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New Hampshire Is Last Stop For Cup Drivers Before Big Brickyard Weekend

The road to the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard has just one more stop before the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series head to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for one of the most anticipated weekends of the year. The final stop before Indianapolis is New Hampshire Motor Speedway at Loudon, N.H., the flat, 1.058-mile oval nestled in picturesque New England, for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

After Sunday’s race, the Sprint Cup regulars get a rare weekend off next week before hitting the road for Indianapolis.

There are many “Brickyard legends” in Sunday’s race, but a newcomer to that list in the Sprint Cup Series is three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. He takes over the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil/AAA Dodge for Penske Racing after A.J. Allmendinger was suspended for failing a NASCAR drug test. Allmendinger’s season remains in limbo, and he has asked that his B sample be tested in hopes he can be cleared to return to the No. 22 car.

Meantime, Hornish will make his third Cup start this season and is 24th on the grid with a lap at 131.556 mph.

“It was not quite as well as I would have liked for it to have been,” Hornish said. “We were a little bit too tight in the center of the corner, just couldn’t roll the center like we needed to for speed. All in all, I felt like we were really good our second run of practice, and we just never quite got the car right again. We’ll see how it shakes out.

“It seems like we’re always rushing a little bit, unfortunately. I’m either trying really hard to get down to Daytona or we’re a little bit behind in the qualifying line, just not a lot of time to sit in the car and think about it before it’s time to go. I’m really proud of all the effort that everybody has put in to be able to make this work. It’s been a lot more work for everybody other than me, but at the end of the day, just doing the best that we can right now to make sure that we’ve got an opportunity for Sunday. This is one of my favorite tracks. I’m glad that we’ve got some time to practice it this week versus just coming in and doing it on Sunday.”

Hornish has two top-10 finishes in six New Hampshire starts, including 10th in his last race here in September 2010 and an eighth place in this race in 2009. If Allmendinger is still suspended when NASCAR hits the Brickyard, Hornish could be in that race for the first time since 2010. But he will compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that weekend because he is a full-time Nationwide Series competitor and will be on the grid for the Indiana 250 on Saturday, July 28.

“It would sure mean a lot,” Hornish said of winning the Indiana 250 at the Brickyard. “I really like the flat tracks that we run at. I’m looking forward to going to Indianapolis. I haven’t been there in almost two years. I always enjoy going to the Speedway just for all the sentimental reasons, mostly the things I remember as a kid going with Dad and my Mom and having a good time. We’d love to be able to add something to that. At the end of the day, we just need to go out there thinking about points. I’d love to win, but I don’t think we’re going to throw away the points if we’re running second on the last lap to try to make something happen, but you never know.

“Compared to Ricky (Stenhouse) and Austin (Dillon) they don’t have any time (at the Brickyard), but Elliott (Sadler) sure does as far as that goes. Some of the races that Austin has been to, his first time at a track this year, he’s run really well at. I’m not going to take it anything other than we’ve got to go there and do the same thing that we do every weekend. We’ve got to be smart about how we use our tires in practice. We’re actually at a little bit of a disadvantage going in there to Ricky and Austin. We’re going to have to consolidate it and be smart about how we go out there and practice.”

Hornish is fourth in Nationwide points and closing in.

“If you looked where we were at a month ago, we were a little more than 70 points out,” Hornish said. “The fact that we’ve closed that door a little bit and just continue to be consistent, that’s what we need to do. We knew that the plate races were going to be a little bit difficult for us, so we were happy to get out of last weekend only losing a couple of points to those guys. I feel like the places that we’re going to make it up are the road courses, the flat tracks, and we’ve got a couple of those coming up over the next few weeks. I’m really excited about getting out there and getting the opportunity to run tomorrow. I guess we’d rather be the underdog and be the one that doesn’t have to answer all the questions and sneak up on it a little bit.”

And Indiana’s own Tony Stewart heads into New Hampshire with a burst of momentum. Not only did he score his third victory of the season in the Coke Zero 400 last Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, but he also won the ESPY as “Best Driver” on the annual ESPN awards show Wednesday night.

“We have been pretty good here both races last year, so I’m pretty excited about coming back here,” Stewart said Friday afternoon at NHMS. “We definitely have a good start to the day, for sure.”

Two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup Series champion Stewart has a pretty good record at the “Magic Mile,” with three wins, 14 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 26 career starts. But in his three of his last four races at New Hampshire, Stewart had finished no lower than second. He was the runner-up in this race the past two years and drove to victory in the most-recent Loudon contest last September.

With three wins this season, he is tied with Brad Keselowski for most victories this season. Stewart is fifth in the Cup standings.

“It’s a big motor deal,” Stewart said of the secret to success at New Hampshire. “With the corners being so tight, you’ve got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there, too, so it’s hard to get up off the corners. Then you’ve got long straightaways, where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it’s hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again.”

Stewart qualified 10th Friday with a lap at 132.938 mph in his No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet.

Stewart’s ability as a race driver is becoming legendary and earlier this week Stewart was honored with the ESPY Award for “Best Driver.”

“That was awesome,” Stewart said. “The other drivers that were in that category it’s just an honor to be nominated let alone to actually win it. I’m really proud of that.”

Three-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is another driver to watch Sunday at Loudon and in two weeks at the Speedway. He qualified seventh Friday with a lap at 133.254 mph.

Johnson has three wins, seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts at New Hampshire. He won this race in 2010, finished fifth in this contest last July and was 18th in September. He is fourth in the standings.

In the past eight season of the Chase era, in four of those seasons the champion has won one of the two races at New Hampshire, including Stewart last year and Johnson in 2010.

“It is a tough track, there’s no doubt about that,” Johnson said Friday. “What we do here, and the type of race setup and track, doesn’t really apply to anywhere else, though. So, maybe it falls into that Indy category. I know there’s a cool stat about Indy people that win at Indy, it carries on. And I just think it’s a tough track. It falls in that category.

“It’s (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) a tricky track with the lack of banking and the tight fast corners. I was able to sweep it there one year, and since we’ve been OK. It’s a tough track. I think for a good day its good fuel mileage and good track position.”

Four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon starts eighth Sunday after qualifying at 133.198 mph in the No. 24 Chevrolet. He has three wins, 15 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes in 34 starts at New Hampshire.

Gordon has to make it happen soon because without a victory and 17th in the standings it is going to be difficult for him to make the Chase.

"I feel like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and our engineers do an excellent job on flat race tracks - especially tracks like Loudon,” Gordon said. “I can't wait (for this weekend’s race). (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) is high on my list of tracks that I feel we can capitalize on. I think Loudon is a great opportunity for us. We've been very competitive here recently, and I feel we can be competitive here again this weekend with hopefully a shot at winning. It's a track that I really enjoy, but it's not an easy one to get around because of the long straightaways, flat corners and hard braking. I think the variable banking has made it a little bit easier to run side-by-side and make passes, though.

"We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race. We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take, but I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing."

Kevin Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard winner and is sixth in the standings heading into the race Sunday, where he will line up 12th after qualifying at 132.868 mph.

Harvick has one win, five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 22 starts at Loudon.

“New Hampshire (Motor Speedway) is a track that I enjoy. It’s a track where you have to have a good-handling car, you have to have track position, and you have to have everything go right. If you get yourself stuck in the middle of the pack you’re not going to have a very good day, unless you have a really good car. Overall New Hampshire (Motor Speedway) is a track that I enjoy, and hopefully we will run well.”

It’s been quite a week for Harvick as he became a father for the first time when his wife, Delana, gave birth to a boy, Keelan Paul, last Sunday.

“You know it’s nice to come to the racetrack now, to be honest with you,” Harvick said. “Over the last few weeks, the anxiety of just everything that was going to happen with having a baby and knowing that everything is settled at home and everybody is healthy. That was the part I was worried about the most. Definitely the most relaxed that I’ve been able to be in weeks coming to the racetrack. I think as we get to the track this week, everybody is excited that we don’t have anything to worry about except for the race cars. No back-up drivers or situations that could pop up.

“It’s been a crazy week, to tell you the truth. It all started in Daytona, as everybody knows. Yeah, we went in, and she did a great job and had a baby within about two hours. Dad waited a little long to get her to the hospital. I was obviously not her favorite person as they told her they wouldn’t give her an epidural. She did good. She had it all natural, no drugs or nothing. We had a healthy baby boy, and that was the most important part. Everybody is good and at home, doing normal things.

“Yeah, the sleeping pattern is different, for sure, but we’re fortunate to have a lot of help, obviously. With her mom being right there, we’ve been able to incorporate her into everything that is going on. It’s definitely been a change, but nothing as bad as everybody made it sound like, for sure. It’s been great.

“Yeah, it was definitely the most rewarding. That was the best moment I’ve ever got to experience in my life. So it is pretty neat.”

Paul Menard is the most recent winner at the Brickyard when he drove to his first career victory last July. He is 13th in points and qualified 13th Friday at 132.572 mph for the New Hampshire race Sunday. At Loudon, however, Menard’s best finish is 20th last September.

"New Hampshire Motor Speedway is tricky because you have to turn the center and then need a lot of drive off, much like the short tracks we visit, like Martinsville (Speedway) or Richmond (International Raceway),” Menard said. “It seems like with all the horsepower these cars pack, it's really easy to burn off the rear tires. It's also easy to worry about that too much and then you can turn in the center (of the turns). Loudon (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) is a big mix of both."

Toyota driver Kyle Busch starts on the pole after running a lap at 133.417 mph on Friday. Busch would love to take a victory at New Hampshire as he attempts to win at the Brickyard for the first time in his career in two weeks.

"I think I won the spring race in 2006, not the last COY (Car of Yesterday) race here, but close to it,” Busch said. “I felt like I was just starting to figure out things then, but then coming back here with the COT (Car of Tomorrow) in 2007 and then being with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, we just haven't really ever hit anything. Felt like last spring we were close -- I was making ground and was able to pass some guys actually, but then blew a bead because I was working the car too hard and blew a tire. It's just a matter of finding the right setup and finding whatever works.

“I think we've come here different every single time, but we haven't found the magic way to get around the 'Magic Mile,' so I think today we did."

A little magic at the “Magic Mile” may help heading to the Brickyard as these drivers prepare for their Indianapolis arrival in two weeks.

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