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Keeping Pace

Tue., Sept. 15, 2009, 6 p.m.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - New Hampshire

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

When the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday at New Hampshire, several drivers will be in the spotlight for reasons other than their seeding.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

Year Six Of The Chase Begins

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway kicks off the battle for the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title — the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — which begins with 12 drivers, 12 storylines and possible history-in-the-making.

The field was set last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, with the top 12 drivers in the standings at the conclusion of that event eligible to vie for the series title during the season’s final 10 races.

Expect lots of “vying”. And possibilities:

Three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) is aiming for a fourth consecutive title, something no NASCAR driver has accomplished. He’s the only driver to participate in all six Chase events.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Yellow Ribbon Chevrolet) is on a “Drive for Five.” His last title came in 2001, and he’s finished in the top five in the standings in four of the past seven seasons. A fifth title leaves only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt out of reach; both men have seven series titles.

Two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) also is attempting to distance himself in the record books. Not only is the first-year owner of Stewart-Haas Racing going for a third series title, he’s also targeting the first for a driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.

No Longer Retired: Ageless Mark Martin The Top Chase Seed

At the end of the 2006 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) spurned full-time competition, saying he was ready for a break.

But as 2009 loomed, the offer he couldn’t refuse from Hendrick Motorsports came along, and in this, his first full-time season since ’06, Martin has rewarded owner Rick Hendrick’s faith.

Teamed with crew chief Alan Gustafson, the 50-year-old Martin enters this Sunday’s Sylvania 300 as the top seed in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, on the strength of four wins during the season’s first 26 races. His reset point total is 5,040, 10 points ahead of second seed Tony Stewart and third seed Jimmie Johnson.

Martin hasn’t won at New Hampshire, however. He does have eight top fives, 13 top 10s and two poles there; also, an average finish of 11.1 in 47 career starts.

“Every track that we’ve come back to a second time this year, Alan and these guys have brought me a better race car than we had the time before,” Martin said. “And I have no doubt that that’s going to continue. I’m looking forward to getting there. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the track.”

Loop Data Says Fear The 48: Johnson Quietly, Statistically Dominant

Last season, Jimmie Johnson accomplished a feat that hadn’t happened in 30 years – he won three consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Now, he’s looking to do something that hasn’t happened, ever – four straight titles.

Every angle of statistical analysis suggests a Johnson “four-peat” is possible. Probable, even.

Johnson’s statistics in previous Chases for the NASCAR Sprint Cup? Dominant. His statistics in the 2009 regular season? Dominant, even though he didn’t lead the series in wins. Statistics at upcoming Chase tracks? Dominant. Johnson’s statistics at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, site of the first Chase race? Strong.

First, look at his statistics in the 50 previous Chase races. The numbers are uncanny. He has scored top-five finishes in over half the Chase races. He leads in every category: wins (14), top fives (26), top 10s (36), average finish (8.7), laps led (2,204). Same goes for the Loop Data compiled since 2005, a span of 40 Chase races: Driver Rating (108.8), Average Running Position (10.1), Laps in the Top 15 percentage (82.4%), Fastest Laps Run percentage (10.5%).

Johnson clearly has the history. He also has momentum. Even though he lost the top seed to Mark Martin, his statistics were the strongest in the regular season. He led the series in Driver Rating (110.3), Average Running Position (8.2), Fastest Laps Run (738), Laps Led (1,252) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (84.2%).

The upcoming 10 tracks also favor Johnson over all drivers. The schedule change that moved Auto Club Speedway into the Chase even made a difference. There, Johnson has a Driver Rating of 119.4. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, which had previously been a Chase track, he has a Driver Rating of 110.1.

At those 10 tracks, Johnson has a Driver Rating of 109.7. Second-best is Jeff Gordon with a 97.9, a difference of 11.8. Johnson also leads the series in Average Running Position (9.3) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (83.3%).

Though Johnson’s New Hampshire statistics don’t rank at the top, they rank in the top five. That’s key, as a strong start has proven important. Last season, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M/Scotch Ford), Johnson and Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) finished 1-2-3 at New Hampshire. Nine races later, the top three in the final standings looked like this: Johnson, Edwards, Biffle.

At New Hampshire since 2005, Johnson has a Driver Rating of 105.3 (third-best), an Average Running Position of 10.1 (third), 206 Fastest Laps Run (third) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 84.1% (second).

Below is a look at Johnson’s Chase history compared to other drivers in key statistics:


Driver                    Wins
1. Jimmie Johnson    14
2. Carl Edwards         6
3. Greg Biffle             6
4. Tony Stewart         4
5. Jeff Gordon            3

Average Finish

Driver                    Finish
1. Jimmie Johnson    8.7
2. Jeff Gordon          11.9
3. Carl Edwards       12.2
4. Tony Stewart       12.7
5. Clint Bowyer        13.5

Driver Rating

Driver                      DR
1. Jimmie Johnson  108.8
2. Carl Edwards      100.0
3. Jeff Gordon           99.3
4. Matt Kenseth        97.7
5. Tony Stewart        96.1

New Hampshire A Crucial First Stop On Chase Schedule

The 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins in New England, travels to both coasts, and ends in South Florida.

Drama dogs each step, but it doesn’t wait until teams settle in.

New Hampshire, site of Sunday’s Sylvania 300, has produced as many plotlines at the start as later Chase events, and doing well at New Hampshire — or not — usually carries forth.

“I don’t really think you can pick that out,” said top-seeded Mark Martin of favorites. “I mean, the Chase is anyone’s to win and anyone’s to lose. All of these teams got in here because they’re good. And all it takes is a stretch of 10 good races to win this. I think any of these 12 teams could win it.”

But Chase hopes can be twisted or expanded at the tricky, 1.058-mile oval. Take last year, when Greg Biffle, then the ninth seed, won the first two Chase races at New Hampshire to establish himself as a contender.

He’s the 12th seed this year (5,000 points), but trails top seeded Mark Martin (5.040 points) by only 40 points as opposed to 2008, when then-top seeded Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) began with 5,080 points.

“I’m excited about it because if I win the first two races, I’ll be leading the points this year,” said Biffle, “instead of last year I won the first two and I still wasn’t. It’s pretty tight. Forty points, that’s reachable in a couple of races.”

More proof that New Hampshire’s Chase race makes a big difference:

2004 — In the Chase’s first year, eventual series champion Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) led off with a New Hampshire win. He didn’t win again during the Chase, but gathered enough momentum to beat series runner-up Jimmie Johnson by eight points after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2005 — In a reverse of fortune, Busch encountered immediate trouble (and a 34th-place finish) in the first Chase race at New Hampshire. Meanwhile, eventual champion Tony Stewart finished second, beginning a run of seven top 10s that helped seal his second series title.

2007 — Then-second-year driver Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), considered by many as a Chase afterthought, won his first series race in the first Chase race at New Hampshire to establish himself as a contender. He finished third in the final standings that year.

2008 — Top-seeded Kyle Busch got off to a tough start right away. He finished 34th at New Hampshire, encountered more on-track trouble the next week at Dover International Speedway and finished 10th in the final standings.

NASCAR Announces 2010 National Series Schedules

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced the 2010 schedules for its three national series — the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

All three will open their 2010 seasons during the Feb. 12-14 weekend at Daytona International Speedway and close the year on the Nov. 19-21 weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series again has a 36-race schedule, beginning with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14 and two “non-points” events — the Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 6 at Daytona and the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 22 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

New Hampshire, site of Sunday’s Sylvania 300, again hosts the first event in the “Race to the Chase” — the 10-race stretch leading to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — on June 27, and the opening Chase event, on Sept. 19.

Other key dates include the series’ longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, on May 30 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the Brickyard 400 on July 25 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the “cut-off” race on Sept. 11 at Richmond International Raceway, which sets the Chase field.

Note these changes from 2009:

Daytona 500 qualifying will be held the same day as the Budweiser Shootout, on Saturday, Feb. 6. Previously, qualifying was held the next day, on Sunday.

The first Dover International Speedway race now precedes the traditional “double-header” at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which hosts the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 on consecutive May weekends. Dover’s first race now will be May 16, rather than the week after the Coca-Cola 600, which has been the norm.

Phoenix International Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway will swap April spots on the 2010 schedule. The first Phoenix race has followed the first Texas race in the past; now, first Phoenix is April 10, with first Texas on April 18.

NASCAR Sprint Cup teams will have four “off” weeks, including the traditional Easter holiday on April 4.

Momentum Counts: Who Has It And Why

When the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday at New Hampshire, several drivers will be in the spotlight for reasons other than their seeding.

Until track performance proves otherwise, expect these drivers to be touted early:

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota) is the most recent winner, having won for the first time at his hometown track (Richmond) last Saturday. The win — one of two thus far in 2009 — also boosted Hamlin’s Chase seeding; he begins fourth behind Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, respectively.

Hamlin also pulled off some impressive statistics in the 10-event “Race to the Chase” which preceded the Chase, capturing both his wins along with a series-high 1,482 points during that 10-race span.

Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) trails only Hamlin in momentum. He’s seeded eighth in the Chase, but likely is full of optimism after racing his way into his first Chase last Saturday night in Richmond (he edged Kyle Busch by eight points for the final Chase slot).

Vickers earned the most points over the final eight races in the “Race to the Chase” with seven top 10s and one win, at Michigan International Speedway.

Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) is the other driver in his first Chase, undoubtedly buoyed by that accomplishment.

Now in his third year of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, the former Formula 1 star is seeded 11th. He had five top 10s during the “Race to the Chase.” Though he has yet to win in 2009, his 12 top 10s thus far exceeds his previous career-high of six in 2007. Sunday’s race also marks his 100th series start.

Jimmie Johnson can’t be ignored at any time. The reigning and three-time series champion is seeded third, with three wins thus far in 2009. He’s finished in the top five in all seven of his previous NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons and is the only driver to participate in all six Chases.

Plus, Chase time is his time. No one has won more Chase races — 14. And Johnson leads three key NASCAR Loop Data categories — Driver Rating (110.3), Laps Led (1,252) and Fastest Laps Run (738).

“We've shown we've had a lot of speed in the cars and if we can just minimize mistakes we'll be in great shape,” Johnson said.

NSCS Newsmakers: Chase Media Day

Prior to Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire, the 12 drivers participating in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup have some media work to do.

The sixth annual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Day is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 17 in New York City.

The marquee event takes place at the Hard Rock Café New York in Times Square (at 43rd Street and Broadway, or 1501 Broadway).

It begins at noon and ends at 4 p.m.

All 12 drivers — Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge), Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet), Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle, respectively — will attend for media availability.

Prior to their arrival for the Hard Rock Café New York event, drivers will make national and local television appearances, along with meeting other New York-centric and scheduled media obligations.

Fans’ Opportunity To Attend NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony In Las Vegas

It’s true: For the first time in NASCAR history, fans have the opportunity to join drivers, team owners and industry leaders as they celebrate the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

This year’s awards ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 4 at Wynn Las Vegas.

Approximately 300 tickets will be available to the top 12 teams and drivers, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track operators and NASCAR partners to use for fan promotions.

Fans will account for 25% of the audience.

“Making tickets available provides the teams, tracks and partners a truly unique opportunity to reach out to the fans like never before,” said NASCAR CMO Steve Phelps. “We’re looking forward to seeing creative promotions for the limited number of tickets. We’ve worked very hard over the past four months to iron out details for the awards ceremony and the fan element was a top priority.”

Last April, NASCAR decided to move the awards ceremony to Las Vegas holding the year-end event in New York City for the past 27 years.

After considering several options for the 2009 event, NASCAR formed a partnership with Las Vegas Events, with Las Vegas becoming the “Official Host City of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week.”

Expect additional announcements about events in the coming weeks, including details about the Top 12 Victory Lap Parade, entertainment and other fan event opportunities.
Up Next: Dover International Speedway

Dover International Speedway hosts the second race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — the AAA 400 — next Sunday, Sept. 27 (2 p.m. start on ABC).

Greg Biffle is the defending winner. Jeff Gordon is the defending polesitter.

Last September victory at Dover was the second consecutive one in the 2008 Chase for Biffle, who’d won the first Chase event the previous week at New Hampshire.

Chase participant Mark Martin leads all drivers with 21 top fives and 29 top 10s at Dover.

Roush Fenway Racing drivers have won five of the last 10 events at Dover, including Biffle’s victory last year.

Fast Facts

The Race: Sylvania 300

The Place: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 20

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 300 laps/317.4 miles

TV: ABC, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2008 Winner: Greg Biffle

2008 Polesitter: Kyle Busch

Schedule: Friday—Practice, Noon-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 9-9:50 p.m.; Final Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.