With the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 just over two weeks away, several drivers are already eyeing “The Magic Mile” as a track where they enter with confidence, comfort and, most importantly, experience. In 34 Sprint Cup Series races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since its debut in 1993, 14 (41 percent) have been won by drivers who have previously been to victory lane.
Over the last two years, NHMS has been particularly magical for past winners. Each of the four most recent Cup victors – Tony Stewart (Sept. 2011), Ryan Newman (July 2011), Clint Bowyer (Sept. 2010) and Jimmie Johnson (June 2010) – were all previous conquerors of the 1.058-mile oval.
So it probably won’t come as much of a surprise if one of these drivers, or another former winner, comes out on top again when the Cup Series convenes at NHMS on July 15 for the LENOX 301.
Johnson, the five-time Cup Series champion, is one of six drivers with three or more victories at NHMS. The others are Newman; three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Stewart; four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon; 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch; and all-time New Hampshire wins leader Jeff Burton.
“It’s truly a rhythm track,” said Burton, who has four wins at NHMS, but none since Sept. 2000. “It’s a track that you have to be very precise. There are some tracks that precision is not required as much, and I think there are some drivers that excel on tracks where you have to be on line, you can’t make small mistakes.
“Small mistakes show up big at New Hampshire.”
Burton says that maintaining the same driving style from race to race at NHMS is more important than having a similar setup in the car each time.
“People that are really good at being in a racing line, really good at understanding where they need to be, and they can repeat it lap after lap, those tend to be the ones that are successful at New Hampshire,” he said. “I can tell you that every race we’ve won there, we’ve been set up really differently. It’s never been the same.”
Yet the same drivers tend to wind up in the winner’s circle.
“I think one of the reasons that you see guys win that have won before is because New Hampshire is a driver’s track,” said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager at NHMS. “I think you’ve got to get the handle. It’s flatter than most tracks, it’s unique and it’s a one-mile layout, so I think experience counts a lot here.”
Of course, just as certain drivers seem to hold the winning combination at NHMS, others continue to struggle to find it.
“To me, Loudon is a tough track because it’s flat. You have good speed down the straightaways and you slow down a lot for the corners, and it’s a tough track to figure out just as a driver,” said Kasey Kahne. “It took me some time.”
Kahne, set to make his first start at NHMS with Hendrick Motorsports, has just one top-five finish in 16 starts at the track. He led 43 laps in last September’s SYLVANIA 300 and was running third before a late pit stop for fuel.
“We’ve ran better there recently, and I think once you do, once you hit on some feelings and stuff, you can get that back,” Kahne said. “But until you hit on that feeling that you’re looking for as a driver, it’s hard to really go fast at that place. I think you watched the Stewart-Haas cars (Newman and Stewart) last year, how well they ran there, and that’s just building on what they’ve learned in the past. And we were right there with them. We weren’t far off of them.
“It’s a tough track, and it takes time. But once you do figure it out, it seems like it’s just a place where you can kind of keep that around for a little while and run stronger there each time,” Kahne added.
Newman claimed the victory over Stewart, his teammate and car owner, in last July’s LENOX 301, giving Stewart-Haas Racing its first 1-2 finish. That performance helped lay the foundation for Stewart’s triumph when the Sprint Cup Series returned in September for the SYLVANIA 300, race No. 2 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Stewart would go on to capture five victories in the Chase and claim his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, beating Carl Edwards on a tiebreaker.
Had Stewart not been so stout last July at NHMS, he may not have been so strong in September. And if Stewart hadn’t won in September at New Hampshire, he wouldn’t have won the title.
Therefore, the LENOX 301 is an event with potentially long-term implications.
“I think there’s a little bit more focus and intensity to that race than a normal non-Chase race, especially from the standpoint of preparing for the championship run,” Gappens said. “The drivers and teams realize that the tracks they run well at, they’ve got to go ahead and capitalize by winning or having a good finish to move on to the next one, and we’ve seen that with Tony Stewart.
“So I think the Chase race in September adds to the importance of having the experience and the know-how to win here.”