Wednesday, July 11, 2012

2012 New Hampshire LENOX Industrial Tools 301 Preview

Stewart-Haas drivers swept the 2011 New Hampshire season (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

Half of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is in the books with 18 races remaining heading into New Hampshire this week. Matt Kenseth expanded his points lead to 25 points last week at Daytona -- the largest lead by anyone this season, and is showing that he’s not your ordinary lame duck driver. How long his lead will last remains to be seen, but based on his performance in the first half, 8-to-1 odds at the LVH Super Book looks pretty enticing.

In the LVH’s latest Sprint Cup Championship odds, Jimmie Johnson is the 3-to-1 favorite followed by Tony Stewart (6/1), Kenseth, Denny Hamlin (8/1), Dale Earnhardt Jr (8/1) with Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski at 10-to-1.

We’ve had 12 different winners in the first half with Kesleowski and Stewart leading the way at three wins a piece. On a consistency platform, it’s Johnson, Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr with 13 top-10 finishes. The next closest is Greg Biffle with 10 top-10’s.

My brain says Johnson will win it all, but my heart roots for Earnhardt Jr. and I’m not even part of his legion of fans. It’s hard not to root for a guy that has had to swallow his pride and have his ego deflect all kinds of criticism for not winning with the great Hendrick Motorsports equipment that is now finally showing some success. I’ll admit, I’m caught up in the moment. But so are millions of NASCAR fans and it’s part of what has made this season so enjoyable. Dale Earnhardt Jr. matters once again!

In the end, reality will probably side in favor of either Biffle or Kenseth with their amazing run of consistency this season. The remainder of the schedule is littered with tracks the Roush organization has always been stellar at, including five 1.5-mile tracks during the Chase.

When we go to New Hampshire the first order of business when deciding who might be the best candidate to win is referring back to races run this season at Phoenix and Richmond. Although New Hampshire’s layout is vastly different from Phoenix and Richmond, the flat banking make the set-ups almost identical. If a driver had success on one of the tracks, he’ll likely be good on the others.

The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch won the races at Phoenix and Richmond this year and were two of five drivers to finish in the top-10 of both races. Johnson, Keselowski and Mark Martin were the others. Only Hamlin finished in the top-5 of both events with Busch finishing sixth at Phoenix.

Incidentally, Martin will not be driving the No. 55 MWR car this week. Brian Vickers will start for the fourth time this season. In his first three starts, Vickers has finished in the top-5 twice. Not a bad success rate.

After we see who should be good based on this years races at Phoenix and Richmond, the next step is to look at the past New Hampshire history. Hamlin won at New Hampshire in 2007 and has a track best average finish of 9th-place. In three of his last five starts, he’s finished runner-up twice and third once.

Kyle Busch has a 2006 New Hampshire win under his belt, but his last top-5 finish came in 2009. His recent engine troubles make him a risky proposition, but yet still hard to resist.

We saw Tony Stewart win last week at Daytona to give him three wins on the year and it was at New Hampshire last season that he kicked off his Championship run with a win. That win was his first of the season and he would eventually win four more times during the Chase. Overall, Stewart has three wins at New Hampshire and finished third at Richmond this season.

Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman has to be considered just because he won at New Hampshire in the first of their two races last season. Overall, Newman has three wins on the one-mile track and is dialed in on the winning strategy it will take to do it again this week.

“I think this track is the key place when it comes to being aggressive and patient all at the same time," said Newman who will be using the same car that won at New Hampshire last year. "There is a different style of driving that you have to have there. You can’t really be overaggressive at this racetrack. It’s kind of a combination of patience and aggressiveness. You want to take what the car will give you because the track is flat.

"With banking, the faster you go, the more it pushes the car down into the racetrack. We don’t have that there, so it’s just a matter of feeling that razor-blade-edge of grip and getting everything you can and I’ve been successful at it there. It’s kind of clicked with me since the beginning. I really like the racetrack and obviously know how to drive it, which is a big part of it. It’s a good place to start up front because it’s a short race, and it’s not the easiest place to pass.”

Johnson is a three-time New Hampshire winner, the last coming in 2010. However, in his last three starts there he’s had poor finishes of 25th and 18th.

Earnhardt Jr. has never won at New Hampshire, just like his father, but did finish runner-up at Richmond this year. His 2011 runs at New Hampshire were very mediocre, but he did average a 6th-place finish there in the two 2010 races. Junior is one driver where most past history can be thrown out the window. He's more equipped now to win at Loudon than ever before, both physically (car) and mentally.

The final piece of the puzzle after going through Phoenix and Richmond results, along with past New Hampshire history, is seeing how the drivers perform in final practices. We have the advantage this week of seeing two final practices run on Saturday where everyone will be in race trim at the same time.

Congratulations are in order to Kevin and Delana Harvick who had a baby boy, Keelan Paul Harvick, on Sunday. He's the couple's first child and his daddy has a good shot of winning this week based on past history. Harvick's 2006 season is the perfect example of a driver's success at Phoenix and Richmond translating to New Hampshire where he combined to win four of the six races that season.

We didn't mention any Fords as candidates this week just because they haven't fared well at New Hampshire over the last few years. Kenseth is one of those drivers front and center trying to snap a winless streak there.

"Loudon has been a track that we’ve struggled at for the past four or five years but our last outing we ran pretty competitively so I’m looking forward to building upon that," Kenseth said earlier this week. "New Hampshire is an interesting race track because it drives like a short track even though it’s a one-mile track, and it’s challenging in the fact that there isn’t a lot of room to pass, so track position is very important there. We’ve just got to run a clean race, with a good afternoon in the pits as well, and hopefully we can have a solid run there.”

The only current Roush driver to win at New Hampshire was Biffle in 2008. In years prior, Roush had four wins with Jeff Burton and two with Kurt Busch.

One positive sign for Carl Edwards is that he'll be using the same chassis that led 206 laps at Richmond this year before settling for ninth-place.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
5) #39 Ryan Newman (20/1)

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