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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Race Trax: 2006 Sylvania 300 at Loudon

On Track

The Sylvania 300 is the 27th race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule. The Nextel Cup Series races at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire International Speedway twice each year. The series returns for the first race of the Chase for the Nextel Cup this time around. The Loudon, N.H. track is a more recent fixture on the circuit, seeing its first Nextel Cup winner in Rusty Wallace in 1991. NHIS is a flat true oval with 12 degrees of banking in the turns and just two degrees on the straightaways. It’s often compared to an oversized Martinsville. The field will include the 2005 polesitter Tony Stewart and defending race winner Ryan Newman.

48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at NHIS is 133.357 mph, set by Newman in 2003.

To the Point

NHIS marks the beginning of the Chase for the Nextel Cup for the third year in a row, and the points are reset now. Points leader Matt Kenseth has just a five-point advantage over second-place Jimmie Johnson heading to New Hampshire, and a mere 45 points over 10th-place Kasey Kahne. New Hampshire doesn’t make a champion, but it can break one. In each of the last two years, Jeremy Mayfield saw an NHIS crash widen the point spread from the get-go and was never able to recover.

This year’s Chase field includes just three drivers who can boast their third appearance; Kenseth, Johnson and seventh-place Mark Martin. Third-place driver Kevin Harvick makes his Chase debut, as does fourth-place Kyle Busch. Rounding out the top 10 are Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Kahne. The race for 11th is currently all about Stewart, who leads Greg Biffle by 264 points for the spot.

What to Expect

Expect better racing than you think at the Magic Mile. NHIS has made several improvements to the track in an attempt to increase passing, and although the tight flat turns are still tricky, there is much more side-by-side racing than there used to be. Unfortunately for TV viewers, there is a lot of racing in the middle of the pack that never gets shown. However, last fall’s race featured a duel for the lead between Newman and Stewart that took most of the late laps to decide in Newman’s favor. It also featured a confrontation between Kahne and Kurt Busch that ended with Kahne being parked for the remainder of the race. It seems NASCAR won’t put up with deliberate retaliation, at least where the Chase drivers are involved.

You’ll also see your share of cautions, although at least one round of green-flag pit stops is a usual occurrence. One race had a whopping 17 caution periods in 1994, but that’s not the usual. Still, little Loudon races like a short track, so beating and banging – and some crashing – are a part of the game here.

Also expect qualifying to be of high importance to the teams. Although this race has been won from as deep as 38th starting spot, most winners have started inside the top 10. With two practice sessions after qualifying, teams will have plenty of time to dial in their race setups later.

Who to Watch

Burton has more NHIS wins than any other driver, and has been oh-so-close to victory lane this year. NHIS might be his best chance to solidify his championship bid. Among the Chasers, Johnson has the best average finish at NHIS (his resume includes a pair of wins) of any contender except rookie Hamlin, who has run NHIS once and finished sixth, and might well have finished second if not for a fuel gamble. Look for Hamlin to be strong again.

Newman is almost always a contender at the Magic Mile, as is Stewart, who has nothing to lose after failing to make the Chase as the defending Champ, the first time that’s happened. Stewart and Newman tangled in the summer race at Loudon, effectively ending their chances for the win. Gordon has nine top-five finishes at NHIS, most of any active driver, and Dale Jarrett nearly always has a solid run at this track.

Did You Know?

  • Three drivers have claimed their first Nextel Cup victory at NHIS? Joe Nemechek, Robby Gordon and Newman can all claim a NHIS win as their first.
  • Although Sylvania is a major track sponsor, NHIS has no lights? A Loudon noise ordinance prohibits night racing.
  • Ford has more NHIS victories (10) than any other manufacturer?
  • Two sets of brothers have found Nextel Cup victory lane at NHIS? Jeff and Ward Burton both have Magic Mile wins, as do Kurt and Kyle Busch. In addition, Rusty Wallace has a Nextel Cup win at NHIS, while brother Kenny Wallace has a Busch Series trophy from the track.

You Don’t Say

“We’ve accomplished the goal we set for this team at the start of the season – make the Chase. That’s the only way you can win the Nextel Cup. Now, it’s the start of another season as we have our sights set on doing everything we can to challenge for the championship in the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Charger.” – Kasey Kahne on the Chase for the Nextel Cup

“I don’t think we look at it that way. We’re going to go out and worry about ourselves. Obviously, there are 10 guys out there each week that we’re going to try to be careful around, because we realize they are racing for a championship. I know how much it meant to me that all of the other competitors were careful around us when we were trying to win our championship last year. We’re going to try to be as courteous as they would be. It’s kind of hard to go out and race people hard while at the same time making sure that you’re not putting any of those 10 guys in jeopardy. We’re going to do our best to race as hard as we can, and race hard around the guys that are in the Chase, but at the same time, try and win races.” – Tony Stewart on having no pressure after being eliminated form the Chase and on how he will race against the Chasers

“I want to win a championship bad, and being in the Chase is the first big step in doing that. I’m honored to be in the Chase. I’m happy for my team, because they gave me such great effort all year. They deserve this. My fans deserve it. My sponsors deserve it. Everyone who stuck with us through last year deserves being a part of this Chase for the Championship, so I hope they soak it up, because I know I am.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. on making the Chase and driving for a championship

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