Points pandemonium at season’s midpoint

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Since the opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, there are been seven different drivers in Victory Circle. They now head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

Seven down; one to go.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, host to Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 (1 p.m. ET on TNT, Performance Racing Network Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio), is the eighth and final stop during the regular season at a track that also hosts a race in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

Advantage? So far, no one.

Seven different drivers have taken the new, Gen-6 car to Victory Lane on Chase tracks. All but surprise Talladega winner David Ragan rank among the current top 10. The box score shows three wins by Chevrolet and two each by Ford and Toyota.

Parity or pandemonium – whatever you want to call it – is reflected across the board and especially in the ongoing struggle to qualify for the post season.

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, both four-time winners, have established themselves as the championship favorites. The race to determine their 10 rivals is unsettled to say the least.

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota leads the field
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota leads the field

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Just 44 points cover drivers ranked ninth through 21st. Jeff Burton, 21st and currently ineligible even for a Chase Wild Card, is 42 points out of the top 10 – a ranking that would give him automatic entry into the post season. Burton is the track’s most prolific winner with four victories including a season sweep in 1998.

One year ago, after the season’s first 18 races, the difference between 10th and 12th places was 56 points. Juan Pablo Montoya, then the 21st place driver, was 139 points outside the top 10.

The importance of the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway can’t be understated. In 2012, seven of July’s top-10 finishers earned a Chase berth on points. Each member of the top 10 in points after the season’s 19th race also moved into NASCAR’s post season.

New Hampshire’s summer event has seen eight consecutive different winners with the Granite State track minting 10 straight different winners overall. Last year’s winners – Kasey Kahne in July; Denny Hamlin in September – are outside the championship top 10. Kahne holds a potential Chase Wild Card. Hamlin is 122 points outside Wild Card eligibility.

Four drivers – Johnson (2010), Tony Stewart (2005), Kurt Busch (2004) and Jeff Gordon (1995) – have won New Hampshire’s July race and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in the same season. The quartet has won 12 of the track’s 36 races.

Over the past 16 races, Stewart ranks No. 1 in Driver Rating (111.7) and has led the most laps (887). Gordon owns the track record for top–five (16) and top-10 (21) finishes.

Busch’s Charge Elevates Furniture Row’s Profile

Furniture Row Racing, a single-car organization headquartered in Denver, Colo., is racing in unfamiliar territory. Barney Visser’s team, which enjoys a technical relationship with Richard Childress Racing, has put a driver into the top 10 for the first time this late in the season since fielding its first NASCAR Sprint Cup entry in 2005.

Proving the volatility of this year’s championship battle, Kurt Busch has gone from 20th to ninth in just three races – fueled by a trio of top 10s capped by last weekend’s sixth-place finish at Daytona.

An unlikely pick to qualify for this year’s Chase, Visser and Busch are proving the experts wrong although the driver cautions about reading too much long term into the recent surge.

Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

“We’re not putting the cart before the horse; we still have a long ways to go with a lot of hard work ahead of us,” said Busch. “You can go down as quickly as you can go up in the point standings.

“Look at us. We were 20th in points just four races ago.”

Busch’s future appeared cloudy after being released by Penske Racing after the 2011 season. Visser effectively got the 2004 champion off the “waiver wire” running Busch in last year’s final six events. Busch responded by ending the year with three consecutive top-10 performances.

The early season showed promise. Busch was spectacular at times but the finishes were uneven. Things began to click at Charlotte Motor Speedway where Busch finished third in May’s Coca-Cola 600 to kick off a run of five top 10s in seven races.

“We always felt the potential was there but the costly combination of mistakes and bad luck kept us from advancing,” said Busch, a 24-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winner. “We kept plugging away and the positive work effort is paying off.”

Crossed Flags: High Speeds, Broken Records Highlight First Half

Eighteen up, 18 to go. And if the second half resembles the first, expect high speeds and passing – lots of passing.

A number of race tracks have seen their record books rewritten during the first half. A sampling…
- At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there were 31 green flag passes for the lead, a new track best since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.
- At Auto Club Speedway, there were 41 green flag passes for the lead, which tied a track record.
- The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway saw 35 passes for the lead, which tied a race best.
- Dover featured 25 passes for the lead, which set a track Loop Data record
- During last week’s Daytona night race, there were 9,574 green flag passes – a new track record.

Those figures, as well as qualifying speeds, underlined the Gen-6 race car’s 2013 debut. In all, eight qualifying records have been set this season. The list: Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Richmond, Darlington, Charlotte and Kentucky.

Among some of the other impressive first-half stats generated by Gen-6 car:
- 10 different race winners, and 10 different Coors Light Pole winners
- Through 18 races, 52.3% of cars have finished on the lead lap versus 41.1% last year
- The average margin of victory has dropped to 1.403 seconds, the closest since 2010. Additionally, 10 races have ended with an MOV under one second, the most since 2010.
- 81.7% of cars are finishing the race through 15 races, versus 75.8% last season.

A Denny’s Last Stand: New Hampshire Could Be Just What Hamlin Needs

Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

When Denny Hamlin returned in May from a four-race hiatus to heal his back, questions ran rampant regarding whether his time off created too large of a chasm for him to climb out of before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup reset the field for the postseason. With eight races remaining before that day arrives, the answer is that he must start winning races now.

If Hamlin is going to climb into Chase Wild Card contention, his best shot at winning might be this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In 14 starts at the 1.058-mile track, he’s won twice, most recently last September. He has seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, and has only finished outside the top 15 once. He could have – and maybe should have – swept last year, leading 150 of the 301 laps last July and finished second to Kasey Kahne.

Among active drivers at New Hampshire, Hamlin has the best average finish (7.9) and has led the third-most laps (417). His driver rating (104.8) ranks fourth among active drivers.

In order to win, he’ll need to overcome his recent four-race slump in which he’s finished 30th, 23rd, 35th and 36th. Even if he wins on Sunday, Hamlin still has his work cut out for him. He is in 26th place, 122 points behind Paul Menard in 20th place – the magic number for Chase Wild Card consideration. The two drivers from 11th-20th with the most wins will earn a Wild Card spot.

Consistent Bowyer Eyes Granite State Victory

Clint Bowyer has come full circle from his career-best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship finish of 2012.

Following last weekend’s fourth-place finish at Daytona, the driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota has moved to second in the standings, 49 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. That’s the same ranking Bowyer held when last year’s final checkered flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Bowyer has been a rock of consistency this year – especially over the past month and a half. He’s riding a streak of three top-five finishes with six top 10s in the past seven races. He’s one of three drivers in the current top 10 without a victory – seconds at Martinsville and Richmond are tops so far in 2012 – but history suggests that may change in New Hampshire.

Bowyer posted his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at the track in September 2007 and won again in 2010. Bowyer’s New Hampshire score card features a pole, four top fives and sixth top 10s. He finished top five in both of last year’s races on the 1.058-mile track – third in July and fourth in September.

In 14 races at the track, Bowyer ranks fifth in Driver Rating (97.2) and sixth in Average Running Position (12.0). He’s also led 475 laps, second only to Tony Stewart’s 887.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Morgan Shepherd, entered in the No. 52 Toyota this weekend at New Hampshire, is scheduled to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start since 2006 (which, coincidentally, was also at New Hampshire). At 71 years old, he would become the oldest driver to start an NSCS race; the previous oldest was Jim Fitzgerald when he was 65 years, 6 months and 20 days when he started at Riverside on June 21, 1987. … Ryan Newman hasn’t won a Coors Light Pole in quite a while – September 2011. He’s been sitting on 49 career poles for almost two years, and the next would make him the ninth driver with 50 or more NSCS poles. His last pole came at New Hampshire, and he has a track-record six poles at NHMS.

NASCAR

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Series NASCAR-CUP
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Tags bowyer, busch, chevrolet, ford, hamlin, johnson, loudon, nascar-cup, nascar sprint cup, nhis, points, shepherd, stats, toyota