Track Talk: New Hampshire 301

New Hampshire Motor Speedway may be nestled in a serene rural portion of the Granite State but racing around this 1.058-mile track is anything but a scenic weekend drive.  For the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the two races couldn’t be further apart in similarities other than the same venue and the usually great racing action on this storied speedway.

In July, it’s a race that’s lately become an affair contested in some of the hottest and humid conditions during the entire racing season.  While temperatures started off this weekend hovering the 90’s (which this writer can attest to), it’ll moderate in the mid to upper 80’s.  Still, that means rather steamy conditions in the cars and days in which the hardy crews look forward to some thirst quenching refreshments, battling for the wins, and perhaps a place where air conditioning runs immediately.

On the track, it lends to some tricky racing as drivers can feel the confidence of going double wide in the corners but a slip in the middle of the turns and it’s a spin cycle or crash.  There’s nothing easy about this track as it’s tough on the drivers with making a good on the corner exits and it can be taxing on the equipment too.  Top that off with the somewhat unusually warm New Hampshire summer weather and you’d think we’re not aware of the Dale Earnhardt Jr situation that’s been the topic of discussion for the past few days.

Editor’s Note:  This edition of Track Talk was prepared prior to Earnhardt’s announcement in which he pulled himself out of the 88 car due to concussion-like symptoms.  With the situation developing and ongoing, The Podium Finish staff extends their best wishes for a speedy, full recovery for Earnhardt.  As information is confirmed over time and announced by Hendrick Motorsports, we will look further into this topic and the effects of it with the sport’s participants and the industry itself.

With a lot of stories coming from Loudon, NH this weekend, let’s immediately get to work with our weekly race preview here on TPF.   Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley, start your engines!

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Question 1
The last of Jimmie Johnson's funk?

The last of Jimmie Johnson’s funk?

It’s not every race when we see the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott see their promising race days derailed in early wrecks but that was the case for this quartet at Kentucky Speedway.  How much of this was a case of the drivers taking on a new track surface as it was with other factors like the harder Goodyear tires and the proposed 2017 low downforce package?

Hobbs :  I think it is two stories; one is the story of the veterans and the other is the story of the rookies. Chase Elliott got caught up in someone else’s misfortunes; if not for that, I am positive he would have finished much higher. When it comes to the veterans, some had issues with handling and some had issues with the tires; some even had issues with the repave. A veteran can adapt to any change thrown at them, though sometimes it require more than just the one visit to hammer out all the kinks.

Hull :  Sadly, while I think that the new surface was a factor for maybe two of these four drivers (Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott), it has been the product of the downforce package as well. Ever since the new downforce package was introduced, you have seen Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano kind of struggle with it. Carl Edwards likens this downforce package to driving on a dirt track. I don’t think that neither Johnson nor Logano have much dirt racing experience. I think that the ones who are thriving with it do have that type of experience. So I think that really, it’s a mixture of both.  

Conley :  I think every bit of the carnage was due to the circumstances that were mentioned.  A brand new right side compound that only the Cup cars ran on a new surface that had little to no weathering coupled with an aero change that made the cars “nearly impossible to drive,” and I’m quoting several driver channels on that one, gave us a unique situation that many actually saw coming. I know I wasn’t surprised.

Cassidy :  I believe that many of these drivers faced problems due to the new track surface. When a situation like this happens, drivers and crew chiefs have to throw away all of their previous notes from a track and start fresh. Not often do we see big name drivers struggle with this, but the consensus from drivers on Twitter following the race was apparent.

Shoppe :  I think this was obviously a result of a combination of the new repaved surface and the new package making the cars harder to drive. That combo is probably the most likely to cause accidents. With a new repaved surface, the groove is narrow leaving little room for error. Since the cars were much harder to control with the hard tire and low downforce, it was easy to slip beyond the groove and this lead to accidents.

Question 2
Can Brad Keselowski score his fifth win of the year?

Can Brad Keselowski score his fifth win of the year?

Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 team seem to find ways to play the fuel mileage game correctly.  They parlayed this particular strategy to win races at Dover (fall 2012), Loudon (summer 2014), and most recently at Kentucky.  How crucial will this particular facet of the No. 2 team’s strengths become when it comes time to the Chase, if it becomes a factor with advancing to each round and for the championship battle at Homestead-Miami?

Hobbs :  Keselowski is by far the best driver at managing and conserving fuel; there is no contest here. If put in a situation where he has to stay out and manage fuel in order to move on to the next round in the Chase, you can bet he will make it happen. Outside of being a solid racer, this fuel mileage game plays right into his hands.

Hull :  Knowing how to play the fuel mileage game is definitely a good asset to have, especially since this type of strategy really is useful at the mile and half tracks (i.e. Charlotte). But it is also dependent on the situations that these tracks give us. This season, with the exception of Kentucky, it has seemed rare that the fuel mileage strategy has had to be used. It is dependent on the number of cautions that each race would have. If the timing is right, those who are good at conserving fuel like Brad could really benefit from this skill.

Copple :  Oh, fuel mileage. It’s the elusive dream that all teams hope to discover and cherish for their own. For the Penske teams to have found the right formula for successful fuel mileage and to be able to use that to their advantage is a priceless commodity… in the right circumstances, will fuel mileage come in to play during the Chase? That’s all but a guarantee. The sole fact that they have found success with fuel mileage races in the past will be a benefit for both the No. 2 and the No. 22 when it comes to the Chase races and especially Homestead-Miami if it comes down to the final race.

Conley :  Brad has become a fuel saving master. Nearly six laps of fuel saved on a mile and a half track is so incredible, I hear Ford is going put those saving techniques in all 2017 floor models. Seriously though, if any race comes down to fuel mileage in the Chase and Keselowski is in the mix, just pencil him in to the next round. It’s almost unfair how good he is.

Cassidy :  From the beginning of the pair up between Keselowski and Wolfe, these two have mastered the fuel mileage game.  This skill, or luck, some may say, is very important moving forward.  Clearly, it is important in the Chase because a win could mean the difference between going home and an advance, but in the regular season, those extra points for wins will add up! I hope to see more success from the #2Crew.

Shoppe :  The ability to save fuel to the finish of a Sprint Cup race is as important as a fast car. Brad and the No. 2 team have been known for saving fuel well since their first win together in Kansas 2011. This will be extremely valuable for the Chase! If you have a dominant car in a Chase race but you have to make a late race splash and go stop, that could be the difference between moving on to the next round and having your Chase end.

Question 3
"We're not giving up our seats, Kyle!"

“We’re not giving up our seats, Kyle!”

Joe Gibbs Racing has the unique situation of having its established core of Cup drivers in Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth along with the young lions in Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in the XFINITY ranks as well as Kyle Busch’s Truck racers like Christopher Bell and William Byron, to name a few. If we had a crystal ball into the near future, do each of these young Gibbs/Kyle Busch racers stay within the umbrella and with Toyota?

Hobbs :  It would be smart to ensure these drivers stick with the Gibbs (or Kyle Busch) group; at least for now. We have seen in the past with drivers sticking with the one who gave them their shot, and they would stay for years, only to leave because wins and championships just were not happening they way they were envisioned to. Joe Gibbs Racing is at the top of their game right now and those under that umbrella would be silly to go elsewhere. Of course, office politics could cause a driver to wander off, but otherwise each driver in this stable will stay where they are as long as they continue to show their greatness.

Hull :  It is hard to tell at this point. I think that in the near future, I see Erik Jones moving up the JGR Cup roster when an opportunity finally opens up for him. If not, I could see him going to Furniture Row and driving the 2nd car. Any of these drivers have a future with the organization if they prove themselves worthy. Daniel Suarez could also move up to the Cup series someday too, because he is that good. The future is bright for these guys.

Copple :  Joe Gibbs Racing definitely has a “stacked deck” so to speak when it comes to their young guns coming up the ranks. Seeing as these drivers stay with Joe Gibbs Racing, find success in the lower series, get some seat time in Cup and eventually move up to a full-time ride in the Cup Series, JGR will have a powerhouse team in the next five-10 years. But…if there is a seat that opens up with Hendrick Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing, I can see one or two of them jumping ship and heading to a different organization.

Conley :  If had that kind of crystal ball, I’m winning the lottery, but having seen how Toyota treats their drivers and teams, I’d say it’s very likely that you’ll see this line-up winning races for Toyota for some time to come.

Cassidy :  I think it will be near impossible for Gibbs to keep all of these hot drivers under his belt over the next few years. Other than Matt Kenseth, I do not see Hamlin, Kyle Busch, or Edwards retiring anytime soon. Unless drivers choose to part ways from Gibbs, or drivers burn out, I think these young up and comers will have to be on Gibbs affiliated teams. I believe Erik Jones will take over the 20 car in the next few years, but other than that, Gibbs has some tough choices on his hands.

Shoppe :  Well clearly, there isn’t enough room for all of the young talent at JGR to make it to Cup with the team in the near future. When you look at Joe Gibbs Racing’s lineup, the only potential driver to retire in the next few years is Matt Kenseth. I predict that Erik Jones is in line for that 20 car but may have to find a place at another team in the meantime. Possibly Furniture Row could find sponsorship to add a second car for Jones or another JGR development driver down the road.

Question 4
But don't forget us Penske folks!

But don’t forget us Penske folks!

New Hampshire Motor Speedway kicks off the second half of the 2016 season and if recent track history stays true, this is likely going to be another Gibbs versus Penske battle unless another team has a say with this.  Outside of these two powerhouse teams, which driver and team has the best shot at hoisting that heavy lobster in the Granite State?

Hobbs :  Outside of these teams? The only ones that come to mind are other dominate drivers this season and they come from the Stewart-Haas camp; and Jimmie Johnson. If Johnson can find his stride again, he will be a threat as always. Johnson always seems to hit a summer low but then come Chase time, he hits his stride again. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick are some of the most consistent drivers on the track‘ Kurt Busch is the only driver to finish every lap this season and his average finish is outstanding. Everyone talks about Team Penske and JGR, but these two Stewart-Haas drivers are lurking right there every week and they will surely capitalize on any misfortunes that come along from JGR and Penske.

Hull :  I would say that anyone who drives a JGR Toyota and a Penske Ford has the best chance of winning on Sunday. Since he has had the best average finish of anyone at this track, I could see Denny Hamlin getting it done on Sunday. Brad Keselowski could even go for a third win in a row as well. Sunday’s race will be interesting, seeing that they are going to Loudon with the new aero package.

Copple :  In the event that a JGR or Penske car does NOT win at New Hampshire, my best guess would be Kurt Busch. He was won there a handful of times and while he hasn’t won a race at New Hampshire since 2008, he and his team have had a strong run this season. He’d be my pick to dethrone JGR and Penske.

Conley :  If Jimmie Johnson can find out who stole his golden horseshoe, I’d say he’s a shoe-in.  In all honesty, I don’t think there is anyone that is overall faster than Furniture Row and Martin Truex Jr.  I think he’s run out bullets, so shooting himself in the foot shouldn’t be a problem.  48 or 78 are my two that could give those JGR and Penske boys a run for their money.

Cassidy :  I hope that we continue to see this Gibb/Penske battle play out in 2016. I believe a lot of people underestimate the power of Team Penske due to the fact that they only have two cars, or by affiliation with the Wood Brothers, now three cars.

Obviously, I am shocked that Hendrick Motorsports has not been more of a factor in 2016. As with every year, you expect these big names to be winning races left, right and center. I hope for Hendrick’s sake that Dale Jr can win a race, and Johnson can regain his momentum.

Lastly, I still would never count out Kyle Larson. This young gun has shown over his few seasons in NASCAR that he has skill, talent, and drive to run up at the front. I believe he will get his 42 to Victory Lane in 2016.

Shoppe :  I agree it will be tough to beat the Gibbs/Penske dominators at the Magic Mile this weekend. If I had to pick anyone that could beat them, it would have to be Kevin Harvick.  Harvick is one of, if not, the best drivers at flattracks. He all but won there the last time we were there in September.  If anyone can beat Gibbs or Penske, it will have to be Kevin Harvick.

We’re just getting warmed up with Track Talk and yes, we will be through with our weather puns as quickly as you can say “That’s New Hampshire, man.”  Before we get to our race picks, let’s review how we all fared last weekend at Kentucky and how those points look heading to Sunday’s race at NHMS!
Hull and company cashed on a Keselowski win...

Hull and company cashed on a Keselowski win…

...Consistent Cassidy keeps at it!

…Consistent Cassidy keeps at it!

With this being a hometown race for yours truly as well as Sean and Cody, will it be one of us taking the win or a “raider” making their way into Victory Lane?  Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll find out who gets it right with our race picks for Sunday’s New Hampshire 301!
A six pack of race picks.

A six pack of race picks.

Tiongson :  It’s about time I go back to being bold with my race picks once again.  I saw how well this racer took to New Hampshire Motor Speedway last year and I believe we’ll see more of the same this weekend.  Look for Ryan Blaney to capture his first career Cup win up in my hometown track.

Hobbs :  Going for three-in-a-row sounds hard right? Nah! Brad Keselowski can handle it!

Hull :  My pick for Sunday’s race is Denny Hamlin, who has the best average finish of all the current Cup drivers in the July NHMS race. 

Copple :  My pick is Kurt Busch.

Conley :  It’s considered a home track and he’s had his share of the lobster.  Give Martin Truex Jr a big plate and fork. He’s feasting on lobster in Victory Lane.

Cassidy :  Going with Matt Kenseth!

Shoppe :  Sorry, Kevin Harvick fans, but I am picking Harvick to win this weekend! (Usually is quite a jinx for whoever I pick!) Fingers crossed!

Fesko :  Jimmie Johnson is my pick at NHMS!

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  Last but not least, we’d like to thank the kind staff at NHMS for their assistance with our coverage on this race weekend!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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