Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LOUDON, NH – Stewart-Haas Racing newest addition to the driver lineup, Ryan Preece arrived in New Hampshire especially optimistic about earning his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at what he considers his “home track.’’
The Connecticut native figures he has easily turned more laps and run more races at New Hampshire than at any other track that circuit visits.
Although Preece earned his career first pole position at Nashville last month, he is still racing for his maiden series victory and he currently sits 81 points below the Top-16 Playoff cutoff line.
This weekend is important to him.
“New Hampshire is a place I’ve had a lot of laps on – a lot more than most tracks we go to’’ said Preece, who drives the No. 41 SHR Ford. “I feel really comfortable here. It’s that energy you have, that swagger when you walk into a race track where you feel comfortable. New Hampshire was definitely a track going into it, that I know what I need as a race car driver to find victory lane or run really well.’’
Kyle Busch’s three victory total so far in 2023 already tops his season win tally in each of the last three seasons.
The two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion sits in second place in the standings – only 36 points behind leader William Byron heading into Sunday’s New Hampshire race.
The driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet said Saturday that he absolutely has his eyes set on challenging for the regular season title and the extra points bonus that pays for the 10-race Playoffs to close out the year.
“I think I was looking at it about race two or three,’’ Busch said with a laugh, noting the regular season priority. “I think you always kind of try to keep a pulse on it and just kind of see what’s going on. Seven weeks ago, we weren’t looking too good. But we’ve made some really good headway in the last seven weeks of being able to work our way back up the points standings and get ourselves closer to that front.
“I was doing a points study earlier this week. We’re 120 stage points less than William Byron. And if I had half of that I’d be leading the points by 20, you know what I mean. We have to be able to execute better in the stages to get stage points. That’s what it’s going to come down to. We know our weaknesses, just still trying to figure out how to improve that.’’
Kevin Harvick’s four wins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway are most among drivers. Should he collect a record fifth winner’s lobster at the New England-miler, it would be his first trip to New Hampshire Victory Lane since 2019 and first trip to any victory lane since the 2014 series champion’s back-to-back victories last summer at Michigan and Richmond, Va.
In recognition of Harvick’s retirement at the end of the season, New Hampshire presented Harvick with a personalized musket, a nod to historical nature of the area.
“It’s just been a good place for us to race throughout the years,’’ said Harvick, who not only has a series high win total here, but Top-5 finishes in nine of the last 12 races, including three wins in the just the last eight trips to the oval.
“I grew up on a lot of the short tracks and flat short tracks out West and we spent a lot of time at RCR [Richard Childress Racing] at a lot of the flat tracks – and always ran good. That carried over to Stewart-Haas Racing and just wound up being one of our really good spots.
“I feel like four wins should be 10, but I feel like that at a lot of places. So, I guess that’s just the racer’s mentality on how you think about things. It’s been a great place to race and I’ve seen it go through some different transitions as far as the layout of the track, but it’s been fun to come here and we have a great following up here.’’
With only seven races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field, drivers concede there is a very real uptick in intensity. Obviously, where they sit in the championship standings affects their approach. This, they say, is exactly the kind of season-long intensity this NEXT Gen car has created.
“I think the intensity is as much as ever, with how much Playoff points matter, I think it matters even more now because there’s not real clear favorites, there’s not cars that are the fast car every single week now,’’ said Penske Racing’s Joey Logano, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion. “Knowing that, collecting Playoff points and doing great in the regular season becomes more important.
“You can probably group five or six cars together and say those are the favorites and then everyone else is trying to catch them, but I don’t there’s like “that’s the guy.” He may be for four or five weeks and then everybody catches up to him. It doesn’t take much to get ahead these days or get behind.”
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell will start Sunday’s Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway exactly where he finished his last start at the 1.058-mile New England track: in position No. 1.
Bell, 28, won Saturday’s pole qualifying session for the Crayon 301 with a lap of 124.781 mph in the No. 20 JGR Toyota – just a tick faster – .007-seconds – than his teammate, Martin Truex Jr., who will start his No. 19 JGR Toyota alongside on the front row.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola was close to earning his second pole in as many weeks – putting his No. 10 SHR Ford only .18-second off Bell’s work. He’ll start on the second row next to fellow Ford driver Joey Logano in the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford Mustang.
It’s the first pole position of the year for Bell and fifth of his career and it comes at a track where the Oklahoma-native has already established himself one of the very best. He joins Kyle Busch as the only two drivers with victories in all three of NASCAR’s national series at New Hampshire – highlighted by last year’s NASCAR Cup Series win and also including three consecutive NASCAR Xfinity race wins from 2018-21 and a 2017 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory.
“The amount of sliding around we did today, the lack of grip, I think the cream is going to rise to the top [in the race],” Bell said. “The good drivers, good cars will be able to pass and get their way to the front. I start at the front and hopefully we stay up there but this is a place where people will try different strategies by staying out, taking two tires, short-pitting, long-pitting, whatever the case may be so you’re not guaranteed to just start out front and stay there all day.”
The remaining top qualifiers include Penske Racing’s Joey Logano and 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick will start fifth and sixth on the third row. Current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader William Byron was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to advance to the final qualifying round and he will start his No. 24 Chevrolet seventh – alongside Reddick’s teammate Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 Toyota.
Brad Keselowski – a two-time New Hampshire race winner – will start the No. 6 Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Ford ninth, alongside a fellow champion of the sport, three-time New Hampshire NASCAR Cup Series race winner Kyle Busch in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick – a four-time New Hampshire winner – will start 13th in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He is attempting to become the track’s all-time winningest driver in his final start before retiring at the conclusion of the season.
Noah Gragson was the top qualifying rookie. He’ll roll off 29th in the Legacy Motor Club No. 42 Chevrolet. Fellow rookie Ty Gibbs will start the No. 54 JGR Toyota last in the 36-car race field.