After an extended absence of flat track races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make the first of two stops this season at the Magic Mile known as New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Of the first nine dates on the schedule, there are three low-banked courses of one-mile or fewer in length: Martinsville Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Richmond International Raceway. While these tracks all have their own unique elements, braking skills are paramount to get around each. Thus, many drivers are able to perform well across all four of these venues.
Practice sessions: Friday, July 13 at 12:00 pm ET, Saturday, July 14 9:00 am ET, 11:20 am ET
Qualifying: Friday, July 13 at 3:40 pm ET
Race: Sunday, July 7 at 1:30 pm ET
Location: Loudon, N.H.
Length: 1.058 miles
Turns: 4-7 degrees
Straightaways: 2 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Tony Stewart | Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
With a runner-up performance in this race last year, this third consecutive summer time top-five at Loudon, followed by a victory in the fall event, Stewart was the only driver to record a pair of top-fives on the Magic Mile in 2011. In fact, no other driver even scored two top-10s at NHMS a year ago. Last week, Smoke won at Daytona International Speedway from the rear of the field after an unapproved piece of equipment was found on the car after qualifying. The defending series championship has now scored a podium finish in four of the last five races and is rapidly climbing the standings.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
From 2007 to 2008, Truex was excellent at Loudon with three top-fives and a top-10 in all four races held at the site. Over the next two years he would finish no better than 19th in four starts but his ability to get around NHMS reemerged last year with an eighth-place result in the summer race. In the fall, Truex would pit out of the lead with 58 laps to go and finish 16th after the team's strategy failed to pan out. Truex continues to hang tough in the Chase picture and can help his cause with another solid effort at New Hampshire.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
After a runner-up performance at Loudon in the fall of 2010, Hamlin answered right back with a third-place result last summer. Hamlin, arguably the best flat track driver on the circuit, had a similar finish brewing in last year's Chase event until running out of fuel with three laps to go. Even with that extremely disappointing 29th-place finish, Hamlin's career average finish of ninth ranks first all-time among drivers with multiple NHMS starts. Hamlin has been masterful on flat tracks this season with a victory at Phoenix, a sixth at Martinsville and a fourth at Richmond.
Clint Bowyer | No. 15 5-hour Energy Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
At Loudon in 2010, Bowyer finished seventh in the summer and absolutely dominated during the fall, pacing 177 of the 300 laps. He would finish 17th in this race a year ago but had the Chase event won until running out of fuel with two laps to go. Bowyer experienced tire issues earlier in the season at Phoenix but scored top-10s at Martinsville and Richmond. After crashing out of Daytona, Bowyer has dropped to 10th in points and needs another strong run on the Magic Mile to secure a more comfortable position for the postseason.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Army ROTC Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Coming off a fifth-place finish at Daytona, Newman finally scored his first top-10 finish since winning at Martinsville 12 races ago. If Newman is going to turn his season around Loudon is the place to do it. Newman won this race last year from the pole with 119 laps led and scored another pole in the fall. He would have likely scored a fifth consecutive top-10 at the site if not for a flat tire with six laps to go.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Gordon's average running position of 7.5 at New Hampshire rates tops among all drivers. In that span of 14 races he's finished as the runner-up three times with seven finishes of sixth or better and only one finish outside of the top 15. Four of Gordon's six top-10s of the 2012 season have come in the last seven races, which bodes extremely well for his outlook on one of his best tracks.
Brian Vickers | No. 55 MyClassicGarage Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
In last year's fall race, Vickers matched a career-best with a fifth-place result at New Hampshire. This will be his fourth start piloting the No. 55 machine filling in for Mark Martin, who returns for the next Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Despite the limited seat time, Vickers is already seeking his third top-five of the season while making a strong case to land a full-time ride next season.
Sam Hornish Jr. | No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil-AAA Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
With A.J. Allmendinger suspended under NASCAR's substance-abuse policy Hornish will make his second Cup start of the season and may ultimately end up taking over for the rest of the year. While Hornish, a three-time champion in the IndyCar Series, was a big disappointment in the Cup series as a full-time driver from 2008 to 2010, his lone bright spot has been on flat tracks with two career top-10s at Loudon and Richmond.
Temper your expectations
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 NESN National Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Last year's sixth-place finish in the fall race at New Hampshire was Kenseth's first result inside the top 20 at the site since 2008. Kenseth has indeed been excellent this season, particularly on intermediate and restrictor plate tracks. He's now been the points leader at the end of the last five races. However, New Hampshire is not a place where Kenseth has always been on top of his game so owners in allocation formats should save him for another day.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
With four career wins at New Hampshire, Burton leads all active drivers in getting to victory lane at the site. However, none of those have come since the track was reconfigured in 2002. Over the last six starts at Loudon, Burton is without a top-10 at the site. Burton has been very good in restrictor plate races this season but a non-factor nearly everywhere else.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.