Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in New Hampshire: Deja Vu for Keselowski’s #2?

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the site of today’s round of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action, round 18 to be exact. The race marks the halfway point in a season that has been filled with drama and surprises…much like last week’s cluster of a race in Daytona.  Aric Almirola found himself in a rain soaked Victory Lane after NASCAR called the endlessly-delayed race, netting him a likely Chase berth in the process.

NHMS is another track that has the capacity to be unpredictable, and if the race plays out like any of the other short track races from this season, it likely will be. Could we see a twelfth different winner today? We’ll just have to wait and find out.

1. Will the race be as action packed as previous 2014 short track events?

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a difficult track to classify. At 1.058 miles in length, it is directly on the border between being a short track and an intermediate track. Most in the industry consider it a short track, and for the sake of this article, we’ll call it a short track as well, because, frankly, the track races far more like a short track than an intermediate.

With this in mind, it would seem fair to say that, given how exciting and pass-happy the other short track races were earlier this season, today’s race at NHMS will be similarly competitive. I’m certainly eating a fair amount of crow when I say this, but I absolutely believe it will be one of the most competitive NHMS races of all time.

Some may remember when I infamously called NHMS the “worst track on the NASCAR circuit” a few years back in a commentary for this site, but alas, the advent of the Generation 6 car has been an outright boon for this track. This event was excellent last season due to the increasing abrasiveness of the circuit as well as the added grip of the Gen6.

All told, I think that it is going to be a very competitive race today, with a fair amount of lead changes and a good bit of action further back in the pack to boot.

2014 Daytona II CUP Tony Stewart smiling vertical CIA
Tony Stewart

2. Will Tony Stewart finally begin his march towards the Chase?

Traditionally, Tony Stewart has always put in his best work during the summer months of the NASCAR season. Stewart famously amassed five victories over a span of six races during the summer of 2005 in a run of success that launched Stewart towards the 2005 NASCAR Cup title. Since then, whenever the summertime rolls around, many of the sport’s observers look to Stewart to begin heating up.

The bad news for Stewart is that he is almost a full decade older than he was during the fateful summer of 2005, and courtesy of injuries, added responsibilities, and the natural aging process, he is no longer the driver he once was. His performance this season seems to illustrate that fact. Stewart is mired back in 20th in the standings, sandwiched between the likes of Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. He hasn’t scored a top 10 in over 5 races – and frankly hasn’t shown any real speed at any race other than Pocono.

Could Stewart be slowing down for good a year after a leg injury sidelined him for over six months? The jury is still out on that, but today’s race at New Hampshire would appear to be a good barometer of where Stewart is at. NHMS has traditionally been one of the tracks where Stewart kicks off his usual summertime run of success, and NHMS is very much a “driver’s track,” so if he performs poorly yet again today, we’ll know there are deeper problems in the #14 camp than previously believed. Either way, his will be an interesting story to watch today.

3. Is this Brian Vickers’ best shot to get a Chase berth?

Brian Vickers has been a curious driver to watch in 2014. At the beginning of the season, Vickers was flying high, as a run of solid outings and top 10 results vaulted Vickers into the top 10 in the points standings. Unfortunately for the #55 team, a string of bad luck, mechanical gremlins, and outright poor performances in the early part of summer knocked the team back in the standings, and Vickers now finds himself 16th in the points tally and needing to claw his way back into Chase contention.

Luckily for Brian, he is returning to the site of his lone NASCAR victory in 2013 today. Vickers’ win at this track last season helped secure him a full-time gig with Michael Waltrip Racing for 2014, and, for the most part, he has made the most of it. But now, with Vickers on the outside looking in on the Chase Grid, he is going to have to attempt to find the magic that put him in Victory Lane once again.

Truth be told, today is probably Vickers’ last truly good shot at securing a Chase berth via a win. No other track from now until Richmond, save for perhaps Michigan and Atlanta, really stands out as a Brian Vickers-friendly racetrack, so if he wants to get into the Chase on the strength of a win, today is probably his best shot to get it.

Vickers surprised many with his win here last year, perhaps he could do it again?

4. Who will win the Camping World RV Sales 301?

Remember how I reiterated to everyone in this very column for the Kentucky race a few weeks ago that the Team Penske cars had a leg up on everyone in terms of “car balance?” Remember how the Penske cars then proceeded to dominate that race later that day? Yeah, you could pretty much copy/paste that section of that column to today and it would still be relevant.

Much like in Kentucky, the Penske cars, specifically Brad Keselowski’s #2 car, were extremely fast all weekend and seem to be proving once again that they are the class of the field right now on tracks where handling and balance play a big role. Looking at Keselowski, he paced both Saturday practice sessions and then went on to win the Nationwide race. Obviously you see where this is going.

Brad Keselowski hoists the checkered flag after winning at Kentucky Speedway. (Credit: CIA)
Brad Keselowski hoists the checkered flag after winning at Kentucky Speedway. (Credit: CIA)

Keselowski is your pick to win for today. Don’t overthink this one too much. He’s going to be fast all day today and will undoubtedly be a factor in the finish if he can simply back up his speed from the weekend.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Camping World RV Sales 301:

  1.  2-Brad Keselowski
  2.  4-Kevin Harvick
  3. 48-Jimmie Johnson
  4. 18-Kyle Busch
  5. 22-Joey Logano
  6. 20-Matt Kenseth
  7. 55-Brian Vickers
  8. 41-Kurt Busch
  9. 24-Jeff Gordon
  10. 11-Denny Hamlin
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Let’s operate off the assumption that one has to be an exceptional driver just to make it to the Cup level. Given that, I’ve always found Vickers to be an average Cup driver capable of a win every year or three. At present he is performing at about his talent level. Don’t expect much more.

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