NASCAR Weekend Preview – New Hampshire Motor Speedway: Key Race For Playoff Aspirations

Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

With nine races remaining to set the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, each of the upcoming summertime events represents a crucial opportunity for drivers still trying to secure that championship opportunity.

A pair of two-time NASCAR Cup Series champions in Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch are among an accomplished group still needing to guarantee their chance to race for a championship. A victory in Sunday’s USA Today 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the surest way to do that.

The New Hampshire “Magic Mile” has historically been a sort of winner’s circle wild card with an uncharacteristically high 19 percent of its race winners starting outside the top-20 on the grid. Six of the last 11 race winners started outside the top-10 and 2021 winner Aric Almirola rolled off 22nd.

There are six former race winners in Sunday’s field – including Busch, who is a three-time winner and Logano, who is a two-time New Hampshire champ. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin is tied with Busch for most wins (three) among active drivers. Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s Brad Keselowski has a pair of trophies. And Christopher Bell and defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. have a win at the Magic Mile too.

Logano, whose two Team Penske teammates Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney have earned Playoff positions with wins already this season, is still racing for his first trophy. Surprisingly, Logano has had only a pair of top-five finishes through the opening 17 races – but his best showing – runner-up – came at the Richmond, Va. short track. He won at New Hampshire in 2009 and 2014.

Busch has similar 2024 statistics to Logano with only two top-five finishes. His best race of the season was a third place at the Atlanta 1.5-miler. It’s been six races since his last top 10 – eighth-place at Kansas. He’s had a frustrating stretch of races recently, with two 35th place finishes in the last three weeks (at Gateway and Iowa). He is the only active driver to win at New Hampshire from pole position (2017).

Logano and Busch are ranked 17th and 18th, respectively in the Playoff standings – with the Top-16 drivers advancing to the 10-race season championship competition.

As with that pair, Truex is still racing for his first trophy of the season. The 43-year-old New Jersey native would love nothing more than to hoist the winner’s lobster in back-to-back races considering his big news this week that he will retire from fulltime competition at the end of this season. Although the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champ is ranked highest (11th) in the Playoff standings among that titled-trio still racing for a 2024 win, he would prefer to secure the Playoff position with a trophy instead of points-racing.

A victory this week would make Truex only the fifth driver to earn consecutive wins at New Hampshire. His 1,170 laps led at the track is most among active drivers and he’s one of only four drivers in history to have led at least 1,000 miles at the 1.058-mile track. He’s earned 15 top-10 finishes in 30 starts and his 11.3 average finish is third best in the current field.

“It’s a tough place and it’s not gotten any easier since then,” said Truex, driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota. “The older it gets, the harder it gets. Last year, we saw the track be very different than it’s ever been before. …

“It’s a very technical track and it’s gotten bumpy over the years as well,” Truex added. “It’s flat, has a fast entry and not a lot of grip. New Hampshire is a real challenge but it’s a lot of fun when you get it right. I know all our guys will be ready.”

Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin will certainly be in this highly-motivated mix as well. All three of his wins this season have come on tracks one-mile or shorter and his 11 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes in 30 New Hampshire starts are both tops among all active drivers. Busch also has 11 top-five efforts.

Practice is set for 12:35 p.m. ET on Saturday with qualifying following at 1:20 p.m. ET – both sessions will air live on USA Network and stream live on the NBC Sports App.

Playoff spots are running out in the Xfinity Series

With 11 races remaining in the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season and five Playoff-eligible positions still to be decided, Saturday’s SciApps 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could play a big role in setting the title vibe.

Only two drivers in the field – Justin Allgaier and NASCAR Cup Series regular Christopher Bell – have won at New Hampshire previously. Allgaier scored his win in 2022 and has an impressive nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts and hasn’t finished worse than seventh since 2018. The driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet is fourth in the championship with a victory at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

Bell, a two-time winner in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, is looking to improve on an already stellar Magic Mile resume – winning the Xfinity race in all three of his starts (2018, 2019 and 2021). He will be driving the No. 20 Toyota this weekend for his NASCAR Cup Series team, Joe Gibbs Racing.

Saturday’s race marks a chance at redemption for JGR’s Chandler Smith, who finished runner-up last year at New Hampshire. The JGR team has won seven of the last eight races, including John Hunter Nemechek’s victory last season. Smith is one of four drivers with two wins this season and sits only a single-point behind championship leader Cole Custer in the standings.

The reigning series champion Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is still competing for his first win of the year, but certainly has a good history at this New England track. He became the youngest winner in NASCAR’s national series history (16 years, 7 months, 28 days) when he claimed a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race win at the track in 2014. He’s earned three top-10s in four NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at New Hampshire with a best showing of runner-up in 2019.

Chandler Smith leads the Playoff picture, followed by two-time winners Austin Hill, Sam Mayer and Shane van Gisbergen. Allgaier and rookie Jesse Love also have secured a shot at the 2024 title with a win this year.

In addition to Custer, drivers also currently Playoff bound based on points are Sheldon Creed, Riley Herbst, A.J. Allmendinger, Parker Kligerman and Sammy Smith.

This weekend the series regulars will have some added competition with three-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Justin Bonsignore set to make his series debut driving for JGR.

Practice for the SciApps 200 is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET Friday followed by qualifying at 4:45 p.m. ET. All the on-track action will be televised on USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.

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