Welcome to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, folks. This weekend’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway opens the 10-week playoff event for NASCAR’s premier series, as 12 drivers will compete for the Sprint Cup.
Keep in mind that any solid fantasy game will add some interesting challenges for the rest of the season, such as only being able to pick Chase drivers once for the duration of the event. We’re going to take that philosophy to heart with this column.
Inevitably, I’m going to pick a Chase driver as my top driver almost every week, but once he’s been selected, he won’t show up as the featured driver again. There will be, as usual, a couple of alternates, and the traditional dark horses that make this column interesting.
With that in mind, let’s get to this week’s top picks:
Denny Hamlin is a fantasy stud at New Hampshire, with no finishes worse than 15th at the track. The summer 2007 winner at Loudon finished second in this race last year after leading 22 laps and has completed the full race distance every time he’s competed at the track. Plus, coming off a win at Richmond with the Chase lead, he’s got the momentum.
As for a non-Chase driver, Ryan Newman’s the best available, with a 13.3 average finish coming out of 11 top-10s in 17 starts. Newman has two New Hampshire wins, coming in this race in 2002 and 2005. He also led laps in his first nine Loudon starts, and has paced the field in 14 of his 17 career races at the track.
Three more picks, for good measure, or in case you want to save Hamlin for later:
I’d prefer to save Jimmie Johnson for later in the Chase, but if it’s your thing to go for him now, his 9.0 average finish and three Loudon wins in 17 starts is a pretty solid record. Save for a dismal 39th-place finish in this race in 2006, he’s a lot like Hamlin at this track, otherwise never running below 15th. Johnson also won the first Loudon race this year.
Tony Stewart hasn’t seen victory circle at New Hampshire since the summer of 2005, but his past six starts at the track have all seen top 15 finishes with many laps led. In fact, Stewart’s paced the field for at least one lap in 10 of his past 12 Loudon starts. Only twice did he fail to lead double-digit laps, and three times he led 132 or more.
Finally, for a left-field pick, consider local favorite Martin Truex Jr. The New Jersey driver made a name for himself in the old Busch North Series, which called Loudon its spiritual home. Truex, when competing for a solid team, really shows off for the home crowd—in 2007 and 2008, the years in which his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team was at its peak, he had three top five finishes in four starts and a worst finish of seventh. Michael Waltrip Racing isn’t quite DEI, but they’re a solid team at the very least. Consider Truex’s 22nd earlier this year a fluke.