New Hampshire Motor Speedway proved to be a tricky track this week with at least five drivers reaching into their hauler for backup cars. The clock is winding down on the regular season and with a tight battle for the top 16 underway, it would seem that several drivers are experiencing the pressure and overstepping the limits of their cars.
Compounding the problems during the weekend was the placement of traction compound during practice and speedy dry during qualification.
The track applied traction compound to the upper groove of the track in an effort to develop a second groove. Fairly narrow in width, drivers have said that it seems that less grip exists just outside that groove than ever before as the marbles begin to form further away from the wall.
Just before qualification, an Xfinity car lost an engine and oiled down the groove. NASCAR applied speedy dry and did their best to recover their track, but without being forced into that line by two-wide racing as one would see in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, the cars avoided the preferred groove. That created some interesting moments in time trials.
One of the final drivers on the track, Brad Keselowski eclipsed Kyle Busch to earn his fourth New Hampshire pole. The last time he led the field to green was in July 2014 and he finished seventh. In July 2013, he finished fourth after leading the field to green. Those two races are part of a 13-race streak of lead-lap, top-15 results that was snapped only last year with crash damage. Keselowski has one previous win on this track and two runner-up finishes, so he should be considered a favorite.
Starting on the outside of the front row, Kyle Busch earned his third consecutive top-three starting position. In the past two races, he has made the most of that opportunity with a win from the pole in September 2017 and a second-place finish from the inside of row two last year. With three previous wins to his credit, it’s hard to discount Busch’s chances this week and the decision to start or park him will ultimately come down to allocation or cap management.
Erik Jones had perhaps the most impressive qualification effort because it came early in the session when the track was sub-optimal. He laid down a lap of 136.189 mph that was unassailable by nearly the entire field. Late in the session once the speedy dry was blown off, Jones’ teammate Busch climbed to the top of the board. That supremacy did not last long, however, with Keselowski leapfrogging them both. Kurt Busch also had a shot at the pole; he qualified third with a lap of 136.238 mph. Jones lines up fourth.
Matt DiBenedetto qualified seventh for the Foxwoods 301. This is his best career qualification and only his second top-10 start. DiBenedetto raced his way to a ninth-place start in this year’s Daytona 500. He has been solid at New Hampshire in qualification before; DiBenedetto’s two best time trial efforts prior to this week came on this track with a pair of 16th-place efforts in July 2016 and 2017. He did not follow those up with good race runs, however; finishing 31st and 30th respectively. Worse still, DiBenedetto had some sort of issue with his left rear that caused two cut tires during final practice on Saturday.
Practice was hard on teams. Tiptoeing on a delicate line at the end of the traction compound laid down in the upper groove, three drivers overstepped on Friday. William Byron slapped the wall lightly on two occasions, but managed to keep his car intact. The same was not true for Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – both of whom pounded the wall hard enough to occasion a backup car.
On Saturday morning, Byron’s luck ran out. He hit the wall a third time and did enough damage to necessitate a backup. Only moments after the track returned to green, Kyle Larson locked up his brakes entering a corner and slapped the wall hard, sending him to his replacement ride. Byron will have to give up 22nd-place on the grid and drop to the back; Larson will fall from 15th.
They will join Bowman who snapped a driveshaft in qualification and did not record a time. In final practice Bowman hit the wall hard and destroyed his backup. The haulers only hold two cars, so Bowman is now out of equipment, but he will get a loaner from Jimmie Johnson. The bad news is that Bowman is now going to start in the rear of the field in an unfamiliar car. Bowman should be avoided this week.
Bear in mind that only Bowman will be credited with a poor starting position in games that offer place-differential points because those are based on official qualification results.
Picking up where he left off in qualification, Jones had the fastest single lap in Saturday morning’s session as well as the quickest five- and 10-lap averages. Quietly confident, he believes he has a shot at winning on Sunday. This is a track that has been kind to Young Guns in the past. Thirteen 13 wins have gone to drivers with fewer than five victories entering the weekend. (Joe Nemechek, Robby Gordon, Newman, Clint Bowyer, and Joey Logano have all earned their first win on this track.)
Ryan Blaney won final practice. With a single fast lap of 133.572 mph and a top-10 average of 132.687 mph, he showed very little drop off to sit atop both charts. Team Penske has been strong at New Hampshire as an organization and Blaney is much more affordable than pole sitter Keselowski or points’ leader Logano. Blaney rolls off the grid fifth and has enough speed to remain in the top 10 until the end of Stage 1.