1. WHO CAN BEAT JOE GIBBS RACING?
Following the first race of the Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing is sitting pretty. The team’s four cars are sitting first through fourth in points, injured driver Denny Hamlin is through to the next round by virtue of his win at Chicagoland and they have won nine of the last 12 races, including New Hampshire back in July.
So it stands to be asked: who in the world can knock Coach and co. out of Victory Lane?
Historically, you’d hear Hendrick Motorsports as the answer, but not this season. The usually dominant team has only won six times in 2015, with its last triumph coming at Daytona in July. Its last non-restrictor plate win? Jimmie Johnson all the way back in May.
Harvick needs a win to guarantee himself a second-round berth and has been fantastic at Loudon recently. His last three races at the track saw two third-place finishes and a 30th stemming from a dry fuel tank on a green-white-checkered finish. With Loudon’s similarities to Phoenix, a track at which Harvick has won five of the last six races, he’ll be tough to beat.
For Logano and Keselowski, their Team Penske Fords have been the only serious challengers to Gibbs’ dominance, with Logano winning two races during the 12-race stretch. The driver of the No. 22 won this race last year, and finished fourth in the summer, so expect Logano to be stout when the green flag flies. Keselowski, who won here back in July 2014 and finished second earlier this year, is riding a streak of 10 top-10 finishes. A win is due for him soon.
2. WILL KEVIN HARVICK PLAY NICE?
Harvick has finished second 10 times this season, in the top 10 22 times and has two wins. Yet following Chicagoland, he is next to last in the Chase (and the only reason he isn’t last is because of Clint Bowyer‘s penalty), 22 points behind the cutoff line to making it to the Contender Round of the Chase.
The points deficit came courtesy of contact from Johnson, pushed underneath Harvick by Logano on a mid-race restart. On lap 138, just laps after the contact, Harvick’s tire went flat and he ended up in the wall.
Harvick appeared extremely upset following the race, and television cameras caught him shoving Johnson in the motorcoach lot before being restrained and ushered into an SUV. When asked how he would recover from the setback, he said one word: “win.”
If only it were that easy. Harvick of all people should know how hard it is to win; his 10 second-place finishes can attest to that. Can Harvick, therefore, win one of the next two races without roughing up the competition?
I’m not just talking about Johnson. Six-time should assume he has a target on his back. But what about the others? If Harvick is running third again in the closing laps and can’t cleanly get around his competition, might fans see an old school bump-and-run? My guess is yes. Harvick won’t dilly-dally but rather punch his ticket through by pushing through the competition.
It worked for Ryan Newman last season, remember?
3. WILL WE SEE THE DRAMA OF LAST SEPTEMBER?
Last fall’s Chase race at New Hampshire was quite the show. Multiple Chase drivers got themselves into trouble throughout the 303-lap event, including hard hits into the wall by Hamlin and Kurt Busch, relegating them to 36th and 37th, respectively. Keselowski spun early but recovered to finish seventh. Jeff Gordon was running at the front when he hit the turn 1 wall late and finished 26th. Harvick called out race winner Logano for jumping the final restart. The drama!
Will we see it again this week?
As the only shorter track in the Challenger Round, New Hampshire is well-suited for the fireworks the Chase provides. Close-quarters racing, dive bombs into the corner and one-groove turns — all of these can make for exciting racing and NHMS has it all.
Pay particular attention to the races of those on the outside looking in. For Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Harvick, they’ll run one of two races. If other Chase drivers get into early trouble, they’ll play it more conservative and make up the ground in the points. If not, they’ll have to push harder, which could come back to bite them.
For Bowyer, he’s got to win. Nothing else will do. After being hit with a penalty that wiped out all the points he earned last week, his only shot at a Contender Round berth is winning. He’s done it at Loudon twice before.
4. DOES DENNY HAMLIN PLAY IT SAFE?
Despite tearing his ACL a couple of weeks ago, Hamlin won the race last weekend at Chicagoland, overcoming a lap 2 spin and a pack or drivers on four tires on the final restart. The victory put him securely into the second round of the Chase, meaning the team can go out and enjoy the next two weeks. Go all out for victories.
Or… stay out of harm’s way?
Since he’s set through Dover, who is to say Hamlin shouldn’t play it safe the next couple of weeks? Back out of the corner when things get hairy or let a faster car by — especially if it’s his teammate? Doing so gives him a lesser chance at crashing and aggravating his knee. With the ultimate goal a championship, is playing safe the right move?
For Hamlin, it isn’t. He’s already perceived by many as a fragile driver. Backing down only fuels those arguments. Hamlin knows he needs to be mentally prepared as well as physically prepared — and doing anything less than race with the intent of winning impairs that mental preparation.
Hamlin has raced injured before and won races while doing so. He won’t change this time.