Unique track presents challenges
LOUDON, N.H. -- Summer in New England is a lot of things. For one weekend in July, it means racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And for the participants, it represents a departure from the norm.
Not only is the speedway the only stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in this part of the country, it also provides a unique challenge to competitors who seem to either love it or hate it. That challenge comes to the forefront Sunday with the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, the first race of the second half of the season.
Matt Kenseth, the leader in the Sprint Cup standings, is one of those who probably would rather skip to the next race on docket, July 29 in Indianapolis. One of the stars of Roush Fenway Racing, he has just one single-digit finish in his previous eight races in the Granite State. He hasn't led a lap here since 2007, when he was in front for just two go-arounds.
"This place has probably been one of my biggest struggles, one of the top three or four tracks anyway," Kenseth said before practice Friday afternoon. "We ran pretty decent last fall and made our way to the front a couple times after getting spun out and got a decent finish, so I'm hoping to build on that today and get a better qualifying position than we normally get and, hopefully, get the car driving right."
Kenseth, who is leaving Roush Fenway after the season, finished sixth here last fall, his best finish at NHMS since fall 2005. His average pole position in his past five visits has been 32nd.
The 30-year-old can draw some motivation in the fact that this track, which once had a reputation as a hotbed for repeat winners, recently has played wide open. NHMS, which also hosts the Sylvania 300 in September, the second of the 10 races in the Chase for the Cup, has had eight different winners in the past eight races. It also often requires someone with seasoning behind the wheel, as full-time Cup drivers tend to perform best.
Perhaps the challenges of the flat corners, the urgency of the shorter races and the fact that more drivers are willing to gamble in the second half of the year make it a difficult place for drivers to survive.
"It is different. It's not really a short track and it's not your typical mile and a half," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of the 1.058-mile oval. "It's different and it's fun. The race here I think is like the perfect length. Just everything about it is enjoyable.
"Every lap is important because the race is so short. You have to race really hard all day long because the position even in the first 100 laps is one you might not get back in the next 200 laps. It goes by so quick so you can't really be too patient. You're going to have to work every lap."
Earnhardt sits in second place, 25 points behind Kenseth. Those two have never won in New Hampshire. Among those hot on their heels is Jimmie Johnson, a former NHMS winner. In fact, he has hit victory lane three times here, including the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 just two years ago.
The five-time Cup winner often has used July as a springboard toward success in the fall. Mastering Loudon, or at least performing well here (eight of his past 10 runs have resulted in top-10 finishes) has been part of the formula.
"It is a tough track, there's no doubt about that," Johnson said. "What we do here and the type of racing and setup and track, doesn't really apply to anywhere else."
Johnson made a vague reference to a statistic relating success in Indy and success in the Chase. The proof is in the pudding at New Hampshire, where three of the past eight summertime winners at Loudon have claimed the Sprint Cup, and each of the past nine Cup titlists have finished in the top-10 at the summertime race in Loudon.
It was apparent as practice began Friday on a very hot track that the intensity had been ratcheted up in the series, teams fully cognizant of the challenge they face Sunday afternoon.
Others have incentive beyond simply climbing the ladder. While Kenseth shrugged aside the notion of feeling any pressure from having the NESN logo on his car and the backing of the Fenway Sports Group based out of nearby Boston, teammate (for now) Carl Edwards was quick to point out that it was at the forefront of his mind.
"With all the Red Sox fans up here it would be a huge honor to win for them," said Edwards, who enters Sunday in 11th place. "This is as good a place as any to get that win."
Despite his optimism, Edwards is still with Kenseth in his inability to figure out Loudon. He has just three top-10s in 15 races here and remains baffled.
"I don't understand how a track that is so outwardly simple, just an oval ... some days I have just struggled," Edwards said before urging media members to give him some help. "If you see anything, let me know."
What each driver has seen is a product not only of the challenging course, but also of its location. There simply isn't a massive NASCAR presence in these parts, which engenders plenty of enthusiasm on those rare race days.
Even a guy who struggles here can attest to that.
"It's not really racing that I really followed and me being more from the Midwest, I probably don't know a lot about it," Kenseth said. "But it seems like -- I didn't come up here when they first built the speedway, it's been before I started, but you can tell there's always been a lot of excitement up here. It's a ways away from a lot of other NASCAR tracks, so I know that ever since the series first started coming up here, there has been a lot of excitement."
And difficulty. And intensity. And challenge. All part of summer in New England, at least on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Tony Lee is a regular contributor to ESPNBoston.com.