NASCAR Picks Pack: Hamlin's success on short tracks bodes well for New Hampshire

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: Sept. 23, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 2:15 p.m. ET

WHERE: New Hampshire Motor Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 1.058-mile flat track

BROADCAST: ESPN | RACE LENGTH: 300 laps, 317 miles

The lowdown

As predicted, the Chase contenders got off to a great start last week. When Brad Keselowski crossed under the checkers in first place, he was the ninth Chaser to win the kickoff race and keep a perfect streak alive. In two previous races, Chicagoland's trophy has been taken home by one of the top 12 drivers, but that venue was not always the site of the first Chase race. From 2004 through 2009 New Hampshire Motor Speedway hosted that event and all seven of those races were claimed by Chasers as well.

Last year, Tony Stewart won the first two races of the Chase. After stealing the checkers at Chicagoland with a fuel-mileage gamble, he was slightly more dominant in the Sylvania 300. He spent nearly 70 laps inside the top five -- most of which came at the close of the race -- but was practically never outside of the top 15. He passed Keselowski on the final lap of that race and kept another perfect streak alive. In eight previous Chase races on this track, playoff contenders have been victorious every time.

New Hampshire is usually extremely kind to Chasers. In the 81-race history of the current playoff-style Chase, drivers challenging for the Sprint Cup have recorded an overall average finish of 13.7. In eight New Hampshire races, they have beaten that mark by a wide margin to score a 12.1 average. Only Chicagoland has a better record at 11.3, but that number is skewed somewhat by the fact that the track has hosted only two previous races. In the early years of the Chase, two of the races at New Hampshire were worse than average, but since 2007 when two additional drivers were added to the mix, this has always been one of their better tracks. It is a good bet that tradition will stay alive this week because eight of the playoff contenders are listed among the top 10 in terms of their most recent six-race average finish.
10 best drivers at New Hampshire

Over the past six races at New Hampshire, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 7.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 10.69 in 35 attempts

If Gordon eventually wins the championship, the Chase will resemble his entire season. He kicked off 2012 with a blown engine and 40th-place finish and had enough hardship in the early races that he was forced to play catch-up until the last lap of the Federated Auto Parts 400. After Daytona, the series rolled into another one-mile flat track in Phoenix, Ariz., and Gordon momentarily rebounded to claim a top-10. He doesn't have the luxury of finishing outside the top 10 or 15 for the remainder of the season, however, and if his bid for the championship is not over now, it will be as soon as he stumbles one more time.

2. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 8.67 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 8.46 in 13 attempts

Reminiscent of Babe Ruth, Hamlin pointed toward New Hampshire and called his shot last week. He ran out of gas on the final lap of the Geico 400 and coasted from seventh to 16th in the final rundown. Last year, Chase contenders Gordon, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, and Matt Kenseth all ran short on petrol in the closing laps at Chicago, but Hamlin was alone in 2012 and that exacerbated the handicap. Chicagoland was one of only 10 Chase races, Hamlin said, and promised to win on the short, flat track this week. He has the numbers to back up the bold statement since he has finished second or third in four of his last six attempts at New Hampshire including a runner-up in this summer's Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

3. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 9.17 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 11.56 in 27 attempts

Streaks have been hard to come by at New Hampshire and last year only one driver swept the top 10 in both of New Hampshire's races. In fact, Stewart not only swept the top 10, he was almost perfect with a second-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 and a victory in the Sylvania 300. He also finished second in New Hampshire's first race of 2010 and that contributes to a superior six-race average. No one has been perfect for long on this track, however, and Stewart also has three results outside the top 10 in the most recent six races, so this week should be unpredictable until the very end.

4. Ryan Newman
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 9.50 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 12.86 in 21 attempts

In large part because of a number of failed gambles in this race last year, no one enters the weekend with more than two consecutive top-10s, but Newman has been the most consistent driver at New Hampshire in the past six races. He was running 11th on lap 294 and would have certainly cracked the top 10 if he had not been forced into the pits to change a right front tire. He finished 25th, but that is the only time in the last six races on this track that he failed to finish among the leaders. Most of his strong runs have been in the sixth- to 10th-place range, but he is capable of even better results. Newman won the 2011 Lenox Industrial Tools 301, which was his third victory on this track, and he swept qualification last year to earn his fifth and sixth poles.

5. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 10.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 9.90 in 21 attempts

Johnson won the 2010 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 to cap off a streak of seven consecutive top-10s at New Hampshire. This was always one of his better tracks and its position as the kickoff for the Chase contributed to his five consecutive championships. He stumbled in the 2010 Sylvania 300 and finished 25th, but he was able to make up for that in the remainder of the playoffs. Last year, he was not quite as fortunate and an 18th-place finish began what was for him a miserable 10-race period. He lost some of his momentum in the final races of the regular season this year with three results outside the top 10 in four races, but he was back in dominant form at Chicagoland. He challenged for the win from the drop of the green flag and got edged by Keselowski only in the closing laps.

6. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 10.67 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 15.92 in 13 attempts

Bowyer has been a little hit or miss in the last three seasons. He swept the top 10 in 2010 and won the Sylvania 300. Last year, he failed to crack the top 15 in either race and finished 26th in the fall event. This summer, he was back in top form with a third in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 and after winning two weeks ago on another short, flat track in Richmond, he has to feel good about his chances this Sunday. Bowyer also has momentum on his side; since scoring a third at New Hampshire in July, he has finished among the top 10 in all but two races.

7. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 12.00 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 16.25 in 20 attempts

Only three drivers enter the weekend with back-to-back top-10s on this track. Biffle is one of them with a third last fall and a ninth this summer and those two events are a big part of the reason he is included in the top 10 this week. His previous three attempts all ended outside the top 15, but by a narrow margin with a worst of 18th. Roush-Fenway Racing is not known for their collective prowess on short, flat tracks, but Biffle's teammate Carl Edwards overcame that during last year's Chase to sweep the top 10 at New Hampshire, Martinsville, and Phoenix. Biffle is going to have to do the same thing in 2012 if he wants to have a shot at the championship.

8. Kurt Busch
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 13.00 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 14.30 in 23 attempts

Even fans who do not like Busch have to feel a little of his pain this season. He is trying to improve his public persona despite some well-publicized gaffes, but circumstances are fighting again him. There have been a couple of occasions when the equipment at his disposal was up to the task of allowing him to show how good a driver he can be. Last week was one of those moments. He climbed into the top 10 by virtue of a two-tire gamble, but he managed to stay in the front half of the pack for a while. That came close on the heels of a top-15 at Atlanta and could have produced another strong run. Unfortunately, mechanical gremlins sent him behind the wall soon after and his finishing result of 32nd did not reflect his strength.

9. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 13.83 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 13.83 in 23 attempts

If consistency plays a role in this year's championship, Harvick is going to be a factor. He has finished 16th or better in 16 of the past 17 races and the only time he finished worse was in the Coke Zero 400 lottery. If the Chase comes down to raw power, however, he is much less of a certainty because in that same span of races, he earned only two top-fives. Harvick is one of only two Chasers without a victory this season and it is hard to know when the next win is going to come, but he has one trophy from New Hampshire already. That was earned in 2006, but in 11 races since then he has accrued only two more top-fives.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 13.83 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 16.23 in 26 attempts

Junior's past three seasons have looked very similar to Bowyer's. He swept the top 10 in 2010, was mediocre in 2011, and rebounded with another top-five this summer. He lacks the raw strength of Bowyer because instead of winning one of those events, his best result was a fourth. On the other hand, he has been more consistent with only one result outside the top 15, which was a 17th in this event last fall. For the moment, fans can toss out all the old statistics where Earnhardt is concerned and concentrate on his recent momentum. He has been one of the best performers all year and when he fails to crack the top 10, he makes up for that with consistent top-15s.

Others of note

14. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 16.00 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 15.93 in 14 attempts

Early in his career, it appeared this would be one of Truex's better tracks. He cut his teeth in NASCAR's Northeast developmental series and used that experience to scored four consecutive top-10s at New Hampshire in his sophomore and junior seasons. In the past four years, he has added only one more top-10 in seven races, which was an eighth in the 2011 Lenox Industrial Tools 301. He is not thinking about that for the moment, however, and chose to concentrate on the eight results of 11th or better he scored in his most recent nine attempts.

17. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 17.00 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 14.00 in 25 attempts

Kenseth's Chicagoland woes were lost in the drama created when Gordon's throttle stuck and the No. 24 slammed the wall. Kenseth was battling his own mechanical demons before then because a shock fell of the right front corner of his Ford. In fact it was the caution for Gordon's accident that allowed them to pit and replace the shock. The team did a remarkable job by keeping him on the lead lap during that entire ordeal. They were never able to dial the car back in, however, and Kenseth continued to run at the tail-end of the lead lap until he was overtaken by Keselowski with less than a handful of circuits remaining. His 18th-place finish dropped him into the points' basement along with Gordon.

18. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 17.20 in 5 attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 15.33 in six attempts

Keselowski has that championship look. In the closing laps of the Geico 400, he seemed to want victory more than Johnson and he charged out of the pits after his final stop with grim determination. The No. 48 team wanted NASCAR to penalize him for swerving into the racing grove too soon and he was on the ragged edge of being out of bounds, but championships are won by the narrowest of margins. It is unlikely that Johnson could have held off the No. 2 Dodge in any event, because the car was on rails for the final 20 laps. New Hampshire may not be Keselowski's best track, but that will not make a bit of difference on Sunday.

19. Kasey Kahne
Last six races average finish at New Hampshire: 18.33 in six attempts
Career avg. finish at New Hampshire: 16.82 in 17 attempts

To win the championship, Kahne is going to have to return to his midsummer form. From the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas through the FedEx 400 at Dover, he strung seven top-10s together and scored a victory at Charlotte. He has been more hit-and-miss in recent events, but he managed to accumulate another three-race top-10 streak during the summer and that was capped off by a victory at New Hampshire. Kahne struggled in back-to-back races at Atlanta and Richmond, but he rallied last week and had one of the dominant cars in the Geico 400 before finishing third.

All Drivers: Last six races at New Hampshire
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Jeff Gordon 7.67 (6) 23. Juan Pablo Montoya 19.50 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin 8.67 (6) 24. Marcos Ambrose 20.17 (6)
3. Tony Stewart 9.17 (6) 25. David Ragan 21.67 (6)
4. Ryan Newman 9.50 (6) 26. Sam Hornish Jr. 23.00 (4)
5. Jimmie Johnson 10.00 (6) 27. Bobby Labonte 23.33 (6)
6. Clint Bowyer 10.67 (6) 28. Regan Smith 24.20 (5)
7. Greg Biffle 12.00 (6) 29. Paul Menard 25.17 (6)
8. Kurt Busch 13.00 (6) 30. Aric Almirola 28.50 (2)
9. Kevin Harvick 13.83 (6) 31. Reed Sorenson 29.00 (3)
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13.83 (6) 32. David Gilliland 30.40 (5)
11. Kyle Busch 14.67 (6) 33. Landon Cassill 32.50 (4)
12. Carl Edwards 15.33 (6) 34. Casey Mears 32.67 (6)
13. Jeff Burton 15.50 (6) 35. JJ Yeley 32.75 (4)
14. Martin Truex Jr. 16.00 (6) 36. Scott Speed 33.75 (4)
15. Joey Logano 16.17 (6) 37. David Stremme 33.80 (5)
16. Brian Vickers 16.25 (4) 38. Dave Blaney 36.33 (6)
17. Matt Kenseth 17.00 (6) 39. Travis Kvapil 37.25 (4)
18. Brad Keselowski 17.20 (5) 40. Josh Wise 38.00 (2)
19. Kasey Kahne 18.33 (6) 41. Joe Nemechek 39.00 (6)
20. Jamie McMurray 18.83 (6) 42. Michael McDowell 40.33 (6)
21. David Reutimann 19.00 (6) 43. Scott Riggs 43.00 (2)
22. Mark Martin 19.40 (5)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 17 (1994 Slick 50 300)

Fewest caution flags: 2 (1997 Jiffy Lube 300)

Average number of caution flags per race: 7.9

Final Caution, last five races:
July 2012: Lap 235 of 301 oil on the track (David Reutimann).
September 2011: Lap 174 of 300 2-car accident in turn two (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards).
July 2011: Lap 241 of 301 1-car spin in turn two (Jimmie Johnson).
September 2010: Lap 243 of 300 4-car accident in turn two (Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler, Joey Logano, and Jimmie Johnson).
June 2010: Lap 290 of 301 2-car accident in turn four (Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton).

Most caution laps: 78 (1994 Slick 50 300)

Fewest caution laps: 10 (1997 Jiffy Lube 300)

Average number of caution laps per race: 41.4

Leading the way

Most leaders: 15 (2011 Sylvania 300, 1996 Jiffy Lube 300)

Fewest leaders: 1 (2000 Dura Lube 300 Jeff Burton)

Average number of leaders: 9.3

Most lead changes: 23 (2002 New England 300 by Stacker 2, 1996 Jiffy Lube 300)

Fewest lead changes: 0 (2000 Dura Lube 300)

Average number of lead changes: 14.9

Victory Lane

Last five winners at New Hampshire (starting position):
July 2012: Kasey Kahne (2nd)
September 2011: Tony Stewart (20th)
July 2011: Ryan Newman (1st)
September 2010: Clint Bowyer (2nd)
June 2010: Jimmie Johnson (10th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 38th Jeff Burton (1999)

A race at New Hampshire has been won by the pole sitter 5 times and from the front row 8 times in 35 races, most recent this July by Kahne.

Active winners at New Hampshire

Jeff Burton (4)
Tony Stewart (3)
Ryan Newman (3)
Kurt Busch (3)
Jimmie Johnson (3)
Jeff Gordon (3)
Clint Bowyer (2)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Joey Logano (1)
Joe Nemechek (1)
Greg Biffle (1)
Denny Hamlin (1)
Kasey Kahne (1)

First time winners at New Hampshire

2009 Lenox Industrial Tools 301: Joey Logano
2007 Sylvania 300: Clint Bowyer
2002 New Hampshire 300: Ryan Newman
2001 New Hampshire 300: Robby Gordon
1999 Dura Lube / Kmart 300: Joe Nemechek

One-mile flat tracks (since 2009)

New Hampshire and Phoenix are two of most similar tracks on the circuit in terms of design and banking in the corner. Drivers tend to do well on both tracks, which will come in handy during the playoffs since they are both Chase venues. Here is a comparison of how they have fared:

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsNew HampshirePhoenix
Jimmie Johnson 7.36 14 9.86 4.86
Jeff Gordon 9.71 14 6.86 12.57
Denny Hamlin 10.14 14 9.57 10.71
Ryan Newman 11.14 14 12.29 10.00
Tony Stewart 11.36 14 8.57 14.14
Greg Biffle 12.21 14 12.86 11.57
Mark Martin 12.77 13 18.50 7.86
Kurt Busch 12.79 14 11.57 14.00
Kyle Busch 13.50 14 13.57 13.43
Carl Edwards 13.71 14 15.86 11.57
Joey Logano 14.79 14 14.00 15.57
Clint Bowyer 15.29 14 12.00 18.57
Kevin Harvick 15.36 14 16.71 14.00
Martin Truex Jr 15.57 14 19.00 12.14
Juan Pablo Montoya 16.21 14 18.43 14.00
Dale Earnhardt Jr 16.86 14 13.71 20.00
Matt Kenseth 17.21 14 17.71 16.71
Jeff Burton 17.71 14 17.71 17.71
David Reutimann 18.14 14 16.86 19.43
Kasey Kahne 18.43 14 17.14 19.71
Marcos Ambrose 18.43 14 20.57 16.29
Brad Keselowski 18.75 12 15.33 22.17
Sam Hornish Jr 19.56 9 20.00 19.00
Jamie McMurray 21.36 14 20.86 21.86
Reed Sorenson 23.67 6 26.00 19.00
Bobby Labonte 23.86 14 23.00 24.71
Brian Vickers 24.70 10 20.00 29.40
Paul Menard 24.86 14 25.86 23.86
David Ragan 25.07 14 24.00 26.14
Casey Mears 27.77 13 29.57 25.67
Regan Smith 27.77 13 24.67 30.43
Aric Almirola 28.20 5 28.50 28.00
David Gilliland 31.23 13 32.00 30.57
JJ Yeley 31.50 8 32.75 30.25
David Stremme 33.30 10 32.83 34.00
Scott Speed 33.30 10 34.20 32.40
Landon Cassill 34.00 8 32.50 35.50
Travis Kvapil 35.56 9 37.25 34.20
Dave Blaney 36.79 14 37.14 36.43
Mike Bliss 36.89 9 38.60 34.75
Josh Wise 38.00 3 38.00 -
Scott Riggs 39.33 6 43.00 37.50
Joe Nemechek 40.00 14 39.00 41.00
Michael McDowell 41.25 12 40.33 42.17

Beaver's Best Bets for New Hampshire

Winner: Denny Hamlin. He called his shot at Chicagoland last week after running out of gas and there is no reason to argue with Hamlin given his record on short, flat tracks.

Dark horse top 10: Ryan Newman. With only one top-five to his credit at New Hampshire since 2005, it is unlikely that Newman will challenge for the lead, but his five top-10s in the past six races makes him a fair bet to score another.

Don't bet on it: Matt Kenseth. The short, flat tracks are not typically kind to Roushketeers and Hamlin does not have the momentum to overcome his recent bad setups.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

There are not a lot of streaks to go by at New Hampshire because strategy played a huge role in who finished well in last year's Sylvania 300. For that reason, a driver's record on the combined short, flat tracks of New Hampshire, Phoenix, Richmond, and Martinsville will all factor into this week's picks.

1. Denny Hamlin
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Tony Stewart
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Kyle Busch
7. Ryan Newman
8. Brad Keselowski
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Brian Vickers

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

A smorgasbord of mistakes and bad luck kept five of my predicted top 10 from finishing that well, but I batted 0.500 for the week and nearly had two exact matches. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was predicted to finish seventh and finished eighth, while Martin Truex Jr. was supposed to finish 10th, but beat expectations by one spot in ninth.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1. Denny Hamlin 16 -1
2. Tony Stewart 6 5
3. Matt Kenseth 18 -1
4. Jeff Gordon 35 -1
5. Kasey Kahne 3 5
6. Kevin Harvick 12 -1
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 8 5
8. Carl Edwards 19 -1
9. Kyle Busch 4 5
10. Martin Truex Jr. 9 5

Total points for Chicagoland = 20 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 21.9 points (17 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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