NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Ambetter 301 (3 p.m. ET, USA, PRN)

Can Loudon Kickstart SHR Once Again?

In 2 of the last 3 years, Stewart-Haas Racing entered Loudon winless on the season. In each of those tries, they left with a trophy. While they’ve won 1 race so far this season, is Loudon the place to get the ship steered in the right direction again?

Kevin Harvick entered New Hampshire in 2019 0-for-19 to start the year off. He won in Loudon and propelled himself to a hot end of the season to where he marched all the way to the Championship 4. In the first 19 races of that year, Harvick had just five top five finishes, none of which better than fours. In the final 17 races, he had 10 top fives including three wins. He had almost as many wins in 17 races than he had top fives in the first 19.

This year has been a similar start to that one. In fact, the entire organization has been down in performance compared to the other big teams that they’re consistently fighting for wins again. But, like in years past, is Loudon the place to kickstart SHR into another great end of the season?

It happened last year and can do so again.

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Harvick has won two of the last four New Hampshire races including six top fives in his last 8 tries there as well as being 6th just last July. Aric Almirola was third in 2018, 11th in 2019, 7th in 2020 and won last year. Cole Custer was eighth and 14th respectively.

Gateway is a close comparison to New Hampshire and Almriola was 5th there. Martinsville is another comparable track. He was 8th there. At Phoenix, Richmond, Martinsville and Gateway, all similar tracks, Harvick was 6th, 2nd, 14th and 33rd. Briscoe won Phoenix.

As you can see, Loudon is a great track for SHR. It will be very telling this Sunday if they don’t resemble the past because we’d know that they still have a lot to work on.

Can Joe Gibbs Racing Pick Up Loudon Win?

When Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t winning Loudon, Joe Gibbs Racing is. In fact, JGR has finished runner-up in 6 of the last 9 New Hampshire races including 5 straight. The 3 that they didn’t? They won.

What happens on Sunday? It’s been a rough last month of this organization. They’ve looked terrible in each of the 2 road course races in this span with finishes of 26-27-30-31 in Sonoma and 13-17-18-29 in Road America. At Nashville they had a great opportunity to have 3 of their 4 cars finish in the top 4 but overthought the final pit call with 9 to go too. They instead finished 6-8-21-22 that night.

Last week in Atlanta, Kyle Busch was caught up in a crash and finished 19th. Denny Hamlin was spun by Ross Chastain and wound up 25th. Martin Truex Jr. was 9th and Christopher Bell 19th.

Truex, Hamlin and Bell were in the top 6 with 24 to go…

Now it’s to Loudon. Maybe this is their get right race too.

Hamlin has 10 straight top 15 finishes on this track including a runner-up in 2 of the last 3 years there. He won in 2017. Busch has 10 top 10 finishes in his last 14 New Hampshire starts including seven of which being in the top three. He also has two wins and four runner-ups in that time frame. Truex Jr. had five top 10 finishes in his first seven New Hampshire starts. Then, he had two in his next 13 tries there. But, over the last 9, he’s had seven of them results in the top 10 again including five of the last six in the top seven at that. Christopher Bell was runner-up last year.

On like tracks this season, they went 1-4-6-9 in Richmond, struggled in Martinsville but rebounded to be 2-6-9-34 in Gateway.

HMS hasn’t won in the last 9 years at New Hampshire. Does that change Sunday in Loudon?

Which HMS Shows Up?

Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won at race at Loudon in nearly a decade. It was 2012 to be exact. In fact, their overall performance has been lacking in New Hampshire lately. Chase Elliott has one top five in 8 tries. William Byron and Alex Bowman have each made four starts for HMS on the Magic Mile and only a 9th place finish by Bowman last year is their lone top 10. Kyle Larson was 7th a year ago in his 1st race in Loudon with HMS.

But, HMS has had the capability of turning it on too. So which one shows up this weekend? They didn’t look great in Phoenix nor Richmond and this track runs like both. With Phoenix being the championship decider again, this is one they have to get right.

Denny Hamlin leads Kyle Busch at Loudon. Photo Credit: NASCAR Media Site

Is This A Championship 4 Preview?

Stewart-Haas has entered Loudon in 2 of the last 3 years winless on the season. They came out with a trophy in each. They did win 1 race this year but that was way back in Phoenix. 3 of their drivers sit below the playoff cut line at the moment but 2 of the 3 are the 1st two out. Those 2 drivers have won 2 of the last 3 New Hampshire races.

The driver they’re both chasing?

Christopher Bell (16th in points) finished 2nd to Aric Almirola (18th in points) last year. Kevin Harvick (17th in points) has won 3 of the last 7 races here.

Martin Truex Jr. (15th in points) had five top 10 finishes in his first seven New Hampshire starts. Then, he had two in his next 13 tries there. But, over the last 9, he’s had seven of them results in the top 10 again including five of the last six in the top seven at that.

Ryan Blaney (14th in points) has been quietly good here too. He was ninth in 2017, seventh in 2018, fourth in 2019 but 20th in 2020 despite having a decent car. He was fifth a year ago. On like tracks this year, Blaney finished 4th in Phoenix, 4th in Martinsville and 4th in Gateway.

However, this could also be a Championship 4 preview too.

Since New Hampshire went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. That’s why this race is arguably so important.

But, in general though, all four drivers to make the Championship 4 in 2018, 2019 and 2020 had all finished in the top 10 at New Hampshire. Furthermore, they’ve went 1-2 in each of those three years at the checkered flag in this race including taking three of the top four spots in two of the three years overall.

In 2020, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott combined to lead 285 of the 301 laps in New Hampshire. They finished 1-2-4-9. In 2019, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2-6-8 and led 272 of the 301 laps. In 2018, Harvick, Busch, Truex Jr. and Logano went 1-2-4-9 and led 131 of 301 laps.

Also, 12 of the last 14 New Hampshire winners are Cup champions.

What does 2022 hold? Will three of the top four finishers on Sunday be in the Championship 4 at Phoenix? They weren’t last year but that can easily trend back to doing so.

The odd trend is, among the four Championship 4 drivers in 3 of the last 4 years, the one that finished last among the four at New Hampshire won the title. Logano was ninth in 2018, Busch eighth in 2019 and Elliott ninth in 2020.

Larson was 7th last year as the top finisher.

Loudon has actually produced some excellent late race battles for the win lately

Late Race Battle?

We saw Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch’s late race battle in 2018 for the win. It happened again a year later in a thrilling shootout between Harvick and Denny Hamlin. 2020 wasn’t a thrilling as the two preceding it, but Brad Keselowski and Hamlin had themselves a duel still.

Last year it was down to Aric Almirola vs. Christopher Bell.

Will we see another battle on Sunday to the finish?

New Hampshire is known as a track position track where it’s hard to pass. That’s why the ending of these races has been kind of shocking in the sense that you do get an intense battle for the win. With lapped traffic almost always playing a role, it bunched the top few up and allows for some end of the race chaos. Will it happen again on Sunday?

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