On the heels of a wild race at Daytona, there is no telling what might happen at Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 from New Hampshire as NASCAR's best drivers vie for a spot in the Chase.
There are just eight races remaining prior to the commencement of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A victory guarantees a Chase berth for all intents and purposes, with 11 different drivers having won thus far. Aric Almirola became the 11th in a rain-shortened race last week, which should give some of the middling teams belief moving forward.
With that said, New Hampshire generally isn't as unpredictable as the superspeedways. Eight active drivers have multiple wins at New Hampshire, which is a symbol of dominance as well as parity among them.
Chase-qualified drivers will continue to pursue victories to improve their place in the standings, while those who have yet to win will be desperate to take the checkered flag. Those factors promise to make the Camping World RV Sales 301 one of the year's most intriguing races.
Where: New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire
When: Sunday, July 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: TNTDrama.com
Radio: Performance Racing Network
|Camping World RV Sales 301 Starting Order|
|9||Martin Truex Jr.||78|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
|28||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
Drivers to Watch
Nobody enters New Hampshire in a more comfortable position than Jimmie Johnson. The six-time Sprint Cup champion has more wins this season than anyone else with three, which puts him in position to lead the Chase when it commences. The No. 48 team has never rested on its laurels, though, and will undoubtedly push for another victory on Sunday.
Johnson has had as much success as anyone at New Hampshire, with three wins and 17 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. That isn't particularly surprising since Johnson is among the best at every track, but he really seems to have figured out the mile-long oval.
As good as Johnson has been this year, he believes that improvements still need to be made. According to Jared Turner of FoxSports.com, JJ is focused on reaching optimal form prior to the Chase.
We try to look back and reflect and say, 'Wow, we've done a great job as a team (by) showing up off and finding our way there.' So there's plenty to be proud of. But come Chase time, you can't show up and unload on the right side of the scoring monitor and then find your way to victory lane. You're putting yourself too far behind the eight ball. Luckily, we have a couple of months to really advance and get our cars where they need to be.
A win at New Hampshire would further cement Johnson atop the Chase standings and give him even more confidence moving forward. That is certainly a scary thought for his competition.
Although he has a win under his belt, this hasn't been one of Denny Hamlin's better seasons thus far. The No. 11 team is just 14th in the standings, which isn't a huge deal due to the importance of winning races, but there is no doubt that a competitive guy like Hamlin would prefer to be in a better position.
Luck hasn't always been on Hamlin's side this season, with last week's race at Daytona being a prime example. Hamlin managed a strong sixth-place finish amid chaos, but rain ended the race early and robbed him of what may have been a golden opportunity to win for the second time in 2014.
Based on a tweet after that race, it is clear that a bit of frustration is starting to set in for Hamlin:
New Hampshire is the perfect track to get Hamlin back in business, though. He has twice won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and his average finish of ninth place is better than any other driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Hamlin is somewhat on the fringes of the Chase among drivers who have won, but one more victory will put him right near the top of the standings. The fact that Hamlin qualified third means that he will be in ideal position to make some noise, so he has to be viewed as one of the top contenders.
Time is starting to run short for Tony Stewart as it relates to qualifying for the Chase. The three-time Sprint Cup champion is still searching for his first win of the season, and he is a disappointing 20th in the standings. The Chase doesn't feel the same when Stewart isn't part of it, but he still has eight chances to make something happen.
It starts at New Hampshire, where Stewart has won thrice and finished in the top five on 14 occasions. He also qualified fourth for this week's race, so all the pieces are in place for Stewart and the No. 14 team to finally take the checkered flag.
Things haven't been going Stewart's way in recent weeks, especially last week at Daytona. A Ricky Stenhouse Jr. miscue took out nearly half the field, and Stewart was none too happy about it afterward, per NASCAR on Fox:
Stewart's frustration is understandable, but he needs to be in a good frame of mind at New Hampshire. If Smoke can avoid getting caught up in crashes and simply run his race, then this could be his best chance to find his way into the Chase.
Johnson, Hamlin and Stewart are far from the only drivers with a legitimate shot to win this week. A number of competitors have won at New Hampshire on multiple occasions, and they will definitely be in the mix as well.
Jeff Gordon is a three-time New Hampshire winner, and he is looking for his second win of the season in order to improve his Chase positioning. The same can be said for Kurt Busch, who is currently lower in the standings than any other winning driver this year.
Ryan Newman is currently in Chase position despite not winning a race yet, but he has won three times at New Hampshire as well and should be a force to be reckoned with.
Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne have all won at New Hampshire but are winless this season. Any of them could conceivably cross the finish line first and ensure their spot in the Chase.
Based on his track record of success at New Hampshire, though, coupled with a prime qualifying position, look for Hamlin to win yet again in Loudon and make a Chase statement in the process.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.