The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions In New Hampshire: Wild-Card Battles And Johnson's Continued Domination by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday July 12, 2013

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New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the site of this weekend’s latest round of NASCAR action, and after a dramatic and highlight-heavy race at Daytona, the series will transition back to a more “normal” race track in NHMS. As per usual after a race at Daytona, there are a plethora of storylines heading into this weekend, ranging from Jimmie Johnson’s continued hot streak to a wild card race that gets hotter and more competitive with each passing week. While New Hampshire is not exactly known for putting on the kind of scintillating racing that one might expect for a short-esque track, there should at least be enough going on with the points race to keep the average fan watching this weekend, and I’m ready to deliver you a primer on that and many other storylines as we edge closer to the Camping World RV Sales 301.

1. Should we expect another snoozefest in New Hampshire?

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is an.…interesting track, to say the least. With only 12 degrees of banking in the corners and only 1500 feet worth of straightaway on both sides, NHMS is not exactly an ideal track for NASCAR racing. The cars are not suited for the track at all really, and thus passing is perhaps more difficult here than at any other track on the circuit, due to a variety of factors. In essence, New Hampshire isn’t long or fast enough to provide enough racing room for the drivers to be able to work their cars and make passes, and it’s not really short enough to provide for the kind of beating and banging you would see at short tracks like Martinsville or Bristol. Couple this with a rock hard tire that has little to no wear, and you have a recipe for a race in which passing is non-existent and the leader simply checks out. Yikes.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. The shape and characteristics of New Hampshire simply yield races in which you don’t see a whole lot of action, and that is pretty much what you can expect on Sunday. Rock hard tires combined with a medium sized flat track lead to races without passing. Just the nature of the beast. The one saving grace that could come into play is tire strategy. If there is a rash of cautions mid race, teams will likely get off-sequence with one another on pit road, which in the past has led to some interesting racing at NHMS when the leaders get stuck behind slower cars on a different strategy. NHMS isn’t really known for being prone to cautions however, so even that might not be in the cards for Sunday.

All told, one would be wise to keep their expectations for Sunday’s race on the lower end of the spectrum.

Look for Jimmie Johnson to continue his dominating ways while teammate Kasey Kahne might be a contender to strenghten his own Chase bid.

2. Will Jimmie Johnson continue his dominance?

Maybe it’s just me, but the hate for Jimmie Johnson seems to be at an all-time high here in 2013. Despite statistically being the best driver to grace the Sprint Cup Series since the late Dale Earnhardt, Johnson doesn’t find a lot of love among race fans. Most of the reasons fans come up with for disliking Mr. Johnson range from the trivial (“he’s too vanilla”), to the untrue (“he cheats”), to the misinformed (“the Chase inflated his stats”), to the downright silly (“he wins too much”). Such is life for the man at the top of the Sprint Cup totem pole, as NASCAR fans traditionally have a habit of spewing vitriol at drivers who are deemed to be winning too much.

Well, for all you folks who dislike Johnson, I have some bad news for you: his run of success will likely continue this weekend. Johnson has the fourth highest average finish among active drivers at New Hampshire since 2011, and has posted 3 victories at the track. On top of that, Johnson ran well at the similarly flat Phoenix facility earlier this year, posting a solid runner up finish to Carl Edwards. There is simply nothing in the numbers that would suggest that Johnson would perform anything other than stellar this weekend.

Long story short, expect to see a lot of the #48 at the front on Sunday. He may not win the thing, but given how much momentum this team has heading into the weekend, there is little reason to believe that they won’t be on the top of their game. A top 5 finish is absolutely expected out of Team 48 on Sunday.

3. Could New Hampshire shake up the Wild Card race?

For the third straight year, NASCAR’s Wild Card race is heating up as we move closer and closer to the Chase, and this year, the race is closer than it ever has been. There are still a whopping 11 drivers, ranging from Martin Truex Jr. in 11th all the way down to Jeff Burton in 21st, who are still within 43 points (equal to a full race) of the 10th place playoff cutoff. Forget the Wild Card years, we haven’t seen a race to the Chase this wide open in the 9 year history of NASCAR playoffs, period.

The question of course is this: how will New Hampshire affect the Chase? We have to remember that New Hampshire is not a very caution or wreck-prone track, at least as of late, so I wouldn’t expect to see too many Chase hopefuls get sidelined due to wrecks this week. A few will undoubtedly have troubles, but that happens every week anyway. Rather, the big shake up at New Hampshire could be delivered in the form of a win, a win by one of the Chase hopefuls.

Looking at the Wild Card standings, four drivers stand out as strong threats to win on Sunday. Out of the Hendrick camp, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon are both former New Hampshire winners and will undoubtedly contend on Sunday. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart of Stewart Haas Racing are also former winners, and each could be a factor on Sunday provided their equipment is up to par (which frankly hasn’t been a sure thing this year for the SHR crew). A win by any one of these four drivers would shake up the Chase in a big way, as a driver with a win stands a much greater chance of earning a Wild Card spot than a winless driver. As such, keep an eye on hungry drivers outside the Chase cutoff to make a big push for a win on Sunday.

4. Can Clint Bowyer finally sell some sizzle with his proverbial steak?

So much for the runner up jinx, eh? Quietly, ever so quietly, Clint Bowyer is delivering one of the finest seasons of his career. Despite piloting MWR cars that are a step off from where they were last year performance wise, Bowyer is having an even better season in 2013 than he had in 2012, and 2012 was unquestionably the best season of Bowyer’s career. The problem is that Bowyer hasn’t exactly done it in a flashy manner.

In fact, Bowyer has been downright invisible in 2013, which makes it all the more strange that he is having such a statistically brilliant year (2nd in points, 7 top 5s, 11 top 10s). Bowyer’s issue is that instead of getting up front and leading laps, he is grinding out 5th and 6th place-type finishes on days when he probably has a 10th place race car. That says a lot about Bowyer’s abilities as a driver, and such consistency would be of great value under the old pre-2004 Latford points system, but in the era of the Chase, one must lead laps and win races to have a real shot at the championship.

What does this mean for Clint Bowyer and the #15 squad? They have to improve by that last 5% and figure out how to start leading laps and running in the top 3 more often. Top 10ing the field to death will get you in the Chase, but it won’t win you the Chase. Bowyer needs to start contending for wins this week at New Hampshire if he wants a shot a title, and given his recent strength at the facility, there is reason to believe that may very well happen.

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JP
07/12/2013 07:52 AM
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So place your bets on who will come in second behind the 48. LOL.

The only thing to do the rest of the season is to DVR the races and go enjoy your Sunday’s doing something else.

Michael in SoCal
07/12/2013 09:49 AM
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Junior needs some sizzle with his steak too!

JER
07/12/2013 10:19 AM
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In Johnson´s case, its more a case of “no respect” rather than “dislike”. Most fans regard the #48 car as far “superior” equipment and not its driver. Many fans believe Chad Knaus actually is the key to 48´s success which means JJ has to share the spotlight with Knaus. Contrast that with Kurt Busch who is driving the wheels off “inferior” equipment. The kudos for the #78 focus on the driver more than the car.

Carl D.
07/12/2013 11:25 AM
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JER is right. It’s not a matter of hate. I thnk most people credit Knaus for the 48 team’s success moreso than Johnson. I’m not sure my blind old grandma couldn’t win races in that car.

Matt Stallknecht
07/12/2013 11:41 AM
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And how exactly do either one of you know that Knaus’ cars are the driving force behind Jimmie’s success? Maybe Jimmie has been making Knaus look good all these years. You can never actually know for sure.

Some of the best drivers in the garage have openly gone on record as saying that Johnson truly is as good as his stats show. Are we really going to throw out the testimony of drivers who do this for a living?

Jimmie deserves a lot more credit than the fans give him.

Carl D.
07/12/2013 12:37 PM
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Matt… Hey you may be right. Maybe it is Johnson; it’s hard to say until they split up. However, I’m not taking the word of drivers who get their tails handed to them week in and week out by the 48 car. Of course they are going to praise Johnson.

totally bored with NASCAR
07/12/2013 02:50 PM
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“misinformed” about the chase inflating his stats? No, I think you are the one who is misinformed about the # of so-called championships Johnson & team would have if not for the chase. I can think of 2 in particular that wouldn’t belong to them.

Yes, I expect another boring race from NASCAR at NH, so I plan to do something else with my day.

Hope someone other that Johnson wins.

MtNdeW
07/13/2013 07:57 AM
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Hey Carl D. don’t you think that perhaps the drivers know that if they told the truth they would probably get a $25,000 fine like Hamlin did for barely dissing the Gen 6?

Chip Ganassi came out and said “they are out here every weekend cheating”.

midasmicah
07/13/2013 11:49 AM
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In their quest to “give” JJ a sixth Hendricks cup championship, nas$car doesn’t seem to care that even more fans are headed for the exit. Doesn’t it seem odd that one car seems to have so much more power then the others?