By Jimmie Johnson's championship-winning standards, it's been a quiet Sprint Cup season. He's had the speed to run up front frequently enough, but he has only one win in 18 races. Johnson's run at Kentucky last Saturday night was typical. The No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet was in the top five the entire race, challenged winner Kyle Busch for the lead on a restart with two laps to go and ended up third -- his fifth top-three of the season.
Johnson, fifth in points, has averaged seven wins per season during his unprecedented streak of five straight championships and six in nine full campaigns. He's never had less than three wins in a season. Johnson's history says he's going to have a big second half to the season, starting with a victory in the Lenox 301 Sunday at New Hampshire.
Johnson won last year's June race at New Hampshire, leading 177 laps, and finished third at Phoenix in late February. They're both 1-mile, slightly-banked tracks, not exactly twin sisters, but with DNA that nearly matches. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are methodical in their approach, a forte, and they figure to be ready to go in the first practice. From there, they can fine tune. It's an advantage they can take into the race.
"New Hampshire was good to us last year," Johnson said. "We've had this race circled [on a calendar] for a while. We've got some things that we've felt would work on a really flat track; short-track stuff with our setups. I know that Chad is excited to get up there and sort out some stuff and work on the car and I know that I am, as well. We had an awesome run at Kentucky and I'd love to build on that and go to Victory Lane."
Johnson has three victories in 18 starts at New Hampshire. I think he'll make it four on Sunday.
Here are four other drivers to watch at New Hampshire.
Gordon has been outstanding on the near flat tracks this season with wins at Phoenix and Pocono and fifth at Martinsville. He's been strong throughout his career at New Hampshire, with three wins and 14 top-fives in 32 starts. He was fourth in June and sixth in September last season and second in the September 2009 race. And, as Johnson's Hendrick teammate, he'll have access to the same equipment and information.
Given all his success, it's no surprise Gordon enjoys driving at New Hampshire.
It's hard to know why a track favors you, Gordon explained. "Some of it is driving style. Most of it is the car setup and the team. ... It's just one of those tracks where it's a very flat, narrow-groove, tight-corner racetrack, but it's one that seems to suit my style and it seems like, as a team, we can communicate well to get what we need out of the car to go fast there."
The mercurial Busch is having one of his best seasons, leading the points with three wins and 10 top-fives. He's been up and down at New Hampshire, with a win in 2006 and four top-fives in 12 starts, but also four finishes of 25th or worse. His Toyota has been marvelous on the short tracks, with wins at Bristol and Richmond, and very strong on the so-called flat tracks with a second at Phoenix and thirds at Martinsville and Pocono.
You can't count out The Closer at New Hampshire. Harvick, from Bakersfield, Calif., learned how to race on the flat tracks out West and he's one of the best on them in Cup. Harvick won at New Hampshire in 2006 in the Chase race, went through a rough period when the Richard Childress Racing equipment wasn't top-shelf caliber and had a pair of fifths last year when it was. Harvick's success on the flat tracks this year has shown (victory at Martinsville, fourth at Phoenix and fifth at Pocono) he's capable of winning at New Hampshire.
Hamlin hasn't met the great expectations of the 2011 season, particularly on the flat tracks that are his favorite. He was 11th at Phoenix, 12th at Martinsville and 19th at Pocono. That said, Hamlin should still be able to put a top-five on the board at New Hampshire. He has a win, four top-fives, seven top-10s and a 7.6 finishing average in 10 starts at the track. Hamlin has also been second in two of the last three races at New Hampshire.
Hamlin is in a good position to make the Chase, 10th in the points with a victory, which qualifies him for a wild-card spot if he needs it. But a strong run at New Hampshire is critical. Hamlin wants to start rebuilding his team's confidence and momentum with eight races to go in the regular season. New Hampshire is a prime opportunity to do that.
"I'm looking forward to going back to a short track," Hamlin said of New Hampshire. "I feel like that's our strong suit."