After the left and right turns of the wine country, it's back to somewhat more prosaic matters with a first trip of the season to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. A one-mile flat track (well, 1.058 miles to be precise) Loudon is also the host to the critical first race of the Chase. Hitting your marks at Loudon on Sunday afternoon can be a harbinger of good things to come in the first race of the Chase. Sunday's race is the 17th of the 2010 season which means we have exactly 10 races to go before the cut-off point after the second trip to Richmond. So, while it's not exactly a case of desperation stakes for those on the outside, the pressure will ratchet up a notch each week as the scrum for the final Chase spots becomes more intense. And without further ado, let's take a look at who to back for your Fantasy line-ups this weekend.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin tweeted post-race that he "hit everything but the lottery" at Sonoma and although road course racing is a rare discipline, it will be a little reminder to the Virginia native that he won't have it all his own way in 2010. Still, it's likely Hamlin will be happy to see the friendly confines of Loudon. He's won here once, has three other top-5s and six top 10s in eight attempts and has never qualified lower than 14th or finished lower than 15th. In short, he's pretty good at getting round the mile-long circuit. With five wins in the last 11 races since the return of the rear spoiler and the demise of the much-maligned wing, Hamlin will have forgotten his Sonoma mishaps by the time he hits the track for first practice on Friday. Look for him to be a huge factor this Sunday afternoon.
By the Numbers: Hamlin has an average start of 8.9 and an average finish of 7.5 at Loudon.
Jimmie Johnson: Just in case anyone was in any doubt, Double J reminded everyone he wasn't quite finished with a fourth victory of the season: his first at a road course. As with just about every track on the Cup schedule, Johnson excels at New Hampshire where he has recorded two wins, five top-5's and 11 top-10's; good for an average finish of 9.5 which only Denny Hamlin (7.5) can better. Johnson has led laps in the last three races and with one 39th place exception in 2006, he's never finished lower than 15th and has at least a top-10 in eight of the last nine races. He might not make it two in a row this weekend, but he's an excellent selection atop your Fantasy team, as always.
By the numbers: Johnson has completed 4605 of the 4672 laps (98.6%) he's run at Loudon.
Tony Stewart: Still seeking a first win of the season, Smoke has heated up of late finishing ninth at both Dover and Sonoma, third at Pocono and fifth at Michigan in the past five races. Loudon is a track which Stewart runs well on. He has two wins and 11 top-5's in 22 appearances and he's lead laps in nine of the last 11 visits to the track. Now back in the Chase positions, Stewart will be keen to start padding his advantage over 13th place; Loudon is a likely place for that to happen.
By the numbers: Stewart has lead 1028 of the 6022 laps he's run at Loudon.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski has run just one race at Loudon in his career, this time last year in the No. 09 car of James Finch. He qualified 36th, made up 30 positions and finished a very creditable sixth -- not bad given he ran only 15 of the 36 races last season. Typically, when a driver is comfortable at a track early in his career, it bodes well for future visits. With that in mind, expect Keselowski to run just as well in his Penske equipment. The 26-year-old Michigan-native is yet to score a top 10 on the season; a stat that could well change this weekend.
By the numbers: Keselowski has one win, one top-5 and four top-10's in his 33 Sprint Cup races.
Martin Truex Jr.: The usually amiable Truex Jr. was properly fired up after a collision with an aggressive Jeff Gordon ended his day prematurely. Truex Jr. made it clear he plans to exact revenge on the original four-time Champion this weekend but the reality is he'll probably concentrate more on a top-10 finish than he will on retribution. Only 157 points out from a Chase berth, albeit in 19th overall in the standings, Truex has 3 top-5's and one more top-10 in the past six races at Loudon; so it's a crucial race for the MWR driver to start making a northerly move in the overall standings.
By the numbers: Statistically, Loudon is Truex Jr.'s fourth best track in terms of average finish (14.4) behind Miami (11.8), Darlington (12.8) and Texas (13.9).
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer was another driver who struggled at Sonoma, finishing a lowly 31st -- taken out in a wreck that was not his doing. Despite the setback, Bowyer is very much in Chase contention just 74 markers back from the 12th and final berth. Bowyer has a top 10 every other race this season but four finishes of 30th or worse mean he is on the outside looking in, for now. Bowyer won his first (of two) Cup victories at Loudon to open up the 2007 Chase and finished 10th the last time the circuit swung through New Hampshire in 2009 so it's definitely a track at which he's accustomed to success. Don't be surprised, then, to see the yellow 33 car be a factor all day.
By the numbers: Bowyer has 69 top-10s in 161 total Sprint Cup races.
Who'll win: Denny Hamlin will bounce back from a terrible weekend at Sonoma for his sixth race victory of the season.
Next Up: We head back south to the most famous track in NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 and four hundred miles of insanity on the high banks.