NASCAR Sprint Cup at New Hampshire: Jimmie Johnson and 10 Top Contenders

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup at New Hampshire: Jimmie Johnson and 10 Top Contenders

0 of 10

    As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season passes its midpoint, no driver has presented himself as the person to beat. In fact, the standings are more jumbled than they have been in recent memory with just 22 points separating first-place Kyle Busch and sixth-place Matt Kenseth.

    The reason for this parity may be the struggles of Jimmie Johnson. Of course, Johnson’s struggles would be considered a great accomplishment for most drivers, but there high and often unrealistic hopes when you’re a five-time defending champion.

    Johnson currently sits fifth in the standings, just 19 points out of first. Despite the fact that he could easily slide into first in any given week, Johnson hasn’t been his dominant self this season, winning just one race. He should be happy to see New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the schedule, however.

    New Hampshire has been among Johnson’s best tracks over the course of his career, as he has won three races and enjoyed an average finish inside the top 10. Should he pick up another victory there on Sunday, there is a good possibility that he will find himself in a familiar position atop the standings.

    Things certainly won’t be easy for Johnson, though, as six other Sprint Cup drivers have scored multiple wins at New Hampshire during their careers. Here are the top 10 candidates to enter victory lane in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 on Sunday.

10. Ryan Newman

1 of 10

    Currently sitting ninth in the standings without a win, Ryan Newman would benefit greatly from a victory. Luckily for Newman, he has had experienced some success at New Hampshire to the tune of two career wins. With the new NASCAR points system emphasizing winning races, Newman surely can’t feel too comfortable with where he is in the standings. One misstep could easily cause Newman to fall out of the top 10 as 11th-place Tony Stewart is just 11 points back.

    With David Ragan and Brad Keselowski each having a win under their belt, Newman would then be in danger of missing The Chase. Keselowski needs only to move up one spot in the standings to become eligible for one of the two wild card spots. Although a win wouldn’t guarantee Newman a spot in The Chase, he would certainly have an upper hand on many of his winless counterparts. He may have slowed down in the wins department over the past couple seasons, but Newman is generally for at least one or two wins per season.

9. Denny Hamlin

2 of 10

    After seemingly establishing himself as a perennial contender, Denny Hamlin has fallen off a bit this season. He seems to have improved in recent weeks, however, and finds himself in 10th place at the moment. Inconsistency has certainly plagued Hamlin thus far, which is why a trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway should be a welcome one for him and the No. 11 team. Hamlin has scored one career victory at New Hampshire in his relatively young career and has posted a sterling average finish of 7.6.

    With one win under his belt, Hamlin won’t need to make an unnecessary push to win this race like some of his opponents. He should feel fairly confident in his spot in The Chase at the moment, so he will be able to focus on running a clean, consistent race. Of course running in such a way should make him a contender to win at the same time. Eleven of Hamlin’s 17 career wins have come at intermediate tracks such as New Hampshire, so he should be a real threat to go to victory lane.

8. Jeff Burton

3 of 10

    Since the Sprint Cup Series began racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 1993, no driver has won more races there than Jeff Burton.  Burton has taken the checkered flag four times at New Hampshire on the Sprint Cup circuit, as well as once on the Nationwide Series. With those statistics in mind, one might think that Burton should be higher on this list. It should be noted, though, that Burton hasn’t won a race at New Hampshire since 2000.

    Burton has struggled mightily this season, sitting in 25th place in the standings currently. Not only is Burton without a win thus far, he hasn’t even posted so much as a top-five or top-10 finish. With that in mind, it may be tough to imagine Burton coming from out of nowhere to win at New Hampshire, but this is the track that could turn his season around. The odds are astronomically against him when it comes to making The Chase, but if he can pick up a victory, the season will at least be salvaged.

7. Kevin Harvick

4 of 10

    Just last week Kevin Harvick was atop the standings, however, Kyle Busch’s victory at Kentucky sent him down to third, just 10 points out of the first position. Harvick has run quite consistently this season and is tied with Kyle Busch for the most wins with three. Harvick hasn’t been particularly great at New Hampshire over the course of his career, but he has won there once on the Sprint Cup circuit, as well as once on the Nationwide Series.

    Harvick finished fifth in both New Hampshire races last season, so it stands to reason that he is beginning to feel comfortable at that track. Harvick hasn’t won a race since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte seven weeks ago, so he may be due to take the checkered flag. Harvick’s spot in The Chase is all but assured at this point, so he’ll have the luxury of gambling in the latter stages of the race if need be. When you consider the fact that the re-seeding is based on wins when The Chase starts, Harvick would certainly like to have the most victories at that point.

6. Clint Bowyer

5 of 10

    After spending most of the season in the top 10, Clint Bowyer fell outside The Chase due to a poor finish last week. Although he is 12th in the standings, David Ragan currently occupies the 12th spot in The Chase standings by virtue of his win in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona a couple weeks ago. Bowyer may only be 15 points out of 10th, but the pressure is certainly mounting for him to pick up a victory before The Chase starts in two months.

    New Hampshire may be the track where Bowyer finally breaks through. Two of Bowyer’s four career wins have come at New Hampshire, making him one of the favorites on Sunday. If Bowyer is to win, however, much of it will depend upon his qualifying. Bowyer started on the front row for each of his victories at New Hampshire. His other qualifying ventures at the track haven’t been great, and the results have reflected that. Should Bowyer have a successful qualifying run this weekend, he will be put himself in great position to win and solidify his spot in The Chase.

5. Tony Stewart

6 of 10

    Perhaps one of the Sprint Cup Series’ biggest surprises this season has been Tony Stewart. While Stewart hasn’t exactly been terrible, he hasn’t been as dominant as NASCAR fans have grown accustomed to. Stewart is 11th in the standings at the moment and is hanging by the thread in terms of his position as a wild card, although he is just two points outside the top 10. Stewart has yet to win a race this season and has registered just one top 5 in 18 races.

    When you consider Stewart’s past success, it would seem to only be a matter of time before he enters victory lane. Since joining the Sprint Cup Series full time in 1999, Stewart has never gone an entire season without winning a race. In fact, he has failed to win multiple races in a season just once. New Hampshire hasn’t been Stewart’s best track, but he does own two career Sprint Cup victories there, as well as one Nationwide Series win. “Smoke” has finished around the top 10 in three of his last four races, so he seems to be coming into his own. A win at New Hampshire would certainly put Stewart in a great spot with regards to The Chase.

4. Jeff Gordon

7 of 10

    As one of just four drivers to win at least three Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire, Jeff Gordon is certainly one of the favorites. Like Jeff Burton, though, it has been quite some time since Gordon has won at New Hampshire. In fact, he hasn’t entered victory lane there during this millennium, last taking the checkered flag in 1998. Even when he hasn’t won, however, Gordon has traditionally run well at New Hampshire to the tune of 14 top-five finishes and 18 top-10 finishes. 

    Since 1997, Gordon has finished outside the top 15 at New Hampshire just three times. This means that he is almost always in the hunt in the late stages of the race. After struggling early in the season, Gordon has been running great lately, including five top-10 finishes in his past six races. With Gordon having won two races and sitting in seventh in the standings, he is close to being locked into The Chase. This will allow him to go all out for a win at New Hampshire in attempt to tie Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick as the winningest drivers this season.

3. Kurt Busch

8 of 10

    New Hampshire Motor Speedway is hands down one of Kurt Busch’s favorite tracks. Not only has he won three races there, but he has also posted consistently great finishes there over the past few seasons. Busch has finished worse than sixth at New Hampshire just once in his last six races there. Busch has proven that he is a threat to win from any spot on the track at New Hampshire as he has excelled regardless of his qualifying position.

    It’s certainly fair to say that Busch has been among the most consistent drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit this season. While he has only one win, he has finished in the top five four times and the top-10 10 times. Busch, currently in fourth, is just 18 points behind his brother Kyle for first place in the standings. Busch surely understands that his success this season stems from finishing in and around the top 10, so he’s unlikely to take unnecessary risks en route to a win. As long as he runs up front on Sunday, though, he will be in a fine position to take the checkered flag.

2. Kyle Busch

9 of 10

    As one of the fastest-rising young stars in all of NASCAR, Kyle Busch has entered victory lane at many race tracks. New Hampshire Motor Speedway is no exception as Busch has won there five times in total, including once in Sprint Cup, twice on the Nationwide Series and twice on the Camping World Truck Series. Although winning races on NASCAR’s lower-level circuits and winning Sprint Cup races are a completely different animal, Busch has proven that he is a winner through and through.

    At just 26 years of age, Busch has already won an incredible 99 races spread across NASCAR’s top-three series. Not only is he currently first in the standings, but he holds the momentum heading into New Hampshire thanks to his win last week at Kentucky. In four races at New Hampshire between the Nationwide and Trucks Series over the past two seasons, Busch has won all of them. His lone win at New Hampshire as a Sprint Cup driver came in 2006. Busch’s Sprint Cup performances at New Hampshire have been a mixed bag, but he’s red hot and the moment and is a threat to win each and every week.

1. Jimmie Johnson

10 of 10

    If nothing else, Jimmie Johnson has certainly been consistent this season. In fact, in 18 races he has finished worse than 20th just three times. Because of that consistency, he is currently in fifth place, 19 points out of first. With just one win, however, Johnson hasn’t struck fear in his opponents as much as he has in his past five championship seasons. Of course Johnson is capable of breaking out at any time thanks to his superior skill and affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports, though, making him the favorite to win at New Hampshire.

    Along with Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, Johnson has the second most all-time wins at New Hampshire with three. Johnson won one of the two New Hampshire races last season and has finished outside the top 10 just once in his last eight races there. Due to Johnson’s relative anonymity this season, it’s quite possible that some of his counterparts will let him slip to the back of their minds. Obviously that would be a huge mistake as Johnson is capable of winning any given race. New Hampshire is no exception.