Stewart’s adieu, youth movement are stories to watch as NASCAR visits New Hampshire

  • Matt Kenseth celebrates at the finish line after winning the Sprint Cup series race at NHMS on Sept. 27. Jim Cole / AP file

  • Greg Biffle, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, from left, go four wide on a restart during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Loudon, N.H. Brad Keselowski jumped the restart and was penalized. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Brad Keselowski drives down pit road after bing penalized for jumping a restart during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 7/13/2016 11:31:23 PM

The racing fan with an eye on the future will have plenty to watch this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And the one with a longing for the past will have a chance to bid farewell to one of its biggest names.

On one hand, the more than 80,000 fans that flock to the Magic Mile will have a chance to see this new generation that everyone has been raving about. Sunday will be their first chance to see dazzling 20-year-old Chase Elliott in a Sprint Cup car. It’ll be another opportunity to see 23-year-old Kyle Larson, another leader of the 20-somethings shooting for NASCAR supremacy. They’ll get to cheer on first-time full-timer Ryan Blaney, the 22-year-old who’s nipping on the heels of a Chase for the Sprint Cup spot out of tiny sentimental favorite Wood Brothers Racing.

But expect the atmosphere to be dominated, as it was last season, by a fading driver who’s already reached the heights the youngsters are aiming for. It’s Tony Stewart’s last July trip to Loudon, and just as was the case with Jeff Gordon’s swan song last year, the fans will be prepared for the first installment of a two-part send-off.

These are the fans, after all, who have cheered Stewart on as he’s built a career out of fiery temperament, verbal and physical jabs and taking shots at anyone who’s crossed him, from the media to the NASCAR higher-ups. They’ve also cheered him for his performances on the track – three of them resulting in victories, the most dramatic a 2011 Chase win that helped spur him on to the title in November.

Stewart’s farewell as he gives way to a talented new wave of drivers will be the dominant storyline, but not the only one in a packed weekend at Loudon:

K&N Pro Series East

NASCAR’s northeast regional developmental circuit visits NHMS with everyone trying to catch Justin Haley. The 17-year-old has blossomed in his second full year in the K&N series, ranking first with a 40-point margin over Noah Gragson. The Indiana native performed well in his first season, finishing sixth, but he’s captured the first two wins of his NASCAR career this year while amassing top-10s in all eight of his starts, seven of which he turned into top-fives.

Loudon was tricky for Haley last year, however, as he started a season-worst 19th, so the door for the United Site Services 70 (Saturday, 6:45 p.m.) may be open for some of his challengers to close the gap. Gragson (second place), Spencer Davis (fourth) and Tyler Dippel (sixth) are top-10 drivers with wins this season, and Hunter Baize (seventh), while winless, has approached Haley’s consistency with six top-10s.

Whichever driver does take the checkered flag, fans will want to remember his name. Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Larson are all Loudon winners who went on to successful Cup careers, and defending race champion William Byron is currently leading the Camping World Trucks standings.

Whelen Modified Tour

The return of the Mods is the return of energetic, pass-filled racing that has made the series a signature event of Loudon’s and impressed the Cup regulars that annually come to town.

For the third straight year, the series’s New England 100 (Saturday, 2 p.m.) will be preceded by the Whelen All-Star Shootout (Friday, 2:10 p.m.), a 40-lap showcase between the top drivers from both the Whelen Modified Tour and the Southern Modified Tour.

The main event the next afternoon will feature many of the drivers who have conquered NHMS in years past. Doug Coby, the winner of the last Modified race at Loudon in September, is a three-time champion and enters as the favorite, with two wins and a first-place spot in the standings as he chases his third series title and fourth in five years.

The field behind Coby will challenge him, however. Timmy Solamito, in the midst of his third full season on the Modified circuit, is tied with Coby with two wins, while Justin Bonsignore’s four top-fives in six races imply he’ll be near the front down the stretch. And in the weekend’s most unpredictable event, it’d be hard to count out Donny Lia (fourth place), Bobby Santos (eighth) and Ron Silk (12th), all of whom have prevailed at Loudon before.

Xfinity Series

Each year, the question for the Xfinity race in New Hampshire becomes whether or not NASCAR’s minor leaguers can hang with the stars who give the junior circuit a try. Lately, the answer has been no; Sprint Cup regulars have won 10 straight times, with Denny Hamlin’s win in 2015 and Brad Keselowski’s in 2014 breaking Kyle Busch’s stranglehold on the event after Busch won four of the previous five editions of the race.

That doesn’t mean a group of Xfinity standouts aren’t worth watching in the AutoLotto 200 (Saturday, 4 p.m.). Daniel Suarez gained a large following after winning his first career race in June, and the 24-year-old Mexican has turned that momentum into the top spot in the Xfinity standings.

Suarez is part of the aforementioned youth movement, and there are plenty more of its products in the Xfinity ranks. Erik Jones turned 20 this season and, with two wins, nine top-fives in 16 races and a fourth-place spot in the standings, he’s knocking on the Cup door with the same gusto Elliott was last year before taking over for Jeff Gordon. Ty Dillon, third in the standings, could be closing in on a Cup ride. And 19-year-old Brandon Jones, a fourth-place finisher in the K&N Pro Series East two years ago, is seventh in the standings and could be making Cup headlines in only a few years.

Sprint Cup

Much of the discussion will be on Stewart, but two teams have emerged as Cup heavyweights, and Loudon is the next ring where they’ll be meeting.

In one corner is Joe Gibbs Racing, which has put all four of its drivers (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) in the Chase and dominated at the Magic Mile last year, claiming both poles and victories for Busch in July and Kenseth in September. In the other is Penske Racing, which won both NHMS races in 2014 and has the hottest driver in the sport in Brad Keselowski, who has earned a series-high four wins and always seems to catch fire in the Granite State.

The two teams are the main players in a Ford (Penske) vs. Toyota (Gibbs) battle that has commanded the season, but some Chevy pilots in the mix will be eager to rule at Loudon. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch (15) and Kevin Harvick (15) have the most top-10s this season, Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson is a two-time winner this season and three-time victor at NHMS, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman are among the winless drivers who would love nothing less than to clinch a playoff trip at the Sprint Cup’s northernmost track.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340, or on Twitter at @dbonifant.)

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