Chase spots going fast at Loudon
LOUDON, N.H. -- You've heard it all season, and it's as true as ever Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Every regular-season Sprint Cup weekend offers a chance for a new driver to win, and in so doing likely earn a spot in NASCAR"s 16-driver Chase over the final 10 races of the season.
Although the usual suspects have won often here over the years, some visitors to Victory Lane on this 1.058-mile circuit have been a surprise.
in the eight races since the beginning of the 2010 season, six previous winners here have yet to notch a victory this season, and you can imagine Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth are aiming to change that in the Camping World RV Sales 301.
Greg Biffle is another former New Hampshire winner looking for his first victory of 2014, and the list goes on of other drivers who have run well here but have yet to win, including Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard.
"I think that there's certainly pressure to win," said Vickers, who won the July race here last year. "I think the Chase is starting to form up, especially in the win category, and we were in the Chase for a long time via points and we just had a few bad weeks and now we're not -- or actually I don't even know if we are right now.
"Just barely out. There's still that possibility and that's something we're not going to lose sight of, but a win would solve both problems and that's what we're focused on. Unfortunately, there's like 42 other guys that are focused on it, too, so that's what makes it challenging."
How do you sort it all out? New Hampshire tends to sort itself out starting with qualifying. Pit stall position is important here, and that gives those in the top 15 an advantage, with only five winners having started outside the top 15 in the past 20 races.
That bodes well for Stewart (starting fourth), McMurray (fifth), Bowyer (eighth), Kahne (10th) and Kenseth (15th).
"We had a good [qualifying] session," McMurray said. "So that was nice. It's always frustrating to not back up what you do in practice, but it was really good.
"It's a really hard racetrack, I think, for everybody. I don't know anyone that says Loudon is easy. It's hard to pass on. It's hard to be fast here. It's hard to have your car right."
Of course, led by Kyle Busch starting on the pole and Jimmie Johnson on the outside of the front row, the top 15 is littered with previous winners this year. And, as Vickers said, everyone else is shooting for that likely spot in the Chase, and, despite a qualifying effort (17th) he wasn't happy with, he still believes drivers can find speed in time for the race.
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"That certainly wasn't what we were looking for," he said. "We were pretty quick in practice, so I feel confident we'll be good in the race. We'll work on the Aaron's Dream Machine tomorrow in practice and be ready for Sunday."
For drivers such as Johnson, leading the series with three victories, it's another opportunity to collect bonus points headed into the playoffs. And with New Hampshire on the schedule as the second race in the Chase, Johnson and his crew are looking for more than just Victory Lane.
"From that perspective, absolutely; notes and understanding what the track does and all of that, yeah," he said. "We work hard at all of them, but when you compete at an event that you know is in the Chase, there seems to be an extra little step-up in paying attention to the fine details."
That's a little scary for the drivers looking to beat the six-time champion, and New Hampshire is a track that is easy to make a mistake on or have an issue with the car, as last week's winner Aric Almirola and Joey Logano saw in practice when both blew left-rear tires.
And the left-rear tire issue might bear watching as the race rolls on Sunday. Logano is certainly watching out for it, but he said there's no warning.
"Not until they go down," Logano said. "That was only the third run on the tire, so it is kind of odd.
"It is something we have had issues with with this tire. I had one go down at the Milwaukee test and I know they have had some issues when cars tested here of tires going down, and it is the left-rear all the time. I don't know what it is. I have had three of them now with this tire. Three left-rear tires go flat with this type of tire. Maybe we need to look at something we are doing that is causing it. We will figure it out."