered flag in the regular season finale at Richmond, won consecutive races for the first time in his career.

Although he moves on in the Chase regardless of where he finishes at Loudon or Dover, Keselowski looks to continue momentum by finding Victory Lane in this Sunday’s Sylvania 300 -- which would mean his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series sweep . The Team Penske driver won the July race at the Loudon in dominating fashion, leading 138 of the 305 laps. He looks to become the first person to sweep the track since Kurt Busch in 2004 (Busch won series championship that season).

Joe Gibbs Racing Jumps Into Chase With Strong Showing
The majority of attention heading into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was focused on the drivers from Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske. And deservedly so. Drivers from those organizations won 13 of the previous 16 regular season races.

But, coming in under the radar, Joe Gibbs Racing made a statement at Chicagoland Sunday.
Its trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth finished sixth, seventh and 10th. It was only the third time that’s happened this season.

The first time: New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

All that’s left for JGR to assert itself into championship contender talk is for one of its drivers to take a stroll through victory lane – a feat it hasn’t accomplished since Denny Hamlin won at Talladega in May.
After posting a career-high seven victories last year in his first season with JGR, Kenseth has no checkered flags to his credit in 2014. Still, he’s been one of the most consistent drivers in the series, finishing sixth in the regular season point standings (his 17 top 10s rank second only to Jeff Gordon’s 18).

Kyle Busch has experienced an up-and-down season. He notched a quick victory at Auto Club in March and owns three runner-up finishes on the season. Simply put: At New Hampshire, he’s due. He’s finished second the last three races there, with his last win coming 2006.

The New Hampshire race also sets up well for Hamlin. He has three top-10 finishes at Loudon in his last five starts, including a victory, a runner-up and an eighth place showing in July.

Rebound Time: Bottom Four Attempt To Stay In The Chase Hunt
Luckily for Ryan Newman, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Challenger Round does not end after one race. The revamped playoff system keeps all drivers in the hunt until the very last lap at Dover.

Thank goodness. The four stumbled at New Hampshire and currently reside in spots 13-16 in the Chase standings. Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. on ESPN) presents vastly different outlooks for each driver as they try to make the cut after the third Chase race at Dover:

Ryan Newman – The most successful driver of the four at New Hampshire, Newman has to like his chances to advance to the Contender Round. He owns a track-record seven Coors Light Pole Awards and ranks tied for first among all entrants with three wins. His last checkered flag at Loudon came in 2011 and he posted a fifth-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ first visit there this season.

AJ Allmendinger – In 11 starts at New Hampshire, Allmendinger has one top-10 finish and an average running position of 23.6.

Greg Biffle – Biffle entered the Chase with a string of consistent performances, locking himself into the last spot with five top-10 finishes in his last six regular season races. In 24 starts at New Hampshire, Biffle owns one win (2008), six top fives and nine top 10s.

Aric Almirola – Perhaps the biggest underdog going into the Chase, Almirola was running sixth at Chicagoland until his engine blew with 36 laps to go. The setback caused him to finish 41st. Almirola finished fifth at Loudon in 2013. Otherwise, he hasn’t posted a showing better than 18th in seven other starts there.

Larson, Vickers Look To Play Spoiler
Close, but not close enough. That was the story for Kyle Larson over the weekend in Chicagoland.
Battling Kevin Harvick for the lead as late as Lap 252, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner had a golden opportunity to spoil the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Then, in an instant, Brad Keselowski powered between Larson and Harvick and stayed out front the rest of the way to win the 400.

It’s been a year of “not-quites” for the 22-year-old Larson, who has flashed his unlimited potential with a runner-up and two third-place finishes this season and barely missed making the Chase on points.
The NASCAR Next and NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate will attempt to capture his elusive first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. on ESPN), where he finished third in the circuit’s earlier visit this season. He claims fourth and 14th-place showings in his two NASCAR Nationwide Series appearances at the Magic Mile.

Larson is far from the only spoiler candidate in the second Chase race. Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers won at New Hampshire last season and owns five top-10 finishes there.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Clinch Scenarios: Though unlikely, drivers can mathematically clinch a spot in The Contenders Round without a win this weekend. If a Chase driver other than Brad Keselowski wins, anyone who has at least a 45-point lead on the 10th highest winless Chase driver would advance to the next round. If a non-Chase driver or Keselowski wins, the potential clinching driver needs to lead the 11th highest winless Chase driver by at least 45 pts. Conversely, for a driver to be in a must-win situation at Dover, they would have to be 45 points or more behind the 9th ranked winless driver if there's a Chase winner that's not Keselowski; or 45 points or more behind the 10th ranked driver if there's a non-Chase winner or Keselowski. … Corey LaJoie will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend. LaJoie, who finished second in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship standings in 2012, is the son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie.


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