As political campaigns from the local, state and federal levels – right up to the battle for President – heat up, there’s an entirely different type of race, one with considerably more horsepower, heading to the Granite State.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 23, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will host the SYLVANIA 300, round two of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Presidential candidates barnstorm through our great state, known for its first in the nation Presidential primary, every four years in search of votes that will lead them to the White House. NASCAR’s best drivers visit New Hampshire twice each year, but return this fall in search of precious points that could propel them to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship – the ultimate prize in American auto racing.
The Chase is NASCAR’s version of a season-ending playoff, and New England sports fans definitely know a thing or two about “playoff fever.” The Chase spotlights 12 drivers – the top-10 in points after 26 regular-season races – and there are two wild-card spots that go to the two drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins. Their points have been reset and the final 10 races – including the SYLVANIA 300 – decide the champion.
The Chase field is set. Eight of the 12 drivers will be former New Hampshire Motor Speedway winners. Jimmie Johnson (3), Tony Stewart (3), Clint Bowyer (2), Greg Biffle (1), Denny Hamlin (1) and Kevin Harvick (1) are among the top-10 in points. Kasey Kahne, who won the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 here on July 15, landed one of the wild-card spots, while three-time NHMS winner Jeff Gordon took the other.
A better than expected showing in the New Hampshire primary can boost a candidate, while a poor performance can effectively end a candidacy. The same holds true for the championship aspirations of drivers competing in the SYLVANIA 300.
Twice in the eight years since the Chase format was introduced, the winner of our fall race has gone on to claim the series championship. Kurt Busch did it in 2004 and Stewart did it last year.
On the other hand, a poor finish can doom a driver’s title hopes. In 2010, Stewart ran out of gas coming to the white flag while leading the race, and Clint Bowyer went on to claim the victory. Stewart never recovered from the 24th-place finish and ended up seventh in the championship standings. Kahne finished 10th in the 2009 standings after his engine blew up just 66 laps into the Chase.
Johnson won five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships from 2006 through 2010, but interestingly he has not won the SYLVANIA 300 since 2003, the year before NASCAR introduced its playoff format.
The five-time champion could easily change that stat this year as he and the No. 48 team are back in championship form with three victories and 12 top-five finishes. It wouldn’t surprise us to see the California native win the SYLVANIA 300 and then march through the remaining eight races to claim his sixth championship.
Also keep an eye on Dale Earnhardt Jr. The nine-time winner of the sport’s most popular driver award is having his best season in years, and he has a legitimate shot at his first series title. If Earnhardt does claim the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, the roar from Junior Nation could possibly register on the Richter scale.
Roush Fenway Racing teammates Biffle and 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth have also been strong all season and should be in the championship mix as well. Biffle has been very outspoken of late about his team’s ability to win the title, while Kenseth has been quietly going about his business.
Stewart proved last year that he’s always a championship contender by winning five of the final 10 races en route to the title, and Bowyer’s stretch run is going to surprise a lot of people as he wraps up his first season in Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 Toyota.
And every good race, be it on the campaign trail or at the track, needs an underdog. And even though NASCAR racer Brad Keselowski wasn’t born in 1976 when Jimmy Carter went from a virtual unknown to living in the White House, we see some similarities.
It was at the General Store in Hooksett that Carter, the former governor of Georgia, earned the nickname “Jimmy Who.” But through hard work and with a strong team behind him, Carter won the New Hampshire primary and went on to defeat President Gerald Ford in the general election.
Keselowski is only in his third full season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing and isn’t as familiar to New England fans as former series champions and title contenders Johnson, Stewart or Kenseth. But Keselowski is a blue-collar, second-generation racer from Michigan who came up through the school-of-hard knocks. And much like Carter in 1976, he’s surrounded by a strong team – Penske Racing, the operation spearheaded by longtime businessman and racing icon Roger Penske.
Keselowski has won three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season and – just like Carter – a victory in New Hampshire could propel him to the ultimate prize.
It will be almost two months before we know who wins this year’s local, state and federal races, but in just over a week we will host a completely different type of race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, New England’s largest sports and entertainment facility.
And I personally invite you to experience the unique thrill that only a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race can provide, as good seats are still available. Come out and cast your vote by cheering your favorite driver to victory.
Remember, two of the most important finish lines in America – the White House and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – trace their roots to New Hampshire.