Demolition was the word at last week’s Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway, as race fans got to see not only a not-so “big one”, a true “big one”, but also a Checkered Flag “big one”, as Tony Stewart breezed to the win after starting way back in the forty-second position. One could only expect a wild finish, with a multitude of Fantasy teams suffering a really bad week (myself included). It just proves that starting position does not mean a whole lot when running at a Superspeedway like Daytona or Talladega. As long as you can survive, you can likely put up a decent finish. Jeff Burton was the surprise runner-up, with Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr, and Bobby Labonte rounding out the top ten.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) series returns for its first of two races this season at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS), a 1.058-mile oval track located near the foot of the White Mountains in Loudon New Hampshire, for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. It’s 301 laps for 318.485 miles, on an essentially flat track (2 degree banking) with slight banking (12 degrees) in the turns. This will be race nineteen of the thirty-six race season, and drivers will be taking their notes for not only a run at Victory Lane and a chance to hold up the giant lobster (pronounced “Lobstah” here in New England), but also to prepare themselves for the next race here at NHMS in September, for the second race of the Chase.
Race coverage begins Sunday at 10:00am EDT with the NASCAR Raceday Pre-Race show on SPEED, TNT’s NASCAR Countdown at 12:00pm EDT, with the race broadcast itself on TNT starting at 1pm EDT (This will be TNT’s last NSC race broadcast of the season, giving way to ESPN and ABC for the remainder of the 2012). Emma Joanis, 12-yr old winner of the Speedway Star competition, will perform the National Anthem, with the Green Flag waving at approximately 1:16pm EDT today.
Best Bets: Two drivers who have already scored victories this season lead off my picks for this week.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Freight Toyota)- Hamlin normally does well at these relatively flat tracks, and NHMS is no exception. He’s scored runner-up finishes in the last two summer races here, and has finished first and fourth at tracks that are similar in configuration to NHMS (Phoenix and Richmond). Hamlin’s got one win, five top-tive, and eight top-ten finishes here, and with the two wins, eight top-five, and nine top-ten finishes so far this season (Denny’s slowly moving his way into a good position to go for the Sprint Cup championship this year). He’ll start behind Coors Light Pole Award winner Kyle Busch in third, and won both the second and third (final) practice sessions on Saturday.
Tony Stewart (#14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy)- Smoke pulled off quite the victory last week at Daytona, and he’s planning on keeping that momentum going. He won the fall race here last year as one of his five victories during the Chase, and has been in the top fourteen finishers in three of the last four races at NHMS. Stewart’s now got three wins, eight top-five, and nine top-ten finishes this season, and plans a whole lot more to repeat his performance of last season. To that end, Smoke has three wins, fourteen top-five, and sixteen stop-ten finishes at NHMS to back that planning up. Tony starts tenth, and was nineteenth in final practice, so he may have some work to do.
Probables: These two consistent performers this season will be up front today.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Johnson won here in the fall of 2010, and has finished in the top twenty-five in all of the last four NHMS races. He’s got three wins, seven top-five, and thirteen top-ten finishes here, and he has no plan on letting up. With two wins, nine top-five, and thirteen top-ten finishes so far this season, Johnson wants to be ranked better than fourth in the NSC points standings. He’ll start seventh, and was fifth-fastest in Happy Hour.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Brad started off the weekend on a good foot, winning the Nationwide Series race here at NHMS Saturday. While winless here in the NSC points race, he’s scored second and eighteenth in the last two races. Keselowski has managed to put three wins, five top-five, and eight top-ten finishes in the books so far this year, and is among the most promising of the young drivers right now in the NSC points standings. He’ll look to improve his ninth-place position in those points standings this week; while starting back in twenty-second, he was third-fastest in final practice, so expect him to move up fast.
Dark Horses: One of my DH’s will be off to a good start on Sunday, but he’s had a shaky season so far.
Kyle Busch (#18 Interstate Batteries Toyota)- The younger of the Busch brothers has had a rough time this season, contending with a number of poor performances. But NHMS is one track where he’s managed to do fairly well. Busch’s finished no worse than eleventh in the last four NHMS outings, and he’s scored a win, four top-five, and six top-tens at Loudon overall. With one win, five top-fives, and eight top-tens this season, he desperately needs some good finishes for these last eight races before Richmond. He was the Coors Light Pole award winner, so he’ll lead the field to Green Sunday; he also was second-fastest in final practice. Don’t be surprised if Busch takes off at the start of the race, and start lapping cars early. He just needs to keep himself off the wall and hope his motor doesn’t let out on him.
Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevy)- Kasey is one driver that has had a less-than-stellar season, despite his one victory. He’s managed four top-five and nine top-ten finishes along with that one win, but has suffered during many of the other races with poor performances. Kasey’s only had a fourteeth and fifteenth-place finish over the last four NHMS outings, and is winless at the Granite Stripe, although he’s only posted one top-five and six top-tens. Eleven of his thirteen NSC wins have come on intermediate tracks, and I’m guessing he’s going to have a good day Sunday. He’ll start on the outside of the front row beside Kyle Busch, and was eighth-fastest in Happy Hour.
Some other drivers to keep an eye out for include Sam Hornish Jr (filling in the #22 Shell Pennzoil/AAA Dodge for AJ Allmendinger), Kevin Harvick and his #29 Rheem Chevy, Clint Bowyer’s #15 5-Hour Energy Toyota, and his #56 NAPA Auto Parts teammate in Martin Truex, Jr. Each of these drivers show some promise, but unfortunately didn’t perform well enough in practice and qualifying to score a top pick.
You’ll note I didn’t pick any of the Roush Fenway Fords this week for the first time this season. Jack Roush’s three-some of NSC points leader Matt Kenseth, third-place Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards have had a rough go at Loudon. Between these three championship-grade teams, there are only two wins here at NHMS. While the “Roushketeers” have dominated at other tracks, typically the 1.5-mile ovals, they’ve struggled here. In fact, only Greg Biffle will start in the top-twenty Sunday (11th). If they have good runs, it’ll be a welcome change for the “Cat in the Hat”.
Rumor Mill: Lots of newsworthy items this past week. Here are just a few…
Barrier Breaking- This weekend PRN brings back Wendy Venturini to help Mark Garrow out in the broadcast booth for Saturday’s F.W. Webb 200 NNS race, after a swell of fan response to Venturini’s broadcast debut for the NNS Race in Charlotte a few weeks ago. Wendy is the first female to co-host a NASCAR radio broadcast, and is a regular on SPEED’s NASCAR Raceday. I doubt it will be her last.
Hornish “Dings” the bell- After testing positive for an illegal substance, NASCAR officials temporarily suspended Penske’s Shell/Pennzoil Dodge driver AJ Allmendinger, just hours before last week’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Sam Hornish Jr, still at home in Charlotte, got the call and arrived at Daytona just minutes before the Green Flag dropped last week. Back in the #22 Dodge again this week, Hornish is looking to keep the ride for the remainder of the 2012 NSC season. While Allmendinger is appealing NASCAR’s decision, he’ll have to sit out this week yet again. Will this give Hornish the break he needs to get back into NSC competition full-time? Time will only tell.
“Smokin’” Performance- Reigning NSC Champion Tony Stewart received the award for “Best Driver” at the 2012 ESPY awards this past week on ESPN. The three-time NSC champion narrowly edged out Carl Edwards last season for the win, after scoring victories in five of the ten Chase races (the NSC “Playoffs”). Stewart commented, ““I am thrilled to win the ‘Best Driver’ award after what turned out to be a great NASCAR season last year. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the checkered flag when it mattered most.” He continued, “There were some great drivers and great champions in this category, so I cannot thank the NASCAR fans and everyone who voted enough for their unbelievable support” (NASCAR press release 7-14-12). After his win last week at Daytona, and strong qualifying performance for this weekend’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301, he’s only getting started, as summer typically sees Smoke’s best performances.
Who’s Yo Daddy?!!?! Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana welcomed their first child this past week. Keelan Paul Harvick was born after DeLana had made the trip back to North Carolina that Friday. Kevin was of course, relieved that the wait was over, but he said that family comes first, so if he would have had to sacrifice NSC points for the sake of being at the birth, he was OK with that. Protective as he is, his son already has a Twitter account, even just at five days old. “Well, Keelan has his own everything because I didn’t want some crazy-ass fan getting ahold of his Twitter name or a website with his name on it,” Kevin Harvick said. “ You can’t say Happy isn’t happy about being a dad, and it looks like he’s got his priorities straight. Frankly, that’s good to see. (NASCAR.com)
New England is experiencing a somewhat unseasonable stretch of warm weather, so temperatures will be well into the 90′s by race time. The weather prognosticators say there is a 60% chance of rain and showers around Loudon today, but as I write this overlooking Lake Winnepesaukee just a few miles from the track, I’m frankly not seeing it. But, of course, there is always that chance, and if it happens to rain after an absolutely breathtaking week at the foot of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, NHMS will have five jet dryers on hand to dry the track surface, or rid the track of debris after what is sure to be an event filled with many encounters with the outer wall and SAFER barrier. Turn in to TNT, your local PRN affiliate (online at www.goPRN.com), or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90) to see who hits the Granite Stripe first. And as always, follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for my in-race updates, news, and occasional rants.
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