Weekend Preview: New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Race to the Playoffs amps up at New Hampshire

While drivers may not openly admit to any uptick in NASCAR Cup Series competitive intensity, with only seven races remaining to set the 16-driver 2023 Playoff field, each upcoming summer race at this point represents a crucial marker in the season.

With his season best – and single season career high – fourth victory last week, Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings and will make his 200th career series start Sunday with a decidedly less pressure-filled trip to the Northeast for the Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

That breathing room is also palpable for 11 other race winners – but the pressure is definitely there for the other drivers still trying to guarantee one of the five remaining secured positions during this Playoff push.

Kevin Harvick, a four-time New Hampshire race winner, is currently tops in the points standings among those who have not won a race yet in 2023 and he holds a healthy 126-point edge over the postseason cutoff. The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford and 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion has been especially strong at the 1.058-mile oval – hoisting the live lobster that winners receive at the track more than any other active driver. His four-victory total is tied for most all-time with Jeff Burton and would love nothing more than to top the all-time wins chart in this, his final season of competition.

“It’s definitely a racetrack that we’re looking forward to going to and I can’t wait to finally, hopefully, get to Victory Lane,” said Harvick, who’s had an impressive nine top-five finishes in the last 12 New Hampshire races.

“My guys are doing a great job of putting fast cars on the racetrack,” he continued. “And Loudon is one of those places that checks a lot of boxes for us to go up there and have a good weekend.”

On the other end of the Playoff cutline, Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell are 15th and 16th in the standings, tied in points – a slight three-points to the good.

23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace trails them by three points. Kaulig Racing veteran A.J. Allmendinger is 13 points back. Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Ty Gibbs is only 26 points back trying to earn a Playoff position in his first fulltime NASCAR Cup Series season and join his three JGR teammates, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and defending New Hampshire winner Christopher Bell, who have already secured their Playoff run with a win. Gibbs won the 2019 ARCA Menards Series West race at “The Magic Mile” as New Hampshire is known.

Among drivers with a previous New Hampshire victory – Harvick, Brad Keselowski (a two-time winner in both the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series) and 2021 winner Aric Almirola are still racing for their first victories of this season. Like Harvick, the RFK Racing driver Keselowski has a solid lead (plus-100 points) inside the Playoff standings, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver Almirola is ranked 27th heading into Sunday’s race – 90 points back – and will need a win to race for the championship.

Also in an unusually precarious situation is 2020 series champion Chase Elliott, who is ranked 23rd in the standings (60 points behind the cutoff mark) after missing seven races – six because of injury and the other to serve a suspension. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate and perennial Playoff competitor Alex Bowman is similarly in unfamiliar ground coming into New Hampshire, ranked 22nd (44 points back) having missed three races with injury. Neither have ever won at New Hampshire before.

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Preece is another who has had this New Hampshire weekend circled on his calendar. The Connecticut-native goes into the race ranked 25th – 81 points out of Playoff contention – and is hoping to score a dramatic, season-defining win for his hometown crowd. Five drivers have scored their first career win at New Hampshire, including another Connecticut native, reigning series champion Joey Logano.

“I always say it’s my favorite race weekend of the year,” Preece said. “I grew up going to the track with my father and grandfather. I had a lot of success here in the modifieds and it’s just a place I’m comfortable at. Driving in and out of the track each day still brings back a lot of memories. It’s a racer’s track, there’s really no place like it. Someone like me, I’ve had to fight to get where I am, and I don’t take any of it for granted and this is a place that helped me achieve my goals.”

Certainly, defending race winner Bell must be considered a favorite to earn back-to-back race trophies to join four other of the sport’s greats (Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Harvick) to accomplish the feat at New Hampshire. Bell and Kyle Busch are the only two drivers to have won in every NASCAR national series at the track. Bell has a NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series win in 2017 and joins Busch as the only driver to win three consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series races for a grand total of five New Hampshire victories.

Busch, a three-time 2023 race winner in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, has three NASCAR Cup Series victories at New Hampshire, a record six NASCAR Xfinity Series wins, and three Truck Series wins – a consecutive streak from 2009-11.

Of note, Ryan Newman – a three-race winner who holds the pole position record (seven) at New Hampshire – will be making his second start of the season, driving for Rick Ware Racing this weekend. He’ll team with Xfinity Series championship contender Cole Custer this weekend.

Practice for the Crayon 301 is Saturday at 12:05 p.m. followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 12:50 p.m. – both sessions aired live on USA Network.

 

Xfinity Series set for some magic at New Hampshire

Although John Hunter Nemechek earned his season-best third victory last week in a dramatic overtime finish in Atlanta, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was still only able to separate himself from fellow three-race winner, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill by 16 points atop the points standings in what has been a thrilling and tight contention for the 2023 Regular Season Championship.

The series arrives at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Saturday’s Ambetter Health 200 (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) where the competition has historically been wide open for the Xfinity Series championship regulars.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series there has featured a wide range of race winners – 27 different trophy-winners in the event’s 35-race history.

Defending race winner, JR Motorsports’ driver Justin Allgaier is the only series full-timer to have hoisted the lobster after a Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire. In fact, he’s been particularly good at the track with eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts, highlighted by that victory last year. He is currently fourth in the series’ tight championship battle, 54 points behind Nemechek, but only nine points behind third place driver Cole Custer.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver Custer has a similarly positive track record at The Magic Mile with top-10 finishes in all three of his previous starts and he won pole position for the 2019 race. New Hampshire is a significant place for Custer’s career. He earned his first national series win in the 2014 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race there becoming the youngest winner in series history at the age of 16 years, 4 months and 22 days. He’ll get two chances at the traditional lobster hoist in Loudon, as will also compete in the NASCAR Cup Series race for Rick Ware Racing on Sunday.

With nine races still remaining to set the 12-driver Playoff field, not only is the Regular Season Championship is still very much up for grabs, but that Playoff list remains hotly contested. There have been seven race winners to secure their postseason bid leaving five more positions still to be decided in the next two-month run.

Custer’s SHR teammate Riley Herbst is currently in the 12th position in the standings – only six points ahead of Parker Kligerman, a Connecticut native who is making his first Xfinity Series start at New Hampshire since 2013, when he finished 20th in his debut there.

Of note, NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series regular Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 44 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet this weekend – his fifth start in the series.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series gets underway with practice at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday followed by qualifying at 5:35 p.m. ET – both sessions air live on USA Network and will be streamed on the NBC Sports App.