Stock Car Challenge preview: Loudon
The "playoff push" begins this week in the Nextel Cup Series. The next 10 races are known as the "Race to the Chase", the stretch that precedes the Chase for the Cup. The upcoming weeks will be crucial in establishing the 12-driver field for the Chase, and you will see the pressure and intensity mount, while the top drivers come through with some impressive performances.
The drama begins to unfold at New Hampshire International Speedway, a week after Juan Pablo Montoya scored his first-ever Cup series win. With only 100 potential Chase bonus points left available for wins, victories are now even more important. So far, there have been 10 different race winners in 2007, and seven of the current 12 top drivers have won at New Hampshire before. You should see some very familiar names at the top of the field in the eighth Car of Tomorrow race of the season. Don't expect another first-time winner to end up in Victory Lane this week.
VICTORY LANE SPECIAL
Tony Stewart (Value: 22.9): He's long overdue for his first win of the year -- finishing in the top six in five of the past six races. The past two seasons at NHIS, Stewart has a victory and a pair of second-place finishes. During that span, he has 168 of the fastest laps run, best of any current driver in the Cup series. He also has 112 quality passes, second-best among the current field. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 under green-flag conditions. In 2005, Stewart led a total of 405 laps in two races. He has nine top-5 finishes at NHIS and he has an average running position of 10.9. Stewart will be primed to make a strong push for the Chase beginning this week, especially after he slid off the track early at Sonoma and came away frustrated.
Denny Hamlin (22.7): Hendrick Motorsports has dominated much of the season so far from the team perspective, but Joe Gibbs Racing will shine at NHIS, with Stewart and Hamlin running at the top of the field. Hamlin took quickly to New Hampshire in his rookie season, finishing in sixth and fourth place. In 2006, Hamlin had an average running position of 8.8, second-best among current drivers. He ran 90 percent of his laps, a total of 548, in the top 15. Hamlin already has 10 top-10 finishes this year and also appears overdue for his first win of the 2007 season. It should also be noted that Hamlin finished in third place in both Busch Series races at NHIS in 2006. He led for 67 laps in the first race.
Kevin Harvick (21.3): You have to be careful when you pick Harvick, who has been up-and-down all year long. He has a solid history at NHIS, though, and is a good pick for this week. Harvick won the second race of 2006 at New Hampshire from the pole after leading for 196 laps. He finished fifth in the first race at the site last season. Harvick has seven top-10 finishes in 12 Cup races at New Hampshire, with an average finish of 12.7. His average running position of 10.4 is fourth-best among current drivers over the past two seasons. He has 84 of the fastest laps run during that span, second-best in the Cup series. He has three consecutive top-10 finishes at NHIS.
Jeff Burton (21.3): He's the all-time leader in victories at New Hampshire, having won a race every year from 1997 -2000. Burton also finished seventh in both NHIS races in 2006. His 980 laps in the top 15 are second-best among current drivers during the past two seasons. He also has an average running position of 10.6 during that span. Burton has three consecutive top-10 finishes at New Hampshire. He has seven top-5 finishes at the site, and 11 top-10 showings. He finished third at Sonoma and is poised for another strong run of finishes.
Kurt Busch (19.6): Busch has enjoyed glory before at New Hampshire, and you can expect a strong run from him this week. He swept both races at the site in 2004, leading for a total of 265 laps. He also finished second in the first NHIS race of 2005. Busch has four top-5 finishes and five top-10 finishes at New Hampshire. He has not been running well recently, but this is a track where he can certainly turns things around. Busch has not finished in the top 15 in the past six races, but he will be driving with a sense of urgency this week as he has fallen to 16th place in the points standings.
Ryan Newman (19.1): He's currently one spot removed from the Chase field in the standings, and after finishes of 37th and 20th, he should start to turn his fortunes around again at New Hampshire. Newman has finished in the top 10 in seven of 10 career races at NHIS, and won races at the site in 2002 and 2005. Expect a strong qualifying run, as Newman has four poles and an average starting position of 5.8 at NHIS. He has started in the top five in three of the past four races at New Hampshire. Newman has been a solid overall fantasy pick this year and is a safe choice for this race.
Brian Vickers (16.9): He hasn't been reliable this year, as Vickers has not always managed to qualify for the field and has only made nine starts. He has managed two top-10 finishes so far, though, and if he can make the field this week, he'll be a good bargain choice at NHIS. Over the past two seasons, he has 953 laps in the top 15, third-best among current drivers. His 130 quality passes are the most of any driver during that span, and an average position of 10.3, third-best among active drivers.
Regan Smith (11.7) fills in for Mark Martin again this week, and he's worth the price when you consider he will allow you to front load your lineup with superstar drivers. He has two top-25 finishes in four races in Martin's place this year. & Of course, Jeff Gordon (24.6) is an outstanding choice at NHIS. He has three wins, 10 top-5s and 13 top-10s at the site. & Greg Biffle (19.1) has finished in the top 10 in three of the past NHIS five races. & Matt Kenseth (22.3) has five top-5s and nine top-10s at New Hampshire.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.