Playoff picture entering New Hampshire

Here‘s what‘s happening in the world of NASCAR with Iowa Speedway in the rearview and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Sun., 2:30 p.m. ET, USA) right around the corner.

THE LINEUP ️

1️⃣ Single-digit races left — who else might sneak into the playoffs?

2️⃣ Will Toyota regain its footing at the ‘Magic Mile?’

3️⃣ Aw Shucks: How Kyle Larson’s Iowa race unraveled

4️⃣ Loudon — the track for title winners

5️⃣ Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

kyle busch looks on
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1. Single-digit races left — who else might sneak into the playoffs?

Reigning champion Ryan Blaney locked up another playoff spot at Iowa. With nine regular-season races remaining before the field is set, take a look at who might join him. 
Ask around and you probably won’t find a whole lot of people out there who didn’t have defending champion Ryan Blaney in their preseason playoff grids.

Still, No. 12’s win at Iowa Speedway does take one more potential playoff spot off the board for those not yet locked in, and there are some rather large names currently slated to miss this year’s postseason.

Bubba Wallace holds the final playoff spot, plus-six to the elimination line. Here are the drivers inside the top 30 in points but below him in the standings, and their most likely tracks to cash in for a win.

RELATED: Watch NASCAR video highlights

(Note: Daniel Suárez and Austin Cindric are 18th and 19th in the standings, respectively, but each have a win to slot them into the provisional playoff field.)

15. Joey Logano, No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Best remaining track: Michigan (12.3 avg. finish, three wins)
Dark-horse opportunity: Indianapolis (10.8 avg. finish, no wins)

16. Kyle Busch, No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Best remaining track: Richmond (7.4 avg. finish, six wins)
Dark-horse opportunity: Indianapolis (12.1 avg. finish, two wins)

17. Chase Briscoe, No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Best remaining track: Darlington (16.3 avg. finish, one top five)
Dark-horse opportunity: Loudon (17.3 avg. finish, one top 10)

20. Todd Gilliland, No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford
Best remaining track: Darlington (19.0 avg. finish, three top 15s)
Dark-horse opportunity: Indianapolis (20.5 avg. finish, one top five)

21. Josh Berry, No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Best remaining track: Richmond (6.5 avg. finish, one top five)
Dark-horse opportunity: Darlington (16.5 avg. finish, one top five)

22. Michael McDowell, No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford
Best remaining track: Daytona (20.9 avg. finish, one win)
Dark-horse opportunity: Darlington (25.8 avg. finish, 3 top 10s)

23. Carson Hocevar, No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet
Best remaining track: Atlanta (19th in only Cup start)
Dark-horse opportunity: Richmond (27th in only Cup start; one Craftsman Truck Series win)

24. Noah Gragson, No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Best remaining track: Daytona (17.3 avg. fin, one top five, two top 10s)
Dark-horse opportunity: Darlington (20.0 avg. finish; two Xfinity Series wins)

25. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
Best remaining track: Daytona (20.4 avg. finish, two wins)
Dark-horse opportunity: Atlanta (19.1 avg. finish, three top 10s)

26. Erik Jones, No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Toyota
Best remaining track: Darlington (12.4 avg. finish, two wins)
Dark-horse opportunity: Daytona (21.5 avg. finish, one win)

27. Ryan Preece, No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Best remaining track: Daytona (22.9 avg. finish, one top five, three top 10s)
Dark-horse opportunity: Michigan (19.3 avg. finish, one top 10)

28. John Hunter Nemechek, No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Toyota
Best remaining track: Daytona (9.7 avg. finish, one top 10)
Dark-horse opportunity: Atlanta (22.0 avg. finish; one Xfinity Series win)

29. Corey LaJoie, No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet
Best remaining track: Daytona (17.2 avg. finish, one top five, five top 10s)
Dark-horse opportunity: Atlanta (21.5 avg. finish, two top fives)

30. Justin Haley, No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford
Best remaining track: Daytona (18. 8 avg. finish, one win, two top 10s)
Dark-horse opportunity: Atlanta (18.1 avg. finish, two top 10s)

Several can still get in on points, but a victory is the surest path to the postseason (not to mention the only path for some of the above), so where might they win to clinch their spots? Honestly, plenty of the driver/track combos listed above stand as reasonable options that could come to fruition.

Busch has shown he can win anywhere throughout his career and it’s hard to picture a playoff field without him, but if he gets to Richmond still riding what will then be a career-long 43-race-winless streak and leaves Virginia without a winner’s sticker … well, sorry, Rowdy Nation. Might not be happening this year.

Logano feels like he’s right on the verge of joining his teammates in the playoffs, and it could happen this weekend. Jones could pop up and crank out yet another Southern 500 win despite a down year, Berry could continue to show the field how it’s done on short tracks with a Richmond romp, Gragson could give the SHR shop something to smile about by rekindling his NXS success at Darlington, you name it.

Heck, any of these guys could pull it off with two drafting-style races remaining. Certainly, you look at recent Daytona 500 champs McDowell and Stenhouse as the most likely among the crop there.

Of course, none of that could happen, too; stock-car racing surprises us every week. That’s why we watch, right?

There’s lots of racing left before we know who’s vying for this year’s title — and on a wide variety of tracks — and anything goes as things start to heat up. The pressure’s on.

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2. Will Toyota regain its footing at the ‘Magic Mile’?
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After stumbling at Iowa and just one win in the last six races, will the manufacturer reestablish its early-season momentum in Loudon?

Toyota entered Sunday’s race at Iowa Speedway with three drivers in the top six favorites to win the inaugural race at the 0.875-mile short track.

It left the Hawkeye State with one top-10 finisher, and he didn’t even score any stage points.

The first portion of the season was all Toyota and Chevrolet — namely Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports — with a Ford-backed team not picking up its first win until Darlington in Race 13. Toyota has just one win since then … and it was a rain-shortened one at that.

There are no long-term concerns here — such is the ebb and flow of the Next Gen, as we’ve learned — and it wouldn’t be a shocker to see the manufacturer land two or three drivers in the Championship 4 later this season. It is worth considering, though, if it will be able to reach into its spell book and find the magic once again this weekend in Loudon — especially considering the track’s similarities to fellow 1-mile Phoenix Raceway, where the Championship 4 will take place.

If Sunday again doesn’t go well for the Toyota group, it’s probably fair to start wondering if it’s been caught up to in some respects, and if it will be playing catch-up by the playoffs.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s entirely possible JGR and 23XI Racing  (heck, maybe even Legacy Motor Club; Nemechek won the Xfinity race last year) come out and smash everybody this weekend at the “Magic Mile,” a longtime stomping ground.

Soon-to-be-mostly-retired Martin Truex Jr. enters as the defending race winner, having won seven of the 16 stages at New Hampshire, including the last four. JGR’s 13 wins there make it the track the team has the fifth-most wins at, and last year four of the top eight finishers all drove Toyotas.

Ford is just as formidable at the track — Team Penske, in particular, but RFK Racing could have a sneaky good weekend as well — and is likely Toyota’s top competition on Sunday, especially given how the tides have turned for the Blue Ovals.

A major factor going for Toyota’s prospects this weekend, though? Chevrolets aren’t … great there. Like, at all.

I won’t be surprised if Kyle Larson — a three-time NHMS runner-up — makes me eat my words here and wins his first lobster, but it’s notable that Hendrick heads to a staple of the annual Cup schedule and none of its current lineup of drivers have won at it. That’s a rarity. (Byron has the only national series win there among them — a Truck Series win in 2016 driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports … in a Toyota.)

In fact, Busch is the only current Chevrolet driver, period, that has a New Hampshire Cup win and, well, you can probably guess which manufacturer that was with.

The struggles do indeed extend beyond just Hendrick. Chevy has just one win at Loudon in the last 17 races (with Kevin Harvick, who switched to Ford the following season).  The manufacturer has a whopping 163 Cup wins overall since its last “Magic Mile” victory, coming at the hands of Kasey Kahne in July 2012.

It has led just 18% of Loudon laps since then.

Needless to say, if Toyota drivers leave New Hampshire as empty-handed as they did Iowa … your ears should perk up a little.

3. Aw shucks, how Kyle Larson lost the points lead

Todd Gordon and Luke Lambert break down how Kyle Larson’s day unraveled at Iowa as we head into New Hampshire.

4. Loudon — the track for title winners

Twelve of the last 15 New Hampshire winners are NASCAR Cup Series champions — will a fresh face break the trend or will a title winner once again reign supreme?

Date Winner Championship
9/22/2013 Matt Kenseth 2003
7/13/2014 Brad Keselowski 2012
9/21/2014 Joey Logano 2018
7/19/2015 Kyle Busch 2015/2019
9/27/2015 Matt Kenseth 2003
7/17/2016 Matt Kenseth 2003
9/25/2016 Kevin Harvick 2014
7/16/2017 Denny Hamlin
9/24/2017 Kyle Busch 2015/2019
7/22/2018 Kevin Harvick 2014
7/21/2019 Kevin Harvick 2014
8/2/2020 Brad Keselowski 2012
7/18/2021 Aric Almirola
7/17/2022 Christopher Bell
7/17/2023 Martin Truex Jr. 2017

 

5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Paint Scheme Preview: Loudon

NASCAR betting: Opening odds for New Hampshire

Who should replace Martin Truex Jr. at JGR?

Drivers to win in all three national series at a track

Ryan Blaney celebrates Iowa breakthrough with heartfelt family gathering