While drivers may not openly admit an increase in the competitive intensity of the NASCAR Cup Series, with just seven races remaining to define the 16-driver playoff field, each summer race coming to this point represents a crucial marker of the season.
With his fourth victory last week, the best of the season – and his career high in a single season – Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron leads the Cup Series championship standings and will start his 200th career series on Sunday with a trip decidedly less under pressure to the northeast. for the Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
This leeway is also palpable for 11 other race winners. But the pressure is definitely on for the other drivers still trying to secure one of the five remaining secure positions in this playoff push.
Four-time New Hampshire race winner Kevin Harvick currently leads the points standings among those who haven’t won a race in 2023. He holds a healthy 126-point advantage on the playoff cutoff. The Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford driver and 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion was particularly strong on the 1.058-mile oval – hoisting the live lobster winners receive on the track more than any other active pilot. His four-win total is tied for most all-time with Jeff Burton, and Harvick would love nothing more than to top the all-time win chart in this final competitive season.
“It’s definitely a race track that we can’t wait to get to and I can’t wait to hopefully finally get to Victory Lane,” said Harvick, who earned an impressive nine top-five finishes. at the last 12 New Hampshire races.
“My guys are doing a great job of putting fast cars on the track,” he continued. “And Loudon is one of those places that checks a lot of boxes for us to go there and have a good weekend.”
At the other end of the playoff line, Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell are 15th and 16th in the standings, tied on points — a slight three to good.
Bubba Wallace of 23XI Racing leads them by three points. Kaulig Racing veteran AJ Allmendinger is on 13 points. Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Ty Gibbs is just 26 points back in a bid to earn a playoff spot in his first full-time 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 victory. Gibbs won the 2019 ARCA Menards Series West race at “The Magic Mile,” as New Hampshire is known.
Among the drivers with a previous win in New Hampshire – Harvick, Brad Keselowski (two-time NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series winner) and 2021 winner Aric Almirola are still in contention for their first wins this season.
Like Harvick, RFK Racing driver Keselowski has a solid lead (more than 100 points) in the playoff standings, but Stewart-Haas Racing driver Almirola is 90 points and ranked 27th heading into Sunday’s race. He will need a win to run for the championship.
Also in an unusually precarious position is 2020 series champion Chase Elliott, who is ranked 23rd in the standings (60 points behind the cut-off mark) after missing seven races – six to injury and the other to purge a suspension. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate and perennial playoff contender Alex Bowman is also in uncharted waters arriving in 22nd-ranked New Hampshire (44 points back) after missing three races with injury. Neither has won in New Hampshire before.
Another Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Preece has this weekend in New Hampshire on his calendar. The Connecticut native enters the race ranked 25th – 81 points out of playoff contention – and will be hoping for a dramatic and decisive win for his hometown crowd. Five drivers earned their first career wins in New Hampshire, including fellow Connecticut native, defending series champion Joey Logano.
“I always say it’s my favorite race weekend of the year,” Preece said. “I grew up going on the track with my dad and grandpa. I’ve had a lot of success here in the modified versions, and it’s just a place where I’m comfortable. Getting in and out of the track every day still brings back so many memories It’s a race track there really is no place like it Someone like me I had to fight to get where I am , and I don’t take anything for granted and it’s a place that has helped me achieve my goals.”
Defending race winner Bell must be considered a favorite to win back-to-back racing trophies to join four of the sport’s greats (Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Harvick) in accomplishing the feat at the New Hampshire. Bell and Kyle Busch are the only two drivers to have won every NASCAR National Series on the track. Bell won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2017 and joins Busch as the only driver to win three consecutive Xfinity Series races for a grand total of five victories in New Hampshire.
Busch, a three-time 2023 race winner in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, has three Cup Series wins at New Hampshire, a record six Xfinity Series wins and three Truck Series wins – a straight streak from 2009 -11.
It should be noted that Ryan Newman – a three-race winner who holds the record for pole position (seven) in New Hampshire – will make his second start of the season, driving for Rick Ware Racing this weekend. He will team up with Xfinity Series championship contender Cole Custer this weekend.
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The Xfinity Series is gearing up for a bit of magic in New Hampshire
Although John Hunter Nemechek took his third victory last week in a dramatic overtime at Atlanta, driver Joe Gibbs Racing could only part with fellow three-race winner Austin Hill of Richard Childress Racing by 16 points at the top. the points standings in what has been an exciting and close fight for the 2023 regular season championship.
The series arrives at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Saturday’s Ambetter Health 200, where competition has always been wide open for Xfinity Series championship regulars.
The Xfinity Series has featured a wide array of race winners – 27 different trophy winners in the event’s 35-race history.
JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier, the reigning race winner, is the only full-time driver in the series to hoist the lobster after an Xfinity Series race in New Hampshire. In fact, he’s been particularly good on the track with eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts, evidenced by this victory last year.
He is currently fourth in the close series championship battle, 54 points behind Nemechek but only nine points behind third-placed driver Cole Custer.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Custer has an equally positive Magic Mile record with top-10 finishes in his three previous starts, and he took pole position for the 2019 race.
New Hampshire is an important location for Custer’s career. He took his first National Series victory there in the 2014 Truck Series race, becoming the youngest winner in series history at the age of 16 years, 4 months and 22 days. He will have two chances at the traditional lobster tackle at Loudon, as he will also be racing in the Cup Series for Rick Ware Racing.
With nine races remaining to define the 12-driver playoff field, not only is the regular-season championship still up for grabs, but this playoff slate remains hotly contested. There have been seven race winners to secure their post-season bid, leaving five more positions to be decided over the next two months.
Custer’s SHR teammate Riley Herbst is currently 12th in the standings – just six points ahead of Parker Kligerman, a Connecticut native making his first Xfinity Series start in New Hampshire since 2013, when he finished 20th. in his early days there.
It should be noted that Truck Series regular Rajah Caruth will drive the #44 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet this weekend – his fifth start in the series.
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