Why he'll win: Johnson has been uncharacteristically quiet for most of this season, but there's a sense in the garage that this team is poised for a breakout. Johnson has two wins at Loudon and he's finished in the top 10 in five of his last six starts at the track.
Keep an eye on: Kyle Busch -- Why not? With five wins this season, Busch has clearly been the dominant driver of 2008. He won this race in 2006 and it'd be an upset if he didn't finish in the top-five on Sunday.
Don't expect much from: Ryan Newman -- Newman has only one top 10-run in his last six starts and he's fallen to 16th in the standings. Word around the garage has it that he may soon leave Penske Racing.
My Pick: Kyle Busch
Why he'll win: After a few lackluster performances, he showed at Sonoma that he can never be counted out. Busch is rolling again, and that should continue at Loudon, where he has a win and three top-five finishes in six starts.
Keep an eye on: Matt Kenseth -- He's never won at New Hampshire, but he always seems to finish up front, with 11 top-10 finishes in 16 races. Kenseth has been solid for the last month, and that should continue this weekend.
Don't expect much from: Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Now comes the test. In the wake of his win at Michigan, Junior said he was curious to see how he ran in the upcoming weeks at tracks that have never traditionally been strong for him (he's only got seven top 10s in 17 starts at Loudon). If he runs strongly this weekend, we'll know he's got the stuff to contend for a title until the last day of the season.
My Pick: Jeff Gordon
Why he'll win: This race has been wide open in recent years, but one stat stood out to me -- Gordon was the bridesmaid in both Loudon races last year, and he's got three consecutive top-3 finishes at the track. It's the perfect place for Gordon to make a breakthrough; for despite a car that's been evil rather than excellent these past few weeks, both Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte know the time to step it up is now.
Keep an eye on: Denny Hamlin -- The defending champ of this race has been MIA the past two weeks, and needs a good run to get his season back on track. He should have no problem doing that at Loudon: in four starts there, his average finish is a healthy 6.3 with three top-10 finishes.
Don't expect much from: Marcus Ambrose -- Everyone's raving about Australia's stock car sensation, but keep in mind Ambrose's solid performance in the Wood Brothers No. 21 was at a road course last week ... his specialty. But the rookie still has a lot to learn on the ovals, and he's struggled in Loudon with his Nationwide Series ride, finishing 30th in his only start on the 1-mile flat track.
My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: A two-time winner at Loudon, Stewart leads a ton of laps there and seemingly always manages to be in the mix. It's been almost a calendar year since he's won, and a post-race press conference would be the perfect place to rekindle the speculation over where he will race next year. Joe Gibbs Racing to finish out his contract? Bill Davis?
Keep an eye on: Kyle Busch -- Simply because he's apparently going to win a third of the races this season. The points-leader has a win and three top-5s in six Loudon starts anyway, although a 38th-place finish there in 2006 effectively ruined his Chase for the Championship before it began.
Don't expect much from: Kasey Kahne -- Kahne had top-10s in four of his five Loudon starts, but has regressed. Sixteenth, 25th, and 20th in his next three, he'll need a better effort to hold onto the ninth spot in the driver standings as the marketing department-contrived "Race to the Chase for Race Chase ..." whatever begins with 10 races to go until the cut-off at Richmond.
My Pick: Kyle Busch
Why he'll win: How can I pick against this guy? So far he's been picking off wins at tracks where he has never done well, including his first Cup road course win last Sunday at Infineon Speedway. He returns to a track where he has already driven to victory lane in 2006. He should pick up win No. 2 on Sunday.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Burton -- Based on past history, this is probably Burton's best track. He has four wins (summer 1997, '98 and '99 and fall 2000), seven top-fives and 12 top-10s. The veteran driver understands the unique challenges of Cup racing on a flat oval.
Don't expect much from: Kevin Harvick -- The RCR driver is in a summer slump and needs to find a way to dig out of his recent misfortunes because he is fading fast in the standings.
My Pick: Clint Bowyer
Why he'll win: Bowyer and crew chief Gil Martin clicked on an awesome setup last September that took the No. 31 to a dominant victory, leading 222 laps, including the final 49. Bowyer won by 6.5 seconds. It won't exactly be the same -- conditions and cars change -- but Bowyer should still have an advantage. He was second at Phoenix, like New Hampshire a 1-mile flat track, in April and won at .75-mile Richmond in May. Martin also has a Sprint Cup win at New Hampshire with Robby Gordon, in November, 2001, so he knows what the track needs.
Keep an eye on: Jimmie Johnson -- He hasn't had a top-five in the last eight races, but his win at Phoenix points to a top-three at New Hampshire. Johnson led 120 laps at PIR, the only other 1-mile track so far this season. He also was fourth at Martinsville, a half-mile version of New Hampshire. Johnson has two wins at New Hampshire, both in '03, and a very respectable 10.7 finishing average, third best among those entered, in 12 starts.
Don't expect much from: Kurt Busch -- He had back-to-back wins in '04 at New Hampshire, but hasn't been better than 19th in the last five. Busch has essentially been in a season-long slump since finishing second in the Daytona 500. He's slid to 22nd in the points, and this track isn't likely to be the start of his revival.
My Pick: Kyle Busch
Why he'll win: It's getting difficult to pick anybody other than the points leader. Last week he won on a road course where he was a long shot. This week's he at a track where he shines, with one victory and three top-fives in six career starts at New Hampshire.
Keep an eye on: Denny Hamlin -- Hamlin also shines at New Hampshire. He has just four career starts at New Hampshire, but he's got an average finish of 6.5 at the track. He's got one win, two top-fives and three top-10s.
Don't expect much from: Clint Bowyer -- Among drivers have a strong 2008 season, Bowyer is at the opposite extreme from Hamlin when it comes to performance at New Hampshire. Bowyer also has four career starts at the track, but his average finish is just 22.3.
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