* New Hampshire Hardly an Easy Opener * Loop Data Shows Earnhardt Jr. as New Hampshire Force * Kyle Busch Tries for New Hampshire Sweep * The Battle for 11th Place: Tony Stewart Takes the Lead NEWS AND NOTES Keys To Victory at New Hampshire:...
* New Hampshire Hardly an Easy Opener
* Loop Data Shows Earnhardt Jr. as New Hampshire Force
* Kyle Busch Tries for New Hampshire Sweep
* The Battle for 11th Place: Tony Stewart Takes the Lead
NEWS AND NOTES
Keys To Victory at New Hampshire: Don't Mess Up Final Pit Stop
New Hampshire International Speedway looks bucolic enough, surrounded by rolling hills and thick stands of evergreens.
But its flat 1.058-mile oval is no Sunday drive.
Four tight turns demand constant concentration. A minimal two degrees of banking on straightaways doesn't allow drivers to catch their breath. Which means the gentle-looking oval can rival any bear that may inhabit nearby, neighboring woods.
Mastering New Hampshire isn't a driver-only chore, however. Managing Sunday's 300-lap, 317.4-mile event is a challenge for crew chiefs, who must calculate crucial pit-stop strategy along with set-up variables. Here's why:
It pays to know this track. As the host of the first Chase event, New Hampshire assumes new importance next season when it also opens the Race to the Chase, the 10-event stretch that culminates with race No. 26 -- the September event at Richmond International Raceway that sets the Chase field. New Hampshire is the only track in the Chase and the Race to the Chase.
The last stop means all. Because track position rules here, crew chiefs prefer their final pit stop with many laps remaining -- 80 is good.
Track position crucial. Why? Passing at New Hampshire takes time, and lapped traffic represents a bigger than usual obstacle.
Stay smooth in the groove. All four New Hampshire corners require a smooth touch, which means a car must be in control through all four turns. Drivers generally like cars that are a bit loose entering each turn.
In The Loop At NHIS: Earnhardt Turns Tables on Nemesis Track
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't begin his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup career with New Hampshire on his list of favorites. Early finishes at the flat, 1.058-mile surface mirrored his frustration, but NASCAR's new Loop Data statistics illustrate his recent reversal of that trend.
Ahead of Sunday's Chase kick-off event, Earnhardt is one of two drivers who lead three categories of NASCAR's pre-race Loop Data statistics for New Hampshire.
Earnhardt also ranks in the top five of seven other categories, including second in Fastest Early in a Run (125.416 mph), in Turn 1 (113.049 mph) and Turn 3 (115.970 mph).
How does this translate?
Earnhardt has five top-10 finishes in his last seven New Hampshire starts compared to just one top-10 finish in his first seven New Hampshire starts.
And yes, he still has work to do. Earnhardt's average finish through 14 career New Hampshire starts -- 18.857 -- is the worst of any 2006 participant. He'll also look to avenge July's 43rdplace finish due to engine problems.
Reigning series champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) is the other driver who leads three pre-race Loop Data categories for New Hampshire.
Stewart leads Driver Rating (127.4), Fastest in Turn 1 (113.382 mph) and Fastest Early in a Run (125.458 mph). He also ranks in the top five of three other categories.
The winner of New Hampshire's July event, Kyle Busch, leads one category -- Fastest on the Frontstretch (141.260 mph). He ranks in the top five of six other categories.
Other Chase drivers also lead one pre-race Loop Data category for New Hampshire, include Jeff Gordon (Fastest on the Backstretch -- 141.549 mph), Denny Hamlin (Quality Passes -- 47.0 while passing top-15 cars under green-flag conditions) and Matt Kenseth (Closers -- 21 spots gained in last 10% of laps in each race).
Hamlin ranks second in Driver Rating (107.8) followed by Busch, who's third (107.7).
The Battle for 11th Place: Tony Stewart in Control, Greg Biffle in Closest Pursuit
Although Tony Stewart will be the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion who won't defend his title in the Chase's three-year history, he still has plenty of motivation.
Hamstrung by an ill-handling backup car last Saturday at Richmond, Stewart finished 18th and tumbled three spots in the standings -- from eighth to 11th -- to fall out of Chase contention.
But heading into this week's first Chase event at New Hampshire, Stewart leads the battle for 11th place, which includes a $1 million bonus at season's end and recognition during Champions Week in New York City in December.
Stewart leads the race for 11th place, which, interestingly enough, mirrors the top three of last year's final Chase standings.
He's followed by Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard Ford), who trails Stewart by 264 points. Biffle was last year's runner-up in the Chase.
Carl Edwards, who's 13th, trails Biffle by 28 points and Stewart by 292 points. Edwards finished third in last year's Chase.
Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), the 2004 series champion, is 14th in the standings. He trails Edwards by 183 points and Stewart by 475 points.
Casey Mears (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge), is 15th in the standings. He trails Busch by 13 points and Stewart by 488 points.
Manufacturers' Standings: Chevy-Ford-Dodge
Chevrolet remains firmly ahead in the Manufacturers' Championship standings, after 26 races of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season. Kevin Harvick's victory at Richmond was the 15th of the season for Chevrolet, which now has amassed 195 points.
Ford retains its second-place spot with 151 points and five victories. But Dodge continues to chip away with 148 points and six wins. Dodge gained three points at Richmond; it had trailed Ford by six points prior to last Saturday night's event at Richmond.
Heading into New Hampshire, no manufacturer seems to enjoy an advantage. All three have won once during the past four New Hampshire events.
Locked In: Petty Enterprises' No. 45 Team Still Outside Top 35
The battle to secure a starting spot in each week's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event continues this week at New Hampshire, with the No. 14 Ginn Clubs and Resorts Chevrolet driven by Sterling Marlin holding the all-important 35th and final locked-in position.
The No. 14, which last week was a mere two points ahead of Kyle Petty's No. 45 Petty Enterprises Dodge in the owner points, has a bit more breathing room this week.
Marlin's team now leads Petty's by 14 points, meaning the No. 45 will have to earn a starting spot in Sunday's event on the strength of its qualifying speed.
Petty's team is 36th in owner points, one spot outside the sanctity of the top 35, which affords a "locked-in" starting spot for the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.
Crew Member Spotlight: Roush Racing's No. 17 Features Two New Hampshire Natives
Although New Hampshire is a tiny state, it has produced a fair share of racing talent. More than a few natives will be back in their home state this weekend in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup garage, among them two members of standings leader Matt Kenseth's at-track crew.
Shock specialist Dave Paronto, who also tracks fuel mileage along with other notes, hails from Woodsville, N.H.
Teammate Ken Gober, a transporter driver who also wields his driver's stop sign on pit road, is from Derry, N.H. ...
Ira-Jo Hussey, mechanic and front tire changer for Tony Stewart's No. 20 team, hails from Manchester, N.H.
Jim Gaudette, the catch can man for Jamie McMurray's No. 26 Crown Royal Ford, is from N. Conway, N.H.
Dwayne Doucette, car chief and tire carrier for Ken Schrader's No. 21 Motorcraft Ford team, claims Exeter, N.H. as his hometown.
And the No. 17's Paronto isn't the only Woodsville native in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup garage.
Mike Brill, the car chief and chief mechanic for Casey Mears' No. 42 team also is a Woodsville native. ...
New Hampshire's neighbor state of Vermont has contributed several members of the racing community, including driver Kevin Lepage (No. 49 LoanDepot.com Dodge), who's from Shelburne. Two other Vermont-native BAM Racing team members include jackman Eric Locke, from Saint Johnsbury, and tire specialist Dan Lynch, from Cutchogue.
Rookie Report: Hamlin Not Slowing Down, Bowyer Remains Second
Denny Hamlin's quest for the 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year title shows no signs of derailing.
Last week's pole-winning performance at his hometown track, Richmond International Raceway, further cemented Hamlin's increasing claim, although mechanical problems limited him to a 15th-place finish.
Now, he's in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- the fifth-place driver in the series standings -- and the first Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate to achieve that status.
Hamlin leads his closest challenger, Clint Bowyer (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet), by 44 points.
Bowyer, the highest-finishing rookie at Richmond (12th), is having a solid season himself. He's gained four spots in the series standings in his last three races -- from 20th to 16th -- and has been lauded as an important part of the 2006 turnaround for Richard Childress Racing.
Both of Bowyer's teammates, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, are in the Chase.
Third-place Reed Sorenson (No. 41 Target Dodge) remains third, trailing Bowyer by 21 points. He finished 14th at Richmond.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet), is the new fourth-place Raybestos rookie this week, climbing one spot with his 13th-place finish at Richmond.
Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) tumbles to fifth following a 40th-place finish at Richmond.
David Stremme (No. 40 Loan Star Steakhouse Dodge) remains sixth following a 26th-place finish at Richmond.
Where In The World Is Ken Schrader?
Ken Schrader continues to be, arguably, the busiest auto racer in the country, finding time to race in a variety of disciplines in addition to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.
This week, however, he was scheduled for only one additional event before heading to New Hampshire -- a Wednesday night race at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis.
Ken Schrader's 2006 race totals
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series -- 26
NASCAR Busch Series -- 7
Budweiser Shootout -- 1
Copper World -- 2
Short track (dirt, late-model, etc.) -- 56
He's Back: Kyle Busch Ready for New Hampshire Sweep
He may be competing in his first Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, but that doesn't mean second-year series driver Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet) isn't up for the assignment.
Especially when the Chase opens at a track where he's already visited Victory Lane.
As the July winner at New Hampshire, look for Busch to return this Sunday understandably confident about Chase Race No. 1.
He has two top-five finishes in three career starts there, with a 10.66 average finish.
What's more, Busch is on a roll, having collected two runner-up finishes in his last three events. He finished second to eventual winner Matt Kenseth three weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway and eighth behind eventual winner Kasey Kahne at California Speedway two weeks ago.
Only eventual winner Kevin Harvick's last-lap move at Richmond last Saturday night prevented Busch from claiming his second win of 2006.
What's more, Busch hopes to do something that's not easy at New Hampshire -- sweep the track's pair of annual events.
It's been done only twice since New Hampshire debuted on the series schedule in 1993. Jimmie Johnson won both 2003 races and Busch's older brother Kurt Busch did it during his series championship season of 2004.
Busch, however, would do well to beware.
Now in its third season of hosting the Chase opener, New Hampshire has shown a tendency to foul participants' chances right from the start.
In 2004, Chase participants Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge), Jeremy Mayfield and Tony Stewart finished 33, 35th and 39th, respectively because of engine trouble (Newman) and accidents (Mayfield and Stewart).
In 2005, Kurt Busch finished 35th -- also because of an accident.
Here's why a good day Sunday at New Hampshire is crucial: Good finishes mean good point totals. Drivers are separated by only five points to open the Chase. Kurt Busch's title margin over Johnson, the 2004 runner-up, was only eight points, the closest finish in NASCAR history.
And seven of this year's 10 Chase participants finished in the top 10 at New Hampshire in July.
On Deck: The Chase Continues At Dover International Speedway
The second event in the 2006 Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup will be the Dover 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, Sept. 24. (12:30 p.m. EDT, TNT).
Jimmie Johnson is the defending winner while Ryan Newman was last year's pole winner. Standings leader Matt Kenseth won the June event at Dover -- his first win at the track -- by out-sprinting Roush Racing teammate Jamie McMurray to the finish.
Dover has hosted NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events since 1969. Chase participants Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin lead all active drivers with four wins each at Dover. Active drivers with three Dover victories include Johnson and Newman. Rick Hendrick, who owns Gordon's and Johnson's teams, leads all car owners with 10 Dover victories. The Wood Brothers are second with seven career wins at Dover.
The Race: Sylvania 300
The Place: New Hampshire International Raceway
The Date: Sept. 17
The Time: 1:10 p.m. (EDT)
TV: TNT 12:30 p.m. (EDT)
Track Layout: 1.058-mile oval Purse: $5,209,809
2005 Winner: Ryan Newman
2005 Pole: Tony Stewart
Pre-Race On-Track Schedule: Friday -- Practice, 11:35 a.m.-1:05 p.m. Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. Saturday -- Practice, 8:30-9:20 a.m. Final practice, 11:05-11:50 a.m.