LOUDON, NH — Much is at stake for Cup drivers in today’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (12 p.m. ET on USA Network).
There is a battle for the regular season championship and one for the final playoff spots with seven races to go in the regular season.
Here is an overview of the issues for several pilots.
REGULAR SEASON TITLE RACE
William Byron (starting 7th) — The points leader has scored eight top 10 finishes – including two wins – in the last 10 races. The challenge is that Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won in New Hampshire since Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag in 2012. Even so, Byron is optimistic, saying, “We’re so killing right now, and we can solve the problems and that was obvious (Saturday),” Byron said.
Martin Truex Jr. (starting 2nd) — He trails Byron by 21 points for the top spot in the season standings. Truex has never won a Cup race at this track. This track has special memories for him. He watched his dad race that track and got to see Dale Earnhardt in person. “I remember (Earnhardt) under the hood working on his carburetor,” Truex said. “As a little kid, it’s like you can’t really believe it. I just stood there and watched. Never bothered anyone. I just watched and pulled back like it was really cool.
Kyle Busch (starting at fullback) — He trails Byron by 36 points and may struggle to close the gap. Busch hit the wall in practice and qualifying on Saturday. Repairs for these incidents will force Busch to back down. He said the organization struggled on short runs. It will be a key test for the team.
Christopher Bell (pole start) — He trails Byron by 37 points. Bell, winner last year, is once again fast. He won five of eight races at New Hampshire in NASCAR’s three national series. He could face Truex, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, for the win on Monday.
Ross Chastain (31st starter) — He is 53 points behind Byron. He led the points after the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, but has slipped to fifth in the standings since. Asked if he thinks his team can fight their way to the top, Chastain said on Saturday, “I think we’re there. We acquire more points, we will return to the top.
RACE FOR THE FINAL PLACES IN PLAYOFF
Daniel Suarez (12th starter) — He and Michael McDowell each have 407 points, but Suarez has the tiebreaker over McDowell and is 15th on the playoff grid. Suarez is coming off a second-place finish at Atlanta – only his second top 10 in the last nine races.
Michael McDowell (17th starter) – McDowell has never finished better than 17th in New Hampshire. Crew chief Travis Peterson told NBC Sports this week that “The next four weeks are our stretch of the playoffs.” He said that because McDowell has combined to score three top 10 finishes in 80 starts between New Hampshire, Pocono, Richmond and Michigan.
Bubba Wallace (starting eighth) — He enters Monday’s race three points behind Suarez and McDowell. Wallace has failed to do better than 15th in the past five races after a May streak that saw him score three straight top five finishes. “This week has been a great time of reflection for everyone on Team 23 on how we need to execute better,” Wallace said on Saturday. “Mistakes at this stage of the season, there really is no excuse, either my fault on track or the fault of the crew in preparation. We just have to be better as a team to go forward even to think about the playoffs.
AJ Allmendinger (from 14th) — He is 13 points behind Suarez and McDowell. Allmendinger has three top 10 finishes in the last four races. “We really had no speed in the race car the first few months of the season, and now we have speed,” he said.
Ty Gibbs (36th starter) — He is 26 points behind Suarez and McDowell. Gibbs set the slowest qualifying lap after nearly losing control of his car. He will have to complete a challenge by climbing across the field.
Austin Cindric (from 22nd) — He is 38 points behind Suarez and McDowell for the final playoff spot. Cindric has 12 finishes of 12th or less in the last 13 races.
Justin Haley (from 19th) — He is 41 points below the cut line. Haley had back-to-back top-10 finishes to give New Hampshire some momentum.
Alex Bowman (25th starter) — He is 44 points from a playoff spot. While he was running well in Atlanta, an incident ruined his evening. He hasn’t finished better than 12th in the six races since returning from a back injury he suffered in a sprint car accident. “(New Hampshire) is always a circle that I’m like, ‘Dang I suck there.’ It’s not for lack of effort,” Bowman said Saturday. “We’re really trying to improve. We’ve had some good racing days here.
Chase Elliott (18th onwards) — He’s 60 points from a playoff berth after dropping five points at the cut line in Atlanta. Aside from William Byron, the Hendrick cars lacked speed in qualifying on Saturday and that left Elliott perplexed. “It wasn’t a good lead for me, I would say at all, really,” Elliott said. “We raced well here last year (we finished second), and I really didn’t know why, to be honest. Believe it or not, we’ve had a good test here…every time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be helping us much (Saturday). »