A look at how the Chase is shaping up.

1. How many drivers are locks for the Chase?


Five of the top six: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch. Besides displaying the necessary consistency – each has at least five top-five finishes and seven top-10s – these guys have also beaten a path to Victory Lane. Among them they’ve won 14 of the first 16 races. An inability to close the deal puts Jeff Gordon (fifth in points) a notch below, although his 712 laps led is second only to Kurt Busch’s 786.


 


2. Which drivers in the top 12 should be most worried?


All those not named above. None of the drivers from seventh to 12th has won a race this season, and only 217 points separate seventh-place Matt Kenseth from 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. That margin could vanish in no time (a driver can gain up to 161 points on another competitor in one race). The most comforting thing for this group is that the drivers from 13th through 20th have been wildly inconsistent this season. Still, a year ago Brian Vickers vaulted from 17th to sixth over the last 10 races, so none of the bubble bunch should get too comfortable.


 


3. Which drivers outside the top 12 could crash the party?


Ryan Newman (15th in points) and Jamie McMurray (16th) won at Phoenix and Daytona, so they can’t be counted out. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th) and Clint Bowyer merit consideration based on their proximity to the bubble. Juan Pablo Montoya (20th) earned a stay of execution with a top-10 at Infineon, and he has two strong tracks (Indy and Watkins Glen) coming up.  Joey Logano (17th) and Martin Truex Jr. are long shots. But barring problems with the FR9 engine, Kasey Kahne (18th) is the driver most likely to mount a charge, based on his recent performances this year and the summer surge had made last year.


 


4. Which drivers are already in wait-till-next-year mode?


The start-and-park brigade, obviously. But in all likelihood, so are David Reutimann, Paul Menard, A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Scott Speed Sam Hornish and Travis Kvapil. It’s also becoming another lost season for once-promising David Ragan, who missed the Chase by one spot in 2008. Still, this group might spice things up at times – particularly Ambrose and Allmendinger, who could challenge at Watkins Glen. And then there’s Brad Keselowski. Although he’s not a Chase contender, he has the talent to win on any given week. And the contenders had better give him some room or suffer the consequences.


 


5. Who’s the best bet to win it all?


Kevin Harvick’s point lead is a mirage. If the Chase started today Denny Hamlin would be the top seed based on his series-leading five wins, and Harvick would fall to fifth. But history has shown that leading in either points or wins at this stage of the season means little under the Chase format. Only once since 2004 has the points leader after Sonoma gone on to win the title (Jimmie Johnson, 2006). And only once has the driver with the most wins at this stage gone on to win the championship (Johnson again; his four wins in the first 16 races of 2007 tied him with Jeff Gordon for the lead). Like Hamlin, two other drivers have had five wins at this stage in the Chase era (Greg Biffle in 2005, Kyle Busch in 2008). Neither won the title. So while it’s reasonable to expect Hamlin to remain a formidable challenger, Jimmie Johnson remains the favorite to respond the best under the pressure of the Chase. As Johnson said after ending a three-month drought with a win at Infineon, “It’s a long time until September.”


 


NEXT RACE Lenox Industrial Tools 301, New Hampshire Motor Speedway


THE LOWDOWN Even with that “extra mile,” the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 is a relaxing Sunday drive compared to some of the longer events on the Cup schedule. The drivers who are truly doing long-haul duty this week are behind the wheels of team transporters. Loudon is in the midst of a grueling month that takes teams from Michigan to California to New Hampshire to Florida to Illinois – with return trips to North Carolina between each stop. This is the time when the additional manpower and resources of the mega-teams begin to show.


 


ONE TO WATCH: Joey Logano


WHY HE MATTERS: Got lone Cup win last year in rain-shortened Loudon race.


WHAT HE SAYS: “I’m young, but I’ve been racing a long time.”


WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Finished 33rd at Infineon after a pair of top-20s in Cup road races last season.


 


PAST WINNERS


2009 Joey Logano


2008      Kurt Busch


2007      Denny Hamlin


2006      Kyle Busch


2005      Tony Stewart


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ABOUT New Hampshire


TRACK: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.), 1.058-mile paved track


RACE LENGTH: 301 laps, 318.5 miles


FIRST RACE: 1993


SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup


 


Quote of note


“It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us.” – Jimmie Johnson, after winning at Infineon when the late-race leader, Marcos Ambrose, stalled under yellow while trying to save fuel.


 


Where to watch


Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at noon EDT, followed by the race at 1:00.


 


UP TO SPEED


Summer stars


Who will be the driver to beat this summer? Denny Hamlin – if last year is any indication. During the 10 warm-weather events that comprised the 2009 “Race to the Chase,” Hamlin had the highest average finish (9.0) of all Sprint Cup drivers (see chart). He also had the most wins (two, tied with Tony Stewart). Among the other drivers who sizzled last summer was Kasey Kahne, who had an average finish of 10.9, including a win at Atlanta. He’ll need a similar hot stretch to make the Chase this year. Who’s most likely to suffer some dog days? Jeff Burton. This year’s eighth-place points man didn’t have a single top-10 last summer, and his average finish was 25.6.


 


Remember me?


Sprint Cup road-course races can be a lifeline to struggling teams. Last week at Infineon, 41-year-old owner/driver Robby Gordon scored his first top-five finish in more than a year when he came in second behind Jimmie Johnson. “We came here to win the race,” said Gordon, who won a pair of road races when he drove for Richard Childress Racing in 2003, “but second place is pretty darn close.” The runner-up finish provided something even more valuable than a $215,648 payday: momentum.“This will boost morale back at the workshop,” Gordon said. “We’ll come to Watkins Glen guns blazing.”


 


Milestones


Last Saturday Carl Edwards won the first-ever Nationwide series race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. (The Cup series held one event at the challenging four-mile course in 1956.) It was also the first win of the season in either the Nationwide or Cup series for a Ford driver. On Sunday at Infineon, Jimmie Johnson got the first road-course win of his stellar Sprint Cup career.


 


WEEKLY STATS


Top “Race to the Chase” (RFTC) performers


 


RANK            DRIVER            2009 RTTC AVG.            2010 PTS. RANK


1            Denny Hamlin       9.0   (2 wins)            3


2            Brian Vickers      9.8   (1 win)            N/A


3            Tony Stewart      10.2 (2 wins)            11


4            Kasey Kahne      10.9      (1 win)            13


5            Juan Montoya      11.6                        20


6            Jeff Gordon            12.2                        7


7            Mark Martin            12.7 (1 win)            12


8            Jimmie Johnson      13.3 (1 win)            6


9            Greg Biffle            13.8                        9


10            Ryan Newman      14.4                        15


11            Carl Edwards      14.5                        10


12            Matt Kenseth      14.9                        5


13            Kurt Busch             15.1                        4


14            Clint Bowyer      15.2                        13


15            Kyle Busch            15.4 (1 win)            2


16            David Reutimann      16.4                        19


17            Joey Logano      17.0 (1 win)            17


18            Marcos Ambrose      18.1                        30


19            Kevin Harvick       19.3                        1


20            Casey Mears            20.6                        N/A