Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LOUDON, NH – The Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) falls during a distinct and unique portion of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule – a time when several drivers have claimed stake as championship favorites and several drivers typically carrying that torch still need to lock in for a title run.
The top of the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings illustrates that point.
The 2020 series champion Chase Elliott became the first three-race winner of the 2022 season with a maiden victory at his “home track” the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet continues to lead the championship standings for the 15th week – and is currently up 47 points on Ryan Blaney in second place.
Elliott has won two of the last three races – at Nashville and Atlanta – but no driver has won back-to-back races this year.
Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney would like to continue that streak and break into the win column himself, a trophy to accentuate the season of high performance. He has four top-10 finishes in nine New Hampshire races with a best of fourth place in 2019. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has finished in the top-10 in four of the last five races leading into New Hampshire, including a season-best third-place finish at Nashville Superspeedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell would surely like to transfer some of his Xfinity Series good juju to his NASCAR Cup Series work at New Hampshire. He’s won the last three Xfinity races at the New England-mile, and he was runner-up to race winner Aric Almirola in last year’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
Kevin Harvick (4 wins), Kyle Busch (3), Kurt Busch (3), Denny Hamlin (3), Brad Keselowski (2), Joey Logano (2) and defending race winner Almirola have all earned giant lobsters in New Hampshire Victory Lane.
Of the seven former active New Hampshire winners, Almirola, Keselowski and Harvick are still racing for a win and what could be an automatic Playoff berth.
None of the three are currently ranked in the top-16 of the points standings to earn that Playoff position. Harvick, who currently has a 62-race winless streak (dating back to Bristol, Tenn., 2020) has four wins at New Hampshire – most among active drivers. He sits 17th in the standings – 19 points behind Christopher Bell. He has made the Playoffs for the last 12 consecutive years -also a high mark among active drivers.
And, the 2014 series champ has been particularly successful at New Hampshire, finishing in the top-10, 22 times, nearly 60 percent of his starts. Of those 13 are top-five finishes.
Counting Harvick’s back-to-back wins in 2018-19 and Almirola’s victory last year, Stewart-Haas Racing has won three of the last four New Hampshire races. However, SHR has only a single win in 2022 – Chase Briscoe’s trophy at Phoenix in March – also a one-mile track.
Keselowski is also a multi-time New Hampshire Cup winner, hoisting a pair of trophies (2014 and 2020). And that solid resume must be encouraging for the new team owner, who has only two top-10 finishes in 2022 – a best of ninth-place in the season-opening Daytona 500 – since becoming a partial owner in the RFK Racing operation.
A major early season penalty has left him playing catch-up and he is ranked 30th in points, essentially needing a win in one of the remaining seven regular season races to get in to the Playoffs. He’s qualified for the Playoffs every year of his career, winning the championship in 2012.
Qualifying is set for Saturday at 12:20 p.m. ET. There will be two rounds of single car time trials.
New Magic Mile winner guaranteed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series
Judging by recent precedent, there is one important key to earning a victory in Saturday’s Crayon 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Beat Christopher Bell.
The now third-year NASCAR Cup Series driver Bell has won the last three New Hampshire Xfinity races and been so dominant that his combined margin of victory in the last two races is more than 10-seconds. He led 151 of the 200 laps in 2021 and 186 laps in his 2019 win (there was no race in 2020 because of COVID-19).
The good news for the rest of the field is that Bell is not entered this year and it certainly presents an interesting competitive situation. There are no former New Hampshire winners among the fulltime NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers. Current championship leader A.J. Allmendinger has only a single start at New Hampshire (12th place last year) and Ty Gibbs, who is second place in the standings, has never previously competed in a Xfinity Series race at the one-mile New England oval.
Both Allmendinger and Gibbs are looking to regain championship form after a challenging race in Atlanta last Saturday. Allmendinger, went down two laps early at Atlanta but came back to salvage a 10th-place finish in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.
Gibbs, driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was involved in an accident and finished 35th at Atlanta – which equaled his worst showing of the season (at Talladega, Ala.). The differential between points leader Allmendinger and second place Gibbs atop the championship, widened from 9-points before Atlanta to 29 points entering the New Hampshire race.
Veteran Justin Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, has the most New Hampshire starts among the championship contenders. In 10 starts, he’s earned a pair of top-fives and seven top-10 finishes. And he is coming off his career-best finish of runner-up last year.
Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate Noah Gragson is certainly aiming to turn in a good showing this week. The driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet was penalized 30 driver points (and fined $35,000) for aggressive driving at the Elkhart Lake, Wisc. road course two weeks ago. The penalty and a sixth-place finish at Atlanta has put him fifth in the standings, 67 points behind Allmendinger.
Seven drivers have secured a Playoff berth with wins – Allmendinger, Gibbs, Allgaier, Josh Berry, Gragson, Austin Hill and Brandon Jones. Landon Cassill holds an 80-point advantage over Anthony Alfredo for the 12th and final Playoff spot with nine races remaining in the regular season.
Practice for the race is Friday at 5:05 p.m. ET followed by qualifying at 5:35 p.m. ET