Once the Chase’s first race, NASCAR’s September trip to New Hampshire was bumped to number two in the order just prior to the 2011 season. The powers that be had their reasons why; major market versus small-town Northeast, one-date track that now was provided with some type of unique postseason twist. But the second trip to the Magic Mile will also be second for a reason you won’t expect; we’re still searching for the second on-track pass for the lead, under green this Chase. So for those looking for a gravy train of momentum from the move, leading to increased attendance and excitement surrounding what was a “ho-hum” Chase debut track to begin with – you’re in for a long wait. It’s still at the station.
Yes, Chicagoland is in a major market. But the fifth Burning Question this week should be why the sport chose to take a C+, turn it into a D- and hope for the best for what teams and fans supposedly go through 26 races for.
Here’s what to watch for heading into New Hampshire…
*1. Can another Hendrick driver overshadow J.J. – at least for a week?*
Hendrick Motorsports has four cars in the Chase, but after Chicagoland the actual number of championship contenders feels like two. Jeff Gordon’s bout with the wall is well documented, and Junior? A top-10 result after coming from the rear, post-engine failure in practice is admirable but filled with the “close, not close enough” feel that’s defined a roller coaster summer around the top of the points. In a postseason where you need to be able to string wins together, possibly two or three, the driver of the No. 88 has two wins in the last _seven seasons._ Doesn’t feel like a title contender to me.
So that leaves two candidates to shine out of the HMS camp, Johnson and … Kasey Kahne? After recovering from an awful start, Kahne was one of the hottest drivers on the Cup Series circuit this summer but lost media attention to other Chase contenders down the stretch. Now, after one of the quietest third-place finishes to start a Chase he heads to the Magic Mile a bit of a darkhorse. The July race winner there, he’s just 15 points out of the top spot and guaranteed to close the gap by at least three, likely much more with a season sweep. Teammate Johnson, while the winningest postseason driver in history, has never won the New Hampshire “Chase race” since its inception in 2004. This summer, he was seventh and was hardly a factor up front, opening the door for someone else to take control this weekend.
Some automatically assumes it will be Keselowski, but they’d be mistaken; he was fifth at New Hampshire earlier in 2012, has an average finish there of just 15.3 and led a total of six laps during his career. That opens the door for the No. 5 car to make its own statement; and considering Dover up ahead, where Johnson is expected to dominate, the time is now or never.
*2. Will Stewart-Haas make their move?*
Last season, the Magic Mile was magical for one team and one team only: Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart combined to lead 231 of 601 laps, and won a Cup event each while Newman won both poles. Last September, Stewart’s second straight win in the Chase, on fuel mileage, set the stage for what would be a historic drive to the championship.
Fast forward to 2012 and the magic is gone. Newman isn’t even in the 12-man postseason field, just trying to run well and attract potential 2013 sponsors while Stewart sits third in points, eight out of the lead and frustrated after a sixth-place finish at Chicagoland didn’t showcase the handling problems he fought all day. At New Hampshire in the spring, the performance reflected that downgrade in status: Newman was 10th, Stewart was 12th and neither led even a single lap. That performance cannot be repeated if SHR is to reassert itself as a top-tier NASCAR program during this Chase. Crew chief Steve Addington earlier this week assured us that after some off-track testing, the team feels confident their summer problems have been fixed.
With Johnson and Keselowski flexing their muscles early, they’re going to have to be.
*3. Can a non-Chaser spoil the party?*
Kyle Busch was a strong fourth at Chicagoland (not that it was shown all that much) and flexed muscles for a non-Chase crowd that hopes to spoil a party at some point. But the odds are going to be long out in Loudon. 12 of the top 13 drivers at New Hampshire in July made this year’s Chase, with Ryan Newman’s 10th-place finish the lone exception. While Busch won the pole, leading 72 laps all but six of those were at the start of the race – and the focus will be on Hamlin, his teammate who was second in July and needs to get on track after last Sunday’s fuel mileage debacle.
That means two things. 1) It’s going to be Chase, Chase, Chase over the course of 300 laps on Sunday… more than you’d usually expect from ESPN. 2) A 10th-place finish may hurt you a whole lot more than at other tracks, because chances are the nine drivers ahead of you may all be competing for the championship as well. You can’t win back the championship at Loudon… the expectation here will be to keep up with the Joneses and simply not do something stupid that takes you behind the wall.
*4. Are we due for a Loudon Demolition Derby?*
Fitting in with the theme of 2012, Loudon’s three cautions were notable in that none of them involved a single wreck. Lasting just 15 laps, the long green-flag runs spread out the field and, with a short race made it difficult for crew chiefs to make major adjustments. So will the Fall play out exactly the same way? A look at the past seven races at this facility tells us probably not… and if the yellow flag flies, it’s going to be early and often.
Take a look at the number of cautions during the last seven races at New Hampshire: 11, 11, 4, 8, 10, 3, 3. See the tale of two extremes? This race has also been known for wrecks which turn Chase contenders into innocent victims. The Greg Biffle/Robby Gordon payback comes to mind, in 2004 which took Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield right out of title contention. Or how about the Sterling Marlin bobble, two years later in a chain reaction wreck that slammed Jimmie Johnson into the wall?
Yes, Chase drivers might go through another Chicagoland, unscathed and with plenty of room to race. But we should be on alert; New Hampshire has at least a 50/50 chance of being a bigger game-changer than we might think.