NASCAR Notes: New Hampshire

Published 9:55 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sunday afternoon’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway kicks off the battle for the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title — the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) is aiming for a fourth consecutive title, something no NASCAR driver has accomplished. He’s the only driver to participate in all six Chase events.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Yellow Ribbon Chevrolet) is on a “Drive for Five.” His last title came in 2001, and he’s finished in the top five in the standings in four of the past seven seasons. A fifth title leaves only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt out of reach; both men have seven series titles.

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Two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) also is attempting to distance himself in the record books. Not only is the first-year owner of Stewart-Haas Racing going for a third series title, he’s also targeting the first for a driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.

Ageless Mark Martin is the top Chase seed

At the end of 2006, Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) spurned full-time competition, saying he was ready for a break.

But as 2009 loomed, the offer he couldn’t refuse from Hendrick Motorsports came along, and in this, his first full-time season since ’06, Martin has rewarded owner Rick Hendrick’s faith.

Teamed with crew chief Alan Gustafson, the 50-year-old Martin enters the Sylvania 300 as the top seed in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, on the strength of four wins during the season’s first 26 races. His reset point total is 5,040, 10 points ahead of Stewart.

Martin hasn’t won at New Hampshire, however. He does have eight top fives, 13 top 10s and an average finish of 11.1 in 47 career starts.

“Every track that we’ve come back to a second time this year, Alan and these guys have brought me a better race car than we had the time before,” Martin said. “And I have no doubt that that’s going to continue. I’m looking forward to getting there. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the track.”

New Hampshire’s a crucial first stop on the Chase

New Hampshire, site of Sunday’s Sylvania 300, has produced as many plotlines at the start as later Chase events, and doing well at New Hampshire — or not — usually carries forth.

“I don’t really think you can pick that out,” said Martin of favorites. “I mean, the Chase is anyone’s to win and anyone’s to lose. All of these teams got in here because they’re good. And all it takes is a stretch of 10 good races to win this. I think any of these 12 teams could win it.”

But Chase hopes can be twisted or expanded at the tricky, 1.058-mile oval. Take last year, when Greg Biffle, then the ninth seed, won the first two Chase races at New Hampshire to establish himself as a contender.

“I’m excited about it because if I win the first two races, I’ll be leading the points this year,” said Biffle, “instead of last year I won the first two and I still wasn’t. It’s pretty tight. Forty points, that’s reachable in a couple of races.”

More proof that New Hampshire’s Chase race makes a big difference:

2004 — In the Chase’s first year, eventual series champion Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) led off with a New Hampshire win. He didn’t win again during the Chase, but gathered enough momentum to beat series runner-up Johnson by eight points after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2005 — In a reverse of fortune, Busch encountered immediate trouble (and a 34th-place finish) in the first Chase race at New Hampshire. Meanwhile, eventual champion Stewart finished second, beginning a run of seven top 10s that helped seal his second series title.

2007 — Then-second-year driver Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), considered by many as a Chase afterthought, won his first series race in the first Chase race at New Hampshire to establish himself as a contender. He finished third in the final standings that year.

2008 — Top-seeded Kyle Busch got off to a tough start right away. He finished 34th at New Hampshire, encountered more on-track trouble the next week at Dover International Speedway and finished 10th in the final standings.