Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LOUDON, NH – With only seven races remaining to set the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, this week’s Foxwoods Resorts Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could prove a pivotal time in the championship stretch.
Kyle Busch’s dramatic runner-up finish to older brother Kurt at Kentucky Speedway last weekend, coupled with Joey Logano’s seventh-place finish helped bridge the championship gap to only 11 points between the reigning Monster Energy Series champion Logano and 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch as the regular season begins to wrap up and settle the Playoff 16.
While the standings did not undergo vast shifts in position following the Kentucky race, gaps among the top-16 Playoff eligible were definitely tightened. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones moved into that final 16th place transfer position, but he holds only a perilous two-point edge over 17th place Ryan Newman and is only four points up over 18th place Daniel Suarez heading into the race weekend.
Jones’ advancement from 18th to 16th place in the standings following the Kentucky race and Jimmie Johnson’s fall from 13th to 15th marked the biggest movers among the current championship eligible.
The tight points standings verify vigorous battles at various points both among the safely championship eligible and those on the Playoff cusp.
In particular, the final transfer spots provide some dramatic opportunity. Although Newman, in his first year driving for Roush Fenway Racing, is currently two points out of the Playoff eligibility – the New Hampshire one-mile track is historically one of his best.
Newman is one of six active drivers with three wins at New Hampshire and his seven pole positions there is most all-time. He is the only driver to win from the pole position more than once – earning victories from pole in 2002 and 2011.
He is currently only 10 points behind 14th place Clint Bowyer, who also has a strong history at New Hampshire, scoring his first series win there in 2007. Jimmie Johnson is tied with Bowyer in points, but the tiebreaker ranks him 15th because Bowyer has a best finish of runner-up (Texas) compared to Johnson’s best finish of third (Daytona-2) this season. As with Newman, Johnson has three Cup wins at New Hampshire and is also one of only three drivers (also Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch) to win consecutive races there, sweeping the 2003 season.
The two veterans – Bowyer and Johnson – hold an eight-point advantage over 16th place Erik Jones, 10 points on Newman in 17th and are only 12 points up on 18th place Suarez.
XFINITY HEADS NORTH
This season’s dynamic trio of Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer added to their stake in dominance last week with Custer picking up his series best fifth victory at Kentucky Speedway. It’s a single season highlight reel for Custer already and still, the 21-year old Stewart-Haas Racing driver trails championship leader Reddick and second place Bell in the driver standings. That’s how good the talented trio have been.
The three drivers have won 12 of the year’s 17 races (a 70.6% winning percentage). And Bell arrives at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the defending champion of Saturday’s ROXOR 200 (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The race will be of particular interest to the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver standings. Bell is the only former winner entered, with six-time champ Kyle Busch sitting this year’s New Hampshire race out and only one fulltime Monster Energy Cup driver on the grid (Paul Menard).
Among the current Xfinity Series top five in the driver standings only Bell and Custer can claim a top-10 average at the track. Custer finished ninth in both his previous starts. Reddick, who holds a 67-point edge over Bell and a 75-point advantage over Custer atop the series standings, started ninth and finished 25th last year due to a pit road penalty in his only New Hampshire start.
Austin Cindric, who is ranked fourth in the Xfinity driver standings, is looking for his first victory of the season. He started 15th and finished 17th last year in his first New Hampshire Xfinity race.
Similarly, Justin Allgaier, who is fifth in points and still looking for his first win of the season after a career high five-win 2018, has five top 10s in eight starts at the track. His best showing is sixth-place finish in 2010 and he’s only led two laps total in those eight races.