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Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers prepare for another pressure-packed weekend



Last modified: Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Joey Logano stood in Victory Lane last September with a lobster in his hands and his name etched into the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, both results of his win in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Now it’s Chase time again, and Logano knows the key to being at the center of another celebratory scene. Each of the final 10 races is a test, and one that has to be focused on as diligently as the rest.

Sunday afternoon in Loudon will be the next challenge.

“We look at the Chase as a race-by-race scenario,” said Logano, who finished sixth in the Chase opener in Chicagoland. “(Last weekend) set us up pretty good to get through the first round. It allows us to come up here to Loudon and be able to race pretty aggressive, go for a win, like we did last year in the fall. We want to be able to do that same thing again, obviously.”

Logano’s not the only one looking for – or, in some cases, needing – a big race Sunday. The opening race jumbled the standings, moving some drivers up and some down (or, in Kevin Harvick’s case, way down), but unless you’re Denny Hamlin, who clinched a spot in the next round with a win last weekend, the fact remains that there’s not much time left to wrap up a berth, but plenty of time to see the chances for one disappear entirely.

Simply put, one bad afternoon at the Magic Mile, and you’ll have work to do.

That’s the storyline dominating the weekend as some of NASCAR’s top series make the journey to Loudon. The Camping World Truck Series returns for the second straight fall after a brief hiatus previously, and the regional Whelen Modified Tour and American-Canadian Tour cap off Saturday to set the stage for the Sprint Cup’s main event Sunday.

American-Canadian Tour

A pair of New Hampshire drivers have been taking turns dominating the ACT this season. Pelham’s Wayne Helliwell Jr. is a four-time winner and leads the tour with 1,181 points, only 13 ahead of Hudson’s Joey Polewarczyk Jr., who’s claimed a series-high five checkered flags. The two drivers have their share of success at Loudon as well; Helliwell is the defending NHMS winner, while Polewarczyk won the race in September 2010. It remains to be seen whether Polewarczyk will run Saturday, as the 26-year-old hasn’t competed at Loudon since 2011.

Should the race be up for grabs, Brad Babb could make a run for the checkers, with two wins to his credit (the only races not won by Helliwell or Polewarczyk) and five top-10s in 11 races. Jeff White and Nick Sweet can expect to be in the running as well, as they have six top-10s apiece, with White’s putting him at fourth in the standings and Sweet’s coming in only seven races.

Whelen Modified Tour

Todd Szegedy knows how to win at Loudon. But the defending Modified Tour winner at the Magic Mile likely isn’t certain about much else at this point.

The Connecticut native will be back at NHMS for the first time since conquering the mile for a narrow victory over Donny Lia in July, giving him his fourth Loudon win. But Szegedy has slipped a place from third to fourth in the standings since then, falling victim to baffling inconsistency. After posting seven top-10s and six top-fives in his first eight races, he’s been out of the top 10 twice in the four races since then, one of which was a 24th-place finish in Bristol when he crashed after completing only two laps.

If Szegedy doesn’t make a run to defend his victory, the door opens for other drivers who have had success at the track. Ryan Preece leads the standings and boasts a season-high four wins to his credit (though he’s still chasing an elusive victory at NHMS), while Doug Coby (third in the standings) is also a four-time winner this year, with two Loudon wins to his name.

No driver this year has been more consistent than Woody Pitkat, with top-10s in all 12 of his races and top-fives in 10 of them, and he’s also the defending September winner at the track. There’s also previous NHMS winners Bobby Santos (one Loudon win), Lia (two) and Ted Christopher (seven), who will try to shake up the field with another good run at the mile.

Camping World Trucks

The Trucks series’s first venture to Loudon since 2011 last September was a dramatic one, as 16-year-old Cole Custer led 148 of the 175 laps en route to the win in the UNOH 175. The young up-and-comer has another win this season, but another teenaged prospect is looking like he could be ready to own the stage Saturday afternoon.

Erik Jones, at only 19 years old, has aced the Trucks season after two part-time campaigns, winning twice while garnering 13 top-10s in 16 races for the overall points lead. Fans will be able to see one of racing’s potential stars, as the Byron, Mich., native has shown an ability to compete in different formats, also taking two victories in the Xfinity Series despite running only a part-time slate in that circuit.

The youth trend continues with Tyler Reddick, driving for car owner Brad Keselowski. Also 19 years old, Reddick has risen to second in the standings thanks to wins at Daytona and Dover. He was eighth last year but had a promising Loudon debut, starting sixth and finishing eighth for the afternoon.

The old guard will still get its say, however. Two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton has four wins and 13 top-10s this season, while Johnny Sauter, who battled Crafton for the series title throughout last season before settling for fourth, is fourth again this year while still looking for his first win.

Sprint Cup

For Kevin Harvick, Sunday at NHMS will mean everything. Same goes for fringe drivers Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray, and even title contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

The Sylvania 300 is one of two races remaining before the Chase transitions from the Challenger to the Contender Round and the field of eligible drivers cuts down from 16 to 12. Menard, Bowyer and McMurray are on the outside looking in after Chicagoland and need strong days at New Hampshire to jump back into projected berths. Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski are in as of now, but any blowups, crashes, pit road miscues or other mishaps that can occur over 300 laps could drop them into the cut range and leave them needing to win at Dover or run well and pray for help.

And then there’s Harvick. The most consistent driver all season, one who was on pace for the most top-fives since 1998, saw his quest for a second straight Sprint Cup title get off to a shocking start with a 42nd-place finish after slamming into a wall last weekend. Now he goes from needing three solid weeks to needing two great ones, and it starts at Loudon. Any more bad luck, and Harvick’s dream season could be up in smoke before his postseason really got started.

It’s desperate times, but that’s the nature of the new Chase. New Hampshire will come to someone’s rescue on Sunday, and leave a few others on the brink of an earlier exit than they hoped for.



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