NASCAR: 5 Reasons Why You Must Watch Sunday's Sprint Cup Race from New Hampshire

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2012

NASCAR: 5 Reasons Why You Must Watch Sunday's Sprint Cup Race from New Hampshire

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    Sunday's race at New Hampshire is just the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but for several reasons, it also could prove to be one of the most pivotal races of the 10-race Chase.

    This is a race that potentially makes or breaks the Chase hopes for at least a few drivers. It's also the race that sets up Dover next week and then the big wild card and potential wreckfest at Talladega in two weeks. If drivers can survive these next three races -- and most importantly, make some significant gains, starting with Sunday at Loudon -- they'll greatly enhance their chances to potentially win the Chase.

    Here's our take on five reasons why, if you're a NASCAR fan, Sunday's Sylvania 300 is a must-see.

    Of course, if you are anywhere near the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in bucolic Loudon, see if you can get some tickets.

    Because the excitement there is on par with the kind of excitement you only see at places like Bristol and Daytona.

1. Jeff Gordon's Last Stand?

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    While Gordon got off to a horrible start at Chicago last week, falling to 12th place in the Chase standings, 47 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski, the four-time Cup champ is not out of the running for the Chase by any stretch.

    But check back with us after Sunday's race; if Gordon has another rough go of it, his Chase chances could potentially be close to over.

    The one good thing for Gordon is that he has an absolutely outstanding record there; in 35 career Cup starts at NHMS, the driver of the No. 24 has three wins, 15 top-5s and 20 top 10s, along with four poles.

    Speaking of poles, Gordon will start Sunday's race from the No. 1 position on the track. And because passing is so difficult at NHMS, the more clean air he can have in front of him, the better his chances will be.

    Two other things to keep in mind for Gordon:

    Weather at Loudon can change in an instant, so you can bet crew chief Alan Gustafson has a number of different race strategies ready, depending upon the situation (don't forget the rain-shortened race strategy that took Gordon to victory at Pocono several weeks back).

    Secondly, he has to be as aggressive as he ever has been in his career on Sunday. He needs to protect his position, his pit crew must perform flawlessly and he needs help from his teammates. Gordon has spent much of the last 10 years having the back of his teammates, but in Sunday's race, if he's to get back into the running for the Chase, his teammates need to repay the favor and have his back, indeed.

2. Spread the Word: Look out for Logano

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    Last week, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were not intimidated by the fact they were racing the best of the best in 2012—even though the soon-to-be former teammates are not in the Chase.

    Still, they raced as if they were in the Chase, and both came away with a top-5 finish.

    At New Hampshire on Sunday, look for Logano in particular—who practically grew up racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and earned his first career Sprint Cup win there—to be a significant factor again.

    He has nothing to lose; he's not in the Chase, and he's in his final nine races for Joe Gibbs Racing (he moves to Penske Racing in 2013).

    Plus, with a large gathering of friends and family that will show up to root him on, if Logano does well—including potentially winning—it won't be a surprise at all.

3. Kyle Edwards or Carl Busch – They're Virtually Interchangeable

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    Yes, we know their real names are Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. But much like fellow driver Joey Logano, Edwards and Busch have nothing to lose at New Hampshire.

    Missing the Chase will do that to a driver. That's why we can see both drivers doing everything they can to make sure folks don't forget about them and that they're still forces to reckon with—particularly those contenders in the Chase.

    Busch is coming off a Top 5 finish in the Chase opener at Chicago last weekend, and showed signs of the Kyle Busch we have come to know and love—or hate, if you're not a KB fan—so well.

    This has been an off season for Busch in many ways, both on and off the track. He's been extremely quiet on the Cup front—one of the main reasons he missed the Chase—and he's been like a virtual choir boy in his off-track exploits. Don't be surprised if a significant part of that is due to edicts from his sponsors to toe the line—or else.

    Edwards is arguably one of the most embarrassed drivers in Sprint Cup this season. After such a great battle with Tony Stewart last season, only to lose the championship due to a tiebreaker of most wins over the course of the season, Edwards was a mere shell of himself in 2012.

    He still hasn't won a race in 2012. He failed to make the Chase. With so many whispers about his team and its chemistry (or lack thereof), Edwards may still be smiling, but he has had very little to smile about this season.

    Nothing could get Edwards back on track faster than a big win, and New Hampshire could be just the place—and offer just the ticket—to do so.  Let's face it, with just one win in his last 53 Cup starts, Edwards is far overdue to get back to victory lane.

    I mean, it's been so long since he took a Cup checkered flag—March 6, 2011 at Las Vegas—you almost have to wonder. If he does win again, will he remember how to do his trademark celebratory backflip? It better happen soon, lest he fall flat on his face, much like the way his season has looked to date.

4. How About Another Game of Snooker, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson?

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    Brad Keselowski snookered Jimmie Johnson last week at Chicago, sliding back onto the track following a pit stop sooner than normal—and right in front of Johnson, who had to jump on the brakes and take evasive action to avoid hitting Keselowski.

    Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus questioned the legality of Keselowski's move. While Knaus debated with NASCAR officials—and they eventually ruled that Keselowski did nothing wrong—it was very clear as the race wound down to the final laps that Keselowski had accomplished something very few people have been able to do over the last, oh, eight or nine years.

    And that was to rattle Johnson.

    Johnson has historically been a picture of patience and someone who keeps his cool. But Keselowski definitely got Johnson amped up—allowing the Polish Rocket to eventually win by more than three seconds over Johnson.

    Knowing Johnson, this battle is far from over. You can bet he and Knaus have been poring over different scenarios to not only get payback or revenge, but at the same time also teach Keselowski a valuable lesson that you don't mess with a five-time Cup champ.

    What Keselowski did was refreshing—especially for non-Johnson fans. It was the latest example that he won't take guff from any driver, no matter if it's Johnson, or Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon or anyone else out there.

    Something tells me that if the racing is super tight Sunday at New Hampshire and Johnson has a chance to extract revenge by "accidentally" getting into Keselowski and sending him flying, he'll not only get payback, he'll also deliver a message that you don't mess with the champ.

5. It's Time for Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick to Pick Up Their Games

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    The Chase for the Sprint Cup was designed to maximize winning en route to the championship. With one race in the books and the second one at hand, and with eight more to go after that, it's time for the two drivers in this year's Chase without a win to get on the stick.

    If Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick have any hope to win the Cup title this season, they have to do what the late Al Davis of Oakland Raiders fame religiously exhorted to his faithful: "Just win, baby."

    Winning is particularly crucial for Truex. Although the New Jersey native considers nearby Dover International Speedway his "home" race track, the truth of the matter is that Truex all but grew up at New Hampshire. It's where he first learned to hone his craft, and he's had more late model, modified, Nationwide and Cup starts there than pretty much any driver alive.

    Truex needs to make a statement at New Hampshire that he's not just happy to be in the Chase, but rather that he's in it to win it, plain and simple. And as an added bonus, if Truex were to win Sunday, he'd go from his favorite race track and the one he grew up on to his "home" track next week at Dover.  Can you imagine the head of steam and momentum he would carry into next week's race with him if he takes the checkered flag at Loudon on Sunday?

    It's the same case for Harvick. In 23 career starts at NHMS, he has one win, five top-5s and 12 top-10s. Considering that the flat, one-mile racetrack is one of Harvick's favorites along with Phoenix International Raceway, there's no reason why the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet can't rise to the occasion Sunday.

    While the Chase goes to another one-miler next week (Dover), if there's hay to be made this weekend, Truex and Harvick need to make as much as they can while they can, because it's only to get much more difficult from here on out.