NASCAR arrived in my backyard last weekend for round 19 of the 36-race Sprint Cup championship.
These days New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR’s most successful tracks, drawing some 90,000 spectators – if not filling the house – for both its July and September meetings. Last weekend both the Sprint Cup series and the second division Nationwide series ran at NHMS. Saturday’s 200-mile Nationwide race went to Brad Keselowski in one of Roger Penske’s Dodges while Sunday’s 300-mile Sprint Cup race was won by Kasey Kahne in one of Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets.
Seven races remain before NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ kicks off at the Chicagoland Speedway in September. The top ten drivers in points and the next two drivers with the most wins qualify for the Chase but so far nobody has emerged as a championship favourite.
Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth has led the points all year but few people rate him as a potential 2012 champion. Kenseth leads the Roush-Fenway Ford team and has not been able to win since Daytona in February. Last month he announced he will leave Jack Roush’s team after 16 years to join Joe Gibbs’ Toyota operation next season.
Kenseth’s team-mate Greg Biffle is third in points with one win to his credit but he isn’t taken seriously as a championship contender either. Nor is the third Roush-Fenway Ford, driven by Carl Edwards, who fought unsuccessfully with Tony Stewart for last year’s championship. He hasn’t won a race this year and currently sits 11th in the standings.
Second in points at this stage is NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. who delighted his legion of fans last month by scoring his first win in four years. This is Earnhardt’s fifth season with Rick Hendrick’s four-car Chevrolet team and he’s yet to put together a championship run, but his many believers are convinced he will do so this year. Hendrick team-mate and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is fourth in points at this stage with two wins to his credit and remains a favourite to take his sixth Sprint Cup championship.
Kasy Kahne’s win in New Hampshire was his second of the year and means he takes the first Wild Card position for this year’s Chase. Looking unlikely to make the Chase is Hendrick’s fourth car driven by four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Gordon has been terribly unlucky this year, frequently running at or near the front but failing to win a race. Problem after problem in many races means Gordon is 16th in points right now.
The co-championship favourite with Johnson is probably defending champion Tony Stewart who’s won three races this year and is seventh in points. For the past four years Stewart has owned and operated his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, running Hendrick cars and engines, and is renowned as one of the most relentless racers in NASCAR. Team-mate Ryan Newman is 14th in points and out of the Chase at this stage.
Others who look likely to qualify for the Chase include Denny Hamlin in one of Joe Gibbs’ trio of Toyotas; Kevin Harvick with one of Richard Childress’s three Chevrolets; Martin Truex and Clint Bowyer in two of Michael Waltrip’s Toyotas; and Brad Keselowski in one of Roger Penske’s Dodges. Of these, Harvick and Keselowski have been the most consistently competitive, with young Keselowki establishing himself in recent years with Penske as one of NASCAR’s most talented racers.
Struggling to qualify for the Chase is Hamlin’s team-mate Kyle Busch who is rated as one of the fastest NASCAR drivers but can’t seem to put it together with any consistency. He’s currently 13th in points and has the first Wild Card slot in the Chase thanks to one win.
Whatever you might think, NASCAR is by far the most deeply competitive form of racing in America, maybe even the world. All of America’s most accomplished and renowned drivers race these days in NASCAR with Johnson, Stewart, Gordon and Busch leading a ferociously deep field. NASCAR’s top teams enjoy the manpower and resources to equal the best F1 teams and the cars are beautifully built and prepared, antique as they may be, and despite the fact that they are so frequently crashed or destroyed.
Following a rare weekend off, NASCAR resumes business as usual with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis on the last weekend of July. It then continues through 17 straight weekends of racing through to the end of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.