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New twists to NASCAR weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

The familiar events are due back at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – albeit with a few twists.

The Sprint Cup arrives with a brand-new playoff format and criteria for qualifying, one that has given every driver a chance to seal his or her Chase for the Cup hopes with one race. Wins now take precedence over points, so a berth in the postseason becomes less a result of season-long consistency and more one of a single good day, a single strong race or a single fast car.

The Whelen Modified Tour, a perennial fan favorite, returns with a new wrinkle in the form of an All-Star race, one that will bring the top drivers from the southern and northern series together on one track. The race, which starts tomorrow at 2:10 p.m., will feature 20 drivers and consist of two 20-lap segments making up a 40-lap shootout.

A few tweaks, however, further spice up the event. The starting lineup will be a random draw, and anywhere from four to 10 spots in the running order will be inverted after the first segment. A caution will allow the field to reset before the next segment, and the race will resume – without any planned pit stops allowed throughout the 40 laps.

The modified cars will be back on the track the following day for the New Hampshire 100 at 1 p.m., the second race of the weekend after the K&N Pro Series East’s Granite State 100 tomorrow at 6 p.m. The events continue with the Nationwide Series’s Sta-Green 200 Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and conclude with the Sprint Cup’s Camping World RV Sales 301 Sunday at 1 p.m.

Here’s a look at what to expect during the weekend.

K&N Pro Series East

It’s a homecoming for the Pro Series, a Loudon mainstay that’s back at the track after missing the past two summers.

Ben Rhodes will try to add NHMS to his list of conquered tracks this season. The 17-year-old has been dominant in opening up a 71-point lead in the standings, winning five of the nine races this year (including the last four ) and finishing in the top five three other times.

The drivers behind Rhodes will be looking to end his streak and make up ground in the points race. Cameron Hayley, Gray Gaulding and Brandon Jones are the next three, and fifth is Daniel Suarez, who won the first two races of the year but hasn’t made it back to Victory Lane since.

Modified Tour

For the first time, the Whelen Modified Tour will have a pair of marquee events during the race weekend. The first will be the All-Star shootout, and the invitation-only event has some of the series’s top names looking forward to tomorrow afternoon.

“I’m sure it’ll be a great race,” defending northern series champion Ryan Preece said. “(NHMS) is our Daytona. We only come here twice a year and it’s the biggest track we come to. … I wouldn’t want it to be at any other place.”

In addition to providing its own spectacle, the shootout will also help ready the drivers for the New Hampshire 100 the following day.

“That’s another great thing,” Preece said. “The 40-lap race is basically like a test session for us.”

On Saturday, Preece, ninth in the standings this year, will look to finish in front of what’s become a competitive field. Doug Coby leads the standings and has a victory (as well as two wins in his career at NHMS), but Bobby Santos is only seven points behind and has a series-high two wins. Lurking behind him is Justin Bonsignore, who has a win and four top-fives in five races, and Ted Christopher – a five-time winner at Loudon – can’t be counted out in fourth.

Nationwide Series

The Nationwide Series has been led by many of the familiar names – and one talented new kid on the block.

The new kid is Chase Elliott, who is in the middle of his first season in NASCAR’s top developmental circuit. Elliott, whose father was 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, entered with big shoes to fill, but the 18-year-old Hendrick Motorsports prospect has made a name for himself with two wins, seven top-fives and 11 top-10s in 16 races, lifting him to third in the standings.

The teenager has grabbed headlines, but two veterans have taken over the lead in the standings. Regan Smith, who finished third last year, has used remarkable consistency (14 top-10s, one win in 16 races) to take the series lead, and Elliott Sadler, a two-time series runner-up in the past three years, is second again with a win on the season.

In spite of their seasons, recent history would suggest a Cup driver will take the checkered flag. Kyle Busch has won four of the last five races at the Magic Mile, and Brad Keselowski grabbed a win during that stretch in 2012.

Sprint Cup

Take a new playoff qualifying format and combine it with a wide-open year, and you get plenty of possibilities for Sunday afternoon at NHMS.

The new wins-based system means anyone can have his or her season made in one day. A perfect example occurred last week, when Aric Almirola, stuck outside of the top 20 in points, won a rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, lifting him from also-ran status into a Chase spot.

So Loudon can turn anyone’s season around, and this year there are plenty of candidates to snag the victory. Save for a four-race stretch during which Jimmie Johnson won three times, there haven’t been a select few drivers separating themselves from the pack. Eleven drivers have wins, and six have won multiple times – five winning twice.

Furthermore, Loudon has been a wild card. The last 12 race winners there have been different, a span going back to Kurt Busch’s June 2008 win.

Hendrick Motorsports took steps to figuring out the track by testing here in June, and their performance this season puts them in a position as a favorite for Sunday. Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have a combined six wins, and Kasey Kahne, a winner in July 2012, will look for Loudon to spark his season.

The Hendrick drivers haven’t been alone. Keselowski has recovered from a down 2013 to show his 2012 championship form with two wins, while Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick have also made a pair of trips to Victory Lane.

In addition to Kahne, several big names will look for Loudon to make up for what’s been a season of frustration or near-misses. Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer are annual contenders looking for a win, Ryan Newman is always a good bet at NHMS, and hotshot rookies Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, who have impressed so far, could take their strong debuts to another level.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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