New Hampshire Motor Speedway Magic Mile Notebook: Bojangles Southern 500

PRESS RELEASE: New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Matt Kenseth celebrates after his win at Darlington last year (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Matt Kenseth celebrates after his win at Darlington last year (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

**LOCAL TIDBITS**

Speedway Star Judges Announced
With the entry deadline quickly approaching, New Hampshire Motor Speedway officials recently announced the judging panel for the fifth annual Speedway Star singing competition. A total of 10 contestants will be chosen and invited to take the stage inside the Mall of New Hampshire on Saturday, April 26 in front of local personalities and industry professionals, who will serve as judges for the event. This year’s judging lineup includes the return of Karen Kiley of “The Morning Waking Crew” radio show on WOKQ, which she co-hosts with Mark Ericson, who will once again serve as the Speedway Star emcee. Legendary NASCAR pit reporter Dick Berggren, who also serves as president of the future Northeast Motorsports Museum to be built on New Hampshire Motor Speedway grounds, also returns as a judge.

Speedway Opens Gates for Season
Warm weather has finally melted away months of snowfall, meaning New Hampshire Motor Speedway is finally ready to go green in 2014. Speedway officials formally opened the gates Thursday, April 10, welcoming the New Hampshire Cycling Club (NHCC) to pedal its way around the 1.6-mile road course. The track weathered the winter perfectly and the speedway is in race condition for the kickoff to a new season of high-speed excitement. The two-wheeled riders will be the first to cross the Granite Stripe this year, but they certainly won’t be the last. The speedway, which is celebrating its 24th anniversary this year, will be active for nearly 200 days through October.

NHMS Helps Wave Checkered Flag on Maple Syrup Season
If things seems a “sweeter” this time of year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway compared to other facilities on the NASCAR circuit, look no farther the majestic Maple trees that surround the picturesque 1,200-acre speedway venue. NASCAR and maple sugaring have more in common than you think. Not only do both seasons start in February, but they both have significant roles in the New Hampshire economy. And while the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series won’t make the first of its two annual stops at New Hampshire Motor Speedway until July, the checkered flag is flying as maple sugaring season draws to an end in the Granite State. Running in New Hampshire from mid-February to mid-April, the maple sugaring season is a significant stimulant to the economy in the state. With close to 120,000 gallons of maple syrup being produced in more than 50 sugar houses across the state, a recent tally saw the wholesale and retail sale of maple syrup and related products total $4.8 million. Loudon alone produces 10 percent of the state’s maple syrup, a majority of it a stone’s throw from the start/finish line or off the backstretch camping lots.

**NATIONAL STORYLINES**

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its only stop of the season at Darlington Raceway this weekend:

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Next Race: Bojangles’ Southern 500

The Place: Darlington Raceway

The Date: Saturday, April 12

The Time: 6:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX, 6 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 501.3 miles (367 laps)

Key stats from last week at Texas Motor Speedway

Winner: Joey Logano

Margin of Victory: 0.476 seconds

Cautions: 7 for 49 laps

Lead Changes: 18 among 9 drivers

Most Laps Led: Joey Logano 108 of 340

Top 16 Driver Points:

(1) J. Gordon 259; (2) M. Kenseth 255; (3) C. Edwards 247;
(4) J. Logano 235; (5) Kyle Busch 231; (6) D. Earnhardt Jr. 228;
(7) J. Johnson 228; (8) B. Keselowski 218; (9) B. Vickers 205;
(10) P. Menard 203; (11) R. Newman 202; (12) A. Dillon 202;
(13) D. Hamlin 197; (14) T. Stewart 189; (15) K. Larson 187;
(16) G. Biffle 187.

Victories:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Brad Keselowski (1)
Carl Edwards (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kurt Busch (1)
Joey Logano (1)

This race last year
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Pole Sitter: Kurt Busch
Margin of Victory: 3.155 seconds
Lead Changes: 9 among 4 drivers
Most Laps Led: Kyle Busch 265 of 367
Top-Five: Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

New Championship Format Plays No Favorites
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth finished 1-2 in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings, theoretically establishing them as favorites for the 2014 title. Yet here we are seven races into the season and both still are seeking their first victory. Which is not good. Race winners get first dibs on spots in the expanded (16 drivers) and revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format. Racing for points is passé. After seven races this season, there have been seven different winners. Coming into Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway it’s easy to envision either Johnson or Kenseth finally visiting Victory Lane – and likely securing a place in the Chase. Kenseth is the defending race champion; Johnson won in 2012. Overall, Johnson has three Darlington wins, having swept two events there in 2004. Onto Darlington, the oldest superspeedway in the series, dating to 1950 when the first Southern 500 started NASCAR’s eventual across-the-board transformation from racing on dirt to asphalt and concrete tracks. The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval has retained much of its character – and its reputation as one of the most challenging layouts in all of NASCAR. Johnson and Kenseth have held their own, however. Johnson has an average finish of 8.8 (second-best in the series); Kenseth has a respectable 16.6. Johnson’s Darlington driver rating is an impressive 107.5; Kenseth is at 90.9.

Gordon Nabs Points Lead, On Verge Of Victory
For the first time in half a decade – 174 races for those counting – Jeff Gordon holds the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead. His last points lead came after the 2009 Coca-Cola 600, following a start to the season that saw a win and two runner-ups in the first seven races. He’s enjoying similar success this year, scoring four consecutive top 10s to start the season. His runner-up finish at Texas gives him three top fives this season. He had eight all of last year. With seven winners in the first seven races, available spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup are rapidly depleting. Only nine spots remain in the 16-driver playoff field. One of those could go to the points leader, if winless. So, Gordon has that going for him, which is nice. But a win would put him on much firmer ground when the Chase field is set following Richmond in September. And this weekend’s race at Darlington Raceway seems as good a time as any for the breakthrough victory. A seven-time Darlington winner, Gordon finished third in last year’s Darlington race. From 2004-2010, Gordon strung together a streak of seven consecutive top-five Darlington finishes.

Threat Is Real: Team Penske On Championship Fast Track
Drivers haven’t been shy in divulging the secret to championship success since the inception of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2004. The not so secret: Crush on 1.5-mile tracks. Tracks measuring 1.5 miles in length populate half the Chase, including the all-important season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Joining Homestead in the Chase are Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. And one team above all has risen above the fray, nailing the new completion rules package and excelling on the two 1.5-mile tracks the series has run so far – Team Penske. They’ve swept the 1.5-mile tracks, with Brad Keselowski taking Las Vegas and Joey Logano powering his way to a Texas win.

Smoke On The Rise
Tony Stewart’s comeback from his 2013 leg injury is in full swing. At Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart continued his return to form. He led Stewart-Haas Racing on qualifying day, with the team’s first Coors Light Pole of the season. Stewart has scraped off whatever rust may have lingered from the layoff, scoring three top 10s in the last four races. Now, Stewart heads to the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” And that moniker is all too literal for Stewart. Darlington Raceway remains on a very short list of unconquered race tracks for Stewart. In fact, that list is only two tracks long (Kentucky – which has hosted only three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races – is the other). In 21 starts at Darlington, Stewart has an average finish of 12.0, including four top fives and 11 top 10s. Perhaps his average starting position could explain some of the hardships. Stewart’s average starting position at Darlington is 17.2, a track where 95 of the 110 races run have been won from a top-10 starting position.

Truex Hopes History Repeats Itself
In 2011, Furniture Row Racing won its first race since joining NASCAR in 2005. And it ranked among the biggest surprises – and stories – of the past decade. Regan Smith improbably cross the finish line first at the historic track, and joined the likes of Richard Petty and David Pearson as a Southern 500 champion. Now with its third different driver in as many years, the team will look to relive that victory this week at Darlington Raceway with Martin Truex Jr. behind the wheel. Truex joined Furniture Row Racing coming off of his best statistical year of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. However, 2014 has been a struggle for Truex and his new team to this point. After a season where he had one win, seven top fives and 15 top 10s, Martin Truex Jr. has yet to crack the top 10 this season. Through seven races Truex has an average finish of 25.3 – much of it a product a horrible luck. Darlington Raceway may be just what they need to turn things around. Truex Jr. has a top-10 driver rating at Darlington, where his best finish is fifth. His average finish of 11.4 at Darlington ranks third among active drivers, behind Denny Hamlin (5.4) and Jimmie Johnson (8.8).

Gas ’N Go
– The Kyle Busch Milestone Watch continues. Busch needs 30 more laps to become the 15th driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history to reach 10,000 career laps led. He has led 30 or more laps four times at Darlington, including last year when he led a race-high 265 laps in a sixth-place finish.
– With the largest rookie class since 1994, a number of drivers will be making their first Darlington start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, including Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson and Ryan Truex. Dillon has the most success at Darlington, with fifth-place finishes in both the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
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