Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    NASCAR drivers got a bit of a working vacation this past week at Daytona. Not only was the race shortened by 120 miles due to rain, but many drivers got swept up in two nasty crashes. Even for those who "finished" the race, it was a truncated weekend.

    On to New Hampshire, the farthest north these drivers take their stock cars.

    Defending the title this week is Brian Vickers, who won the Camping World RV Sales 301 in 2013. Thanks to keeping his nose clean in the Coke Zero 400, he finished second behind surprise winner Aric Almirola.

    The season has reached its tipping point. More races are behind us than in front of us, and the pressure is on drivers to score points. The pressure is also ratcheted up for those non-winners trying to lock up a position in the Chase before the regular season ends at Richmond. 

    Read on to see what's humming heading into New Hampshire.

Can Brian Vickers Regain the Magic at the Magic Mile?

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Vickers hasn't had the best season, but Sunday's runner-up effort could give his team the momentum it needs to repeat at Loudon. 

    Vickers told Gavin Faretra of New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

    I think that win was very special (because) it was my first win with the team and with Aaron's Dream Machine and the 55. But it was also special because of everything I kind of went through personally - health wise, in and out of the Series, in and out of a car. I didn't know if I would ever race again and to be into victory lane was great.

    Vickers hasn't been so much streaky as he has had spurts of isolated goodness. He has three top-fives in 2014—in the Coke Zero 400, the Aaron's 499 and the Duck Commander 500—but it's where he's finished in his other races that raises concerns. 

    Excluding the Coke Zero 400, Vickers' last five finishes have been 26th, 14th, 42nd, 19th and 43rd. He's 16th in the Sprint Cup standings and desperately needs a win. Winning this race a year ago should give the No. 55 all the confidence he needs.

Will the No. 3 Get No. 1?

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Both Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are having great rookie campaigns. Dillon has ignited the return of the No. 3, a move that has some Dale Earnhardt disciples a bit on edge. Putting that aside, even The Intimidator never won at New Hampshire. 

    "I know that number has won everywhere, so I'd love to be the first one to put it (in Victory Lane)," Dillon said, via New Hampshire Motor Speedway's website. "Any kind of win with that number is huge. If we can get out there and put a good show on and get a win, I think that would be cool; that's history."

    Richard Childress Racing sent Dillon to the Magic Mile to test so he could get a feel for the track. He has had two top-fives in three starts in Nationwide and Truck races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He's 18th in the Sprint Cup standings and is one of many looking for that first win 2014 to assure a berth in the Chase.

    "I feel pretty confident at this track," Dillon said. "The biggest thing is getting our car right so having a couple of days here testing is definitely going to help us so when we go into practice we're not rushing things. I've had some good success here in the past, and I definitely like coming here."

Aric Almirola Is a Winner; How Will He Respond?

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Almirola was the fortuitous winner of the Coke Zero 400 this past Sunday, leading the race when the red flag came out before ultimately being named the winner. The win effectively puts him in the Chase, this after a pretty mediocre season to date. 

    Even if the race hadn't been called due to weather, there was still a great chance for an unexpected winner to emerge. The first crash of the day took out Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, two of racing's best restrictor-plate drivers. No matter, Almirola was at the right place at the right time.

    Now, he's in the winners' club. How will he respond?

    There may not be a better track for Almirola to prove he's worthy of being a contender. He finished fifth at New Hampshire a year ago while leading zero laps. 

    Almirola is in a more favorable position than Matt Kenseth and Stewart, two of the sport's stars who haven't yet qualified for the Chase.

    Jeff Gluck of USA Today wrote, "Is it fair? This year, it is. Everyone knew surprise winners were a possibility when NASCAR implemented its revised win-and-in Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff system, which rewards victories above all else."

    It's up to Almirola to back it up now.

How Will Danica Patrick Parlay Her Coke Zero Top-10 in New Hampshire?

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Danica Patrick was one of the lucky ones in the Coke Zero 400. She was able to avoid major trouble in the two big crashes and subsequently earned herself and the Go Daddy No. 10 a top-10 finish, the team's second of the season.

    Patrick was right in the thick of many of those crashes. The TNT broadcast did a fine job tuning into her radio to hear her spotter telling her what to do when the smoke overtook her windshield. Via, Patrick said:

    Everything happens for a reason, so maybe that's why I had the mistake on pit lane and put ourselves in a position to not be caught in [the second wreck]. We would be sitting here with a crashed car, not sitting where we are now. I believe for sure, everything happens for a reason. That was a lucky one. 

    They were big (accidents) for a lot of people and they were mini for me. Other than pitting when pits are closed and having to start at the back I think we're real happy about catching yellow in the middle of the race and having a car that can run well here.

    Patrick was involved in an accident at New Hampshire a year ago and failed to finish, completing only 237 laps in the race. 

    Her 2014 season has been sour, to put it mildly, but on Sunday, she finished eighth and ahead of Stewart and Kevin Harvick, her two teammates involved in the first big wreck. Kurt Busch, Patrick's other teammate, picked up the slack for Stewart-Haas Racing and finished third in the Coke Zero 400. 

How Will the Big Dogs Bounce Back After Daytona's Big Wrecks?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Many of NASCAR's big names went up in smoke thanks to two big wrecks at Daytona this past Sunday. Those names included Johnson, Stewart, Harvick and Kyle Busch. Aside from Stewart, these guys alone have won six of the 18 races this year. Their days ended early, and there's no doubt they will be hungry to get back to the track.

    Stewart spoke about the crash that took him out, via

    I guess it was just [Ricky] Stenhouse being an idiot. It didn't make much sense when we're coming to (a competition) caution. We're like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution, and he does something stupid. It tore up a lot of people's cars and a lot of people's days. (We) get here on Wednesday night and sit here all day and run 19 and three-quarter laps and get wrecked by somebody who's doing something stupid.

    More than anything, Johnson was disappointed for his team after the race, saying, "Those guys have been down here for four days in this heat, working on the car, not to mention all the time and effort put into this. To go 15 or 20 laps is just a really big bummer."

    The wrecks also negatively affected drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth. Earnhardt is in the running for a championship, while Kenseth is still desperate for win No. 1 of the year. 

    These drivers will be champing at the bit to get to the Magic Mile and put behind them what was a frustrating and abbreviated weekend in Daytona Beach.