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NASCAR

Sprint Cup’s new Gen-6 car the capper to busy weekend at NHMS

There’s a new car coming into Loudon, and not a moment too soon.

Race weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is set to begin, with the same participants from last year – Global RallyCross, the Whelen Modified Tour and the Nationwide Series – back on the docket again to precede the Sprint Cup’s Camping World RV Sales 301 on Sunday.

The Sprint Cup is a biannual presence at NHMS, but this July will have a flair for the new in that it will be the Gen-6’s first visit to the track. The Gen-6 offers a variety of new features and NASCAR is hoping it will improve competition, a notion that should go over well at the Magic Mile. Loudon’s races last year were resounding runaway victories for Kasey Kahne in July and Denny Hamlin in September, and while Tony Stewart’s win in September of 2012 came after tight racing in the final laps, it still featured Stewart cruising all alone to the finish line by more than seven seconds when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas.

Seeing how well the Gen-6 fares at Loudon will be the main event of a weekend that kicks off with the Global RallyCross Championship event tonight. Making its second appearance at NHMS, the X Games-influenced series brings jumps, obstacles and other extreme sports elements to the racetrack as the speedway gets transformed into a road course. It’s the only competition taking place at the track through the first two days, but Saturday brings a doubleheader with the fast-paced Whelen Modified Series Town Fair Tire 100 scheduled for 1 p.m. and the Nationwide Series New England 200 slated for 3:30 p.m.

Here’s what to expect from the weekend.

Global RallyCross

A novelty last year, Global RallyCross is beginning to settle in as a NHMS feature. Travis Pastrana will be happy to be back at Loudon, as he secured his only win of the season at the track last year.

Pastrana is one of the bigger and more popular names in the series, but he has plenty of competition. Tanner Foust is the two-time series champion, and Toomas Heikkinen comes into New Hampshire having won already this season and with a 12-point lead in the point standings.

Liam Doran, second in the standings, also has a win this year, as does Scott Speed, who’s in fourth.

Whelen Modified Tour

At only 100 laps, the Modified Tour is a common target for chaos and drama, but last year’s race was hectic even by the series’s high standards.

A wreck and caution with seven laps to go turned the race into an all-out sprint for two laps, and another wreck involving cars at the front in the final lap allowed Doug Coby to come away with his first win at NHMS.

Coby’s off to a solid start this year as well, coming into Loudon fifth in the standings, but his repeat effort will face a stiff challenge in Ryan Preece, who leads the points and has three wins and top-fives in all five races this year.

Mike Stefanik, who’s third in the points, will be coming up to a track that he won at in August of 2011 and July of ’12, and will also be a driver to watch. Other big names include Ronnie Silk, who won the September 2011 race and is sixth in the standings, and Rowan Pennink, who’s second in the standings and eager to secure his first NHMS track.

Nationwide Series

The Nationwide Series is the Sprint Cup’s feeder circuit, but the sight of Cup regulars standing at victory lane after a race has become a common one at Loudon.

Brad Keselowski was the victor last year, and he joined fellow Cup drivers Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick among the recent winners of the 200-lap jaunt at the Magic Mile. To find the last Nationwide winner at NHMS who wasn’t a full-time Cup driver (or didn’t eventually become one), you’d have to go back to 2003, when David Green held off Harvick in July.

There’s reason to think that the Cup dominance will continue, as Busch has won six times this season and Keselowski’s won twice. But there’s been plenty of competition from the junior ranks. Points leader Regan Smith has two wins already, while Sam Hornish Jr. (second) and Trevor Bayne (10th) have victories as well.

Elliot Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon (third, fourth and fifth, respectively) will be seeking their first wins of the season.

Sprint Cup Series

Last year’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 made the season for Kasey Kahne. Entering the race, Kahne had one win and was in the middle of a packed crowd fighting for a wild card spot in the Chase. By the time the race was over, Kahne had his second win, and a playoff berth was all but a lock.

That’s what a win at Loudon can do, and there are several drivers looking for a similar boost to their postseason chances this year. The most notable choice is defending champion Keselowski, who’s winless, 13th in the standings and in need of a turnaround going into the second half of the regular season. He’s joined by Kurt Busch (ninth), Jeff Gordon (14th) and Joey Logano (15th), all of whom are standing on shaky Chase odds but have won at the Magic Mile before.

Postseason hopefuls, however, don’t form the only storyline going into Sunday. Matt Kenseth, with four wins, is among the hottest drivers in the series, but he’s still looking for his first Loudon win. Jimmie Johnson leads in points and won at Daytona to shake off a slump, and also owns three wins at NHMS. And Clint Bowyer, second in the standings but without a win, is likely targeting New Hampshire (where he’s won twice) as the opportunity to kick his championship pursuit into high gear.

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

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