This, the first race in the Cup Series Chase to the Championship is an important one for all the Chase drivers. Some are bound to improve his standing in the Points and some are bound to come out of this weekend with disappointment. With just 60 points separating Denny Hamlin, as the top seed and Clint Bowyer as number 12 major moves among the twelve Chase drivers will likely occur. This is not a race anyone will want to miss! Sunday will find our favorite - and not-so-favorite - Cup Series drivers taking 300 laps around the 1.058 mile oval for a total of 317.4 miles.
With two wins, 11 top ten finishes, and a 13.3 average finish Ryan Newman is a non-Chase driver that we should keep an eye on this week. Newman has been on the edge of the Chase throughout the closing weeks and although he did not make the top twelve Ryan has proven himself to be a performer when he has the car to do so. Ryan has finished strongly in recent competition with just one finish outside of the top twelve over the last six races.
Kevin Harvick lead the Series Points throughout most of the Race to the Chase. With Hamlin's win last week at Richmond, and Jimmie Johnson's five season wins, Kevin finds himself going into the Chase in third place. Determined not to let that last very long, Harvick should come out with a plan to finish ahead of both Hamlin and Johnson this weekend. With one win and 10 top ten finishes at NHI in his 19 starts, Harvick has proven that he can hold his own at this venue. Harvick has finished in the top ten in four of the last seven Cup Series races; this weekend should give him number five out of eight.
Jimmie Johnson looked to be the Chase top seed favorite going into last weekend with his five race wins and higher Points standings than Denny Hamlin. Hamlin's win at Richmond knocked Jimmie into the second place spot for the beginning of the Chase. Looking for his fifth Championship in a row Johnson comes to New Hampshire with a win in June of this season, three total wins at NHI, an average finish at this track with a 9.0, and 12 of his 17 starts here ending in top ten finishes. Look for Johnson to be near the front of the pack as Sunday's 300 laps wind down.
Clint Bowyer has everything to prove and nothing to lose this weekend. At the post-Richmond media press conference, Clint said “I feel like this is the best shot we've ever had since I've been there to win a championship. You know from here, it's ten races and it's all in.” In 2007 Bowyer started from the pole and won this race; with three top ten finishes and one win in Bowyer's nine starts at the New Hampshire track Bowyer and his team should feel some confidence going into the weekend. This years June race at Louden found Clint with a 7th place finish at the end of the day. If he is able to repeat or better that performance he will assuredly move up from his 12th place starting spot in Cup Series Points Standings.
With 23 starts at NHI Tony Stewart has some experience under his belt at this track. Tony has visited the winner's circle twice, came in second at this track in June, and has finished in the top ten in 14 of his Cup starts at Louden. With an average finish at this track of 11.9 Stewart will have to dig to find that little extra bit of speed he needs to crack the top ten by the end of the day on Sunday. Seven of Tony's last ten starts have ended in top ten finishes; Stewart has the momentum to get the job this weekend if he has the equipment to get to the front of the pack.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has never won at Louden. He has seen nine top ten finishes in his 22 starts at NHI and has the hunger for another. Not making the Chase gives Dale the green light to prove what he can do these last ten races of the season. We've seen the aggressive side of Earnhardt a few times this season, I expect to see it back this weekend on the Magic Mile. Dale had four consecutive third place finishes from 2003 to 2005 but has not performed strongly here in recent races. I see Dale turning things around this week and finishing in the top five.
Juan Pablo Montoya has historically not been good at this track. With just one top ten finish in his seven Cup Series starts at Louden Montoya might seem a strange top ten choice for this race. Juan has momentum going into this weekend and confidence goes a long way at NHI - he holds the track record for qualifying from 2009, has started from the pole twice, and has finished in the top five in his past five starts. Watch for a strong performance and a top five finish for Montoya at the end of the race.
Kyle Busch has one win, five top ten finishes, and an average finish of 15.2 after 11 Cup Series starts at NHI. With four of his last five races resulting in a top ten finish, Busch should be feeling confident that he can hold onto his fourth place standing in Chase Points. Kyle will have to keep his temper in check through the 300 laps on this one mile track, however. There is likely to be much beating and banging going on as the race progresses and I think Kyle's aggressive racing will cause him several skirmishes and to finish outside of the top five but within the top ten.
Mark Martin is another driver who didn't make the Chase but who should not be counted out for this weekend. Martin has one win at this track and 14 top ten finishes; his 11.1 average finish at New Hampshire is one of the best among all drivers competing this weekend. With 27 starts at NHI, Mark has the experience to come out and show what he has learned about how to tame this track. With the Team's less than stellar finishes over the past several weeks this is a track at which Mark should perform strongly. Mark took the checkered flag at this race in 2009, can he make it a repeat?
Denny Hamlin is coming to New Hampshire this weekend to prove he deserves the top seed spot in the Chase. With just nine starts at NHI he posts an impressive 8.2 average finish. Denny won here in 2007 and claims five other top ten finishes at Louden. Coming off of last week's win at Richmond, Hamlin is going to have to come out guns blazing to hold off the remainder of the field and hang on to that top seed spot in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship.
My pick for the win at this weekend's Sylvania 300 is Kevin Harvick followed by Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Rounding out the top five will be Juan Pablo Montoya and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The remainder of the top ten will include Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, and Denny Hamlin. Kenseth will be plagued with mechanical issues throughout the race, and I call for a multi-car accident to occur in the last 50 laps that will cause a red flag situation for clean up.
Practice for this weekend will be aired on ESPN2 Friday at 11:30 a.m. Qualifying begins at 3:00 p.m. Friday, also on ESPN2. SPEED Channel will show Saturday practices at 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. The Sylvania 300 will be on ESPN Sunday at 1:00 p.m., with NASCAR Raceday being aired on SPEED Channel beginning at 10:00a.m. Don't forget to tune into the first race of the Chase to the Championship, this will be action you won't want to miss!
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