Chase for the Sprint Cup race No. 2: Loudon preview and prediction

Tony Stewart has a good shot to win at Louden. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Tony Stewart has a good shot to win at Louden. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

With Martin Truex Jr. having already punched his ticket into the next round, the remaining 15 drivers have just two races left in the first segment to advance into the Round of 12.

With one race down and nine to go before NASCAR crowns its 2016 Sprint Cup champion, there are just two races left until the current field of 16 is cut down to 12. It is points racing at its finest as the series now moves to a short track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Bad Boy Off Road 300 Sunday afternoon, where dreams of moving on could be dashed in a split second.

A victory assures a driver of joining Martin Truex Jr. in the Round of 12 when it opens at the home of many NASCAR teams and drivers in Charlotte on Oct. 8, but now that the pressure is off Truex, he cannot be counted out of going back-to-back because there is little to lose.

“Really all it means is that we’re guaranteed to make the second round and the next two weeks we don’t have to worry about flat tires or somebody running into us and wrecking us, getting caught by a caution when you’re pitting – things like that,” Truex said about his strategy in a manufacturer’s interview. “We don’t have to worry about the things that we can’t control. That’s what gives you the most anxiety in these situations when you’re in the Chase and you have three‑round eliminations, so we don’t have to deal with that for two weeks. All we have to focus on is going to the race track and trying to continue to do a great job and win some more races, so that’s our goal.”

If Truex is a repeat winner, he will have to knock off previous winners at New Hampshire like Kurt Busch (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3), Jimmie Johnson (3), Tony Stewart (3), Kyle Busch (2), Denny Hamlin (2), Joey Logano (2), Kevin Harvick (1) and Brad Keselowski (1). Not an easy task considering each of them is also in the Chase and wants the coveted title.

The one driver who is on a roll at this track is Matt Kenseth, who has won the last two events (three overall), and he has quite a résumé with nine top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 33 starts. In his last six starts at The Magic Mile, the Cambridge, Wisconsin native has recorded a first (2016, summer), first (2015, fall), sixth (2015, summer), 21st (2014, fall), fourth (2014, summer) and first (2013, fall).

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Of the rookies in the field, it is a different tale for Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher. Elliott had a strong fifth at Chicagoland while Buescher struggled with a 28th and leaves him at the bottom of the Chase group.

“We know we have our work cut out for us and that, yes, it’s going to be difficult along the way,” Buescher said. “But I’m pretty confident that we can get some good runs here early on and be able to get past this first round. From there we’ll try to reevaluate and see where we can go.”

One driver to keep an eye on is Denny Hamlin who is on a career-best streak of nine top-10 finishes and at Louden he has two wins, eight top-5s and 13 top-10s in 21 starts and boasts the series-best average finish (10.2), ranks second in driver rating (103.3) and sits third in average running position (11.1). Statistics provided by NASCAR.

Right now, here is how the Chase field stands heading into Louden: Martin Truex Jr. (advanced to next round with win at Chicagoland), Brad Keselowski (22 points ahead of Austin Dillon on the cutoff line), Kyle Busch (+19), Denny Hamlin (+18), Joey Logano (+16), Chase Elliott (+12), Matt Kenseth (+11), Jimmie Johnson (+10), Carl Edwards (+5), Kurt Busch (+4), Jamie McMurray (+3), Tony Stewart (+1), Austin Dillon (-1), Kevin Harvick (-1), Kyle Larson (-2) and Chris Buescher (-11).

Location – Loudon, NH
Statistics – 1.06 mile paved track
Track Record: Brad Keselowski (27.090 sec., 140.598 mph)

Segment 1 – Chicagoland (COMPLETED), New Hampshire, Dover
Segment 2 – Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega
Segment 3 – Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix
Segment 4 – Homestand-Miami Speedway

The field is wide open for anyone to win at a short track, but if the Chase drivers stay out of trouble, expect them to be running up front at the end. That said, Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his finest season as a Cup driver, and with nothing to lose, he gets the pick here.

Tony Stewart wants desperately to go out on top, and he is just barely inside the top 12 before he hits the track on Sunday. Smoke doesn’t want to see his Chase chances end with a bad finish even before NASCAR moves to Dover, so he will play it relatively safe early on before he makes a big run in the second half.