It may well be made-for-TV drama, but NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is here, and with it a dozen hopeful drivers will hope to make a strong opening push toward a championship.
Leading the charge into Loudon are three Cup superstars that have combined to win 18 of the first 26 Cup races this season. Kyle Busch, who has dominated NASCAR in all three of its top series this year; Carl Edwards, the only driver to consistently challenge Busch all season; and how can anyone forget defending champ Jimmie Johnson, who, like clockwork, has his No. 48 team peaking right at Chase time.
Outside the Chase field, though, are countless storylines that could play out on the Magic Mile. The few drivers who narrowly missed the Chase cutoff at Richmond will be looking to shake off disappointment and steal a win from the Chasers. The numerous drivers leaving for new rides in 2009 would love for nothing more than to give their respective teams' one final victory. And the race for the top 35 in owner points, and a guaranteed spot in the '09 Daytona 500, will begin to take on increased urgency as the season winds down.
The Chase is on, and the excitement at Loudon will be sky-high this weekend, for racers and fantasy owners alike. Let's take a look at the favorites, sleepers, and longshots who will take to the track this weekend.
Denny Hamlin: While Hamlin is perhaps most noted for his short-track prowess, his record at Loudon is just as stout. Between NASCAR's top three series, Hamlin has made 11 starts at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and has never finished outside the top 15. Hamlin's record in a Cup car here is just as impressive, with a win and an average finish of 6.8 in six starts. The No. 11 team finished eighth at Loudon in the June race, is riding a strong wave of momentum with three top 5 finishes in the last three weeks, and will be a fixture at the front of the field this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson: There is no doubt that Johnson and his No. 48 team is the hottest group on the Sprint Cup circuit right now. And as if they needed any more luck, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is next on the tour. Johnson's enjoyed plenty of past success at the track, with two career Cup wins on the Magic Mile. Further, Johnson has a strong career average of 10.5 at NHMS, with five top 10 finishes in the last six Cup races held there. Johnson and his team begin their quest for a third consecutive Cup title this weekend, and it's more than likely that they'll do just that by posting a third consecutive Cup win.
Jeff Burton: Did you know that the last driver to lead every lap of a Sprint Cup race was Burton? And did you know that he accomplished that feat at Loudon? Now granted, this win came at the '00 debacle that saw NASCAR race restrictor plates on the New England oval, but Burton's record at NHMS extends far beyond this notable win. Burton currently leads all active drivers, having gone to Victory Lane four times at the speedway, and has four top 10s in his last six starts there, with no finishes outside the top 20 in that span. Burton has fallen off a lot of radar screens after suffering through a summer slump, but the No. 31 team was a contender all day last weekend at Richmond, scoring a sixth place run for their first top 10 since the fiasco at Indianapolis. No one is expecting Burton and his team to make much noise in this Chase, and that may be just the situation this team needs to return to form.
Ryan Newman: The fall race at Loudon in '02 saw a promising Sprint Cup rookie break through and score his first career Cup victory. Fast forward to '08, and that same driver is taking to the Magic Mile with Penske Racing's No. 12 team for the final time. Newman has enjoyed tremendous success at Loudon while with his current team, posting four poles, two wins, and nine top 10s in his 13 starts. Newman's 15th-place finish in the June race is deceptive, as he was one of many frontrunners burned by Mother Nature late in the running. The No. 12 team now has only 10 races remaining with its longtime driver, the Rocketman, and with no Chase pressure on them this weekend, it's a fairly safe bet that this team will come out, guns blazing, at one of its best tracks striving to get Newman a victory to bookend his Daytona 500 triumph in February. Plus, after having a top 10 run at Richmond spoiled by a pit road incident, they'll be hungry to redeem themselves on Sunday.
Greg Biffle: With the stout backing of Roush Fenway Racing behind them, Biffle is a popular choice as a darkhorse title contender. It's a shame the Chase starts at Loudon, not at Kansas. While Biffle has been nearly as good as teammate Carl Edwards on the Cup circuit's intermediate ovals this summer, his No. 16 team has not been as competitive on shorter race tracks. Loudon has also been unkind to Biffle in recent years. Biffle last scored a top 10 finish at NHMS in '06, and has never done so since NASCAR switched over to the CoT. Biffle's average finish of 19.8 in his last four races here casts doubt on whether or not the No. 16 team will be among the Chase contenders who start the 10-race segment with a bang. Still, Biffle has three top 5s to his credit at NHMS, and, more important, has the backing of RFR. Between Edwards and Matt Kenseth, there are safer RFR drivers to start this weekend ... but Biffle is lurking and could well make a gambling fantasy owner look like a genius come Monday morning.
Kasey Kahne: New Hampshire has been a tale of two Kasey Kahnes. In his first starts on the one-mile oval, Kahne led multiple laps in two races and scored four top 10s. However, this success has not carried over since NASCAR switched to its new car. Since '07, Kahne has cracked the top 20 at Loudon only once while averaging a 25th-place finish. Despite these misfortunes, Kahne still sports a respectable average finish of 17.2, and is always a threat to nail the set-up on the head any weekend. Kahne finished a disappointing two laps down in 30th at NHMS in June, and last weekend, despite having a Chase berth on the line, the No. 9 team was completely lost all race long. This means one of two things this weekend. One, the No. 9 team has a poor flat track package. Or two, with the pressure gone, the No. 9 team will look to steal enough wins to equal their six victory total in '06. Kahne's a risky start this weekend ... but frankly, he's a risky start every weekend.
Cami's picks were tremendously successful, with Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart all scoring top 15 runs at Richmond.
"New Hampshire has always been a good track for us, and it has been a special place for me over the years. I got my first Cup win there in 2002, so I have always enjoyed the track. We had a decent Kodak Dodge there in June, but the rain kept us from the finish that we could have gotten. We got caught like a lot of other guys did so we ended up 15th. I'd like to think we can go back there this time and get that top 10. It's a fun race track. You really have to drive it into the corner and focus on rolling through the center. It's really important to focus on the exit of the corners. The toughest part is track position - if you get behind, it is hard to make it up, so we want to start by qualifying well." -- Ryan Newman
From the Magic Mile to the Monster Mile, the Sprint Cup series and the Chase for the Cup move south from Loudon, New Hampshire, to the high banks of Dover.