Matt Stallknecht · Friday September 20, 2013
We made it folks. One of the worst weeks in the history of NASCAR has finally come to a close. No, the sport will never be quite the same after the events of Spingate, but like a drum, the NASCAR heart doesn’t stop beating (yes, that is a Phillip Phillips reference, it was), and the sport will continue on.
Moving forward, the attention of the NASCAR world will be focused on New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend as the Chase enters its second round. Matt Kenseth delivered a decisive first blow to the field last week in Chicagoland and now sits with a comfortable early lead in the standings. But make no mistake, Kenseth’s Chase competitors are still very much in hot pursuit of the affable Wisconsinite, and folks like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch still very much are in the thick of this championship hunt. The Chase is just starting to heat up, and I’ve got all of the questions you are sure to be asking this weekend covered.
1. Is Martin Truex Jr.’s future with MWR doomed? How will it affect his 2013 performance?
In the least shocking bit of news of the week, NAPA unceremoniously dumped their sponsorship of Michael Waltrip Racing and driver Martin Truex Jr. Frankly, the only thing that surprised me was that this wasn’t announced sooner. It’s rather difficult for a sponsor to justify continued sponsorship of a team of known cheaters, so why everyone got so up and arms about this news yesterday perplexed me, quite frankly. You hate to see it for all of the innocent employees at MWR, but the simple fact is that MWR is getting what they asked for. But I digress…
Getting back to how this news affects the #56 team this weekend, it has to be incredibly demoralizing. Seeing that the team does not have sponsorship lined up for the 2014 season, good runs are absolutely paramount in order to secure more sponsorship. Given all that has happened to this team in the past week and a half, it’s hard to think they will have any mental wherewithal left to mount the late season surge that they now desperately need.
Martin Truex Jr. and his #56 team are in very serious trouble. They are now suddenly in a position of “perform or lose your job.” If they have any hope of staying afloat as a team heading into the future, a strong run is absolutely necessary in order to secure future sponsorship. Sadly, I just don’t see it happening. A team can only take so many ego hits before it simply crumbles to the ground, and I am afraid that is exactly what we are going to see the start of this weekend.
If only Clint could have gotten that poison oak treated sooner….
2. Can New Hampshire put on another exciting show?
For years, I have ripped apart New Hampshire Motor Speedway any time I had to discuss the oft-maligned racing at the facility. However, after this past June’s race at the speedway, I have to admit that my opinion of the track changed for the greater.
Indeed, the summer 2013 event, a sizzling, slambang affair won by underdog Brian Vickers, was exactly what the doctor ordered to restore faith in NHMS’s ability to stage exciting races. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made the race so much better than the many preceding races at the track. My guess is that the Gen 6 car, which has proven to be a huge success on the series’ short tracks, had a lot to do with it. The Gen 6 car allows the drivers to race much more aggressively on the series’ short tracks, which helps foster more contact and close racing.
That recipe proved to be a success for NHMS just a few short months ago, and I am fairly confident that you will see a similar style of race once again. With the added pressures of the Chase, and a short track tire that seems to be improving, this weekend’s race has the potential to continue the latest strange trend in the NASCAR world: solid racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
3. Can Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebound from their Chicagoland woes?
For a while during last Sunday’s race in Chicagoland, it appeared as though Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were going to kick their 2013 Chase runs with a bang. Each driver qualified well and ran in the top 10 for the majority of the race. With fellow Chasers such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon experiencing mid-race troubles, it looked like Logano and Earnhardt Jr. (among others) could capitalize with a good points day.
But as we all know, one’s luck can change in a heartbeat in this sport. Logano and Earnhardt Jr. would end up experiencing this fact firsthand, with each driver succumbing to heartbreaking engine failures late in the going of the race. With each driver in deep holes entering the second race of the Chase, many have questioned whether either driver can rebound in New Hampshire and throw themselves back in the hunt.
Frankly, I am not all that confident that either driver will be able to pull it off. Neither driver has a particularly strong track record at New Hampshire as of late (both are outside of the top 10 in terms of average finish at the track in the past four Sprint Cup events), and as such a rebound performance on Sunday does not seem very likely.
Regardless, it will certainly be a key story to watch on Sunday as each driver finds himself with his back against the wall, needing to grab every position he can in order to make himself relevant again in the points.
4. Which Chase front runner can capitalize? Who is the favorite to win?
With all of the momentum that Matt Kenseth is carrying into this weekend’s race, it would seem shortsighted to overlook him as a favorite to win. However, given how utterly terrible Matt Kenseth’s record is at New Hampshire, I have a hard time justifying him as a true favorite. Kenseth boasts a perplexing terrible 18.7 average finish at NHMS in the past 10 races at the facility. Yikes. No matter how much momentum the Wisconsinite is carrying into the weekend, do not be fooled into inserting him into your fantasy lineup.
Instead, the guy you should focus your attention to this weekend would be none other than Jimmie Johnson. Johnson is second to third in the series’ standings and is coming off a strong finish last weekend in Chicagoland. More importantly, however, Johnson has an uber-strong 7.9 average finish at NHMS over the past 10 races at the track, meaning he is as safe a bet as any to deliver a strong run or even a win on Sunday.
Don’t overthink this one. Johnson is always a safe pick to win at any track, and his track record at NHMS is second to none. He is the favorite to win the Sylvania 300.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 GEICO 400:
1. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
2. 24 – Jeff Gordon
3. 18 – Kyle Busch
4. 78 – Kurt Busch
5. 5 – Kasey Kahne
6. 55 – Brian Vickers
7. 11 – Denny Hamlin
8. 56 – Martin Truex, Jr.
9. 14 – Mark Martin
10. 39 – Ryan Newman
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