Playoffs roll onto New Hampshire

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Martin Truex Jr. opened the playoffs with an impressive victory in comeback, dominating fashion at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend. Now, the 16-driver playoff field travels northeast to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the ISM Connect 300 and the second race of the 2017 playoffs. Win and advance. Have a bad day, and you’ve put yourself in a must-win position.

WHAT: ISM Connect 300 (317.4 miles, 300 laps. Stages of 75, 75 and 150 laps, respectively)
WHEN: Sunday, September 24, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 2:17 p.m. ET
WHERE: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 1.058-mile oval located in Loudon, N.H.
FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. (7/2), Kyle Busch (5/1) and Denny Hamlin (6/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Kevin Harvick found Victory Lane at NHMS for the first time in a decade one year ago. In a race that saw Toyota dominate and lead over 260 of the 300 laps, Harvick got around Matt Kenseth on a late restart to win and advance to the Round of 12. Harvick would love to do the same this weekend and grab his second win of 2017 coming off last week’s third-place finish at Chicagoland.


THE FIELD

Kyle Busch won the pole for the ISM Connect 300 with a lap of 135.049 mph (28.203 seconds) on Friday afternoon. The pole is Rowdy’s third at New Hampshire, eighth of the season, 27th of his career and second in a row. Maybe his new nickname should be “The Pole Man.”

Playoff contenders crowded the top 10, with Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin–who won at this track earlier this season (and was scared of the lobster in Victory Lane)–Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth completing it. Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 15.

Some other notable starters include playoff contenders Austin Dillon in 17th, Ryan Newman in 18th and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 24th. Joey Logano will start dead last in 39th.


TRUEX GOING FOR TWO

This season has been a lot of Martin Truex Jr. a lot of the time. His win last weekend gave him five more playoff points on top of his already almost insurmountable total, which is now at 58.

Kyle Larson has the next highest total with 33, but the No. 42 hasn’t been on the No. 78’s level when it comes to overall performance. Truex Jr. and co. lead the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in wins (five), stage wins (18), top 10’s (18), average finish (10.6), average running position (7.3), driver rating (115.8), fastest laps run (1,023, 16.7 percent) and laps led (1,723, 24 percent).

Yeah, he’s good. And if it’s any indication, they aren’t going to slow down. Because these playoff points carry on throughout each round. Truex Jr. has all but locked up a spot in the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And as long as they keep their winning ways up, leading laps, garnering playoff points and stay out of trouble, they’ll be there no problem.


ROWDY LOOKING TO REBOUND

Last week didn’t go according to plan for Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team at Chicagoland.

He had one of the fastest cars, but a couple pit stop blunders forced the Las Vegas native to wind up finishing one lap down in 15th. He did garner one playoff point on the afternoon by winning stage one, but five more could have been his if it weren’t for the bad luck.

“I’m sure the consensus is that hopefully it’s out of the way and there’s no more jitters,” Busch said of his pit crew in the media center at NHMS following his pole run. “We can focus on looking forward and having the opportunity to race for the championship with this group of guys and have fast pit stops like they’ve been doing all year long.”

Prior to the postseason-opening race, Joe Gibbs Racing opted to swap crews from the No.’s 19 and 18 for the playoffs. Busch and team management called the decision purely statistical and analytical, but it just so happens that his new crew botched it pretty hard in a big spot.


BELOW THE CUT LINE

Life comes at you fast—and so does the end of the Round of 16 in the NASCAR Playoffs.

Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch are currently below the cut-line. Austin Dillon currently owns the tiebreaker over Ku. Busch thanks to his finish last weekend over the No. 41 bunch. But things can change in the blink of an eye.

Good news? Each of those drivers below the cut line don’t trail by a ton. They can make up their deficits rather quickly—and more than likely will. It’s not panic time yet.


NO TIME TO PLAY

The ISM Connect 300 is one of the shortest races of the season. Turning 30-second laps at a track notorious for long, green flag runs click off faster than you’d think. The planned stage breaks (at least twice) will slow the pace just a tad, but the race is still a quick one.

This could either be a good or a bad thing for playoff contenders. If a mistake is made, there is much less time to recover from it. If Martin Truex Jr. was caught for speeding on pit road this weekend, he wouldn’t have as much time to recover. Same with Kyle Busch, and Jamie McMurray’s spin, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s and Austin Dillon’s penalties, etc.

This means there ain’t no time to play around. “The Magic Mile” is also known as a track that is extremely hard to pass at. Track position means almost everything. Pit stops will be critical, as will restarts. And both of those things are few and far between at NHMS, historically.


PREDICTION

As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane, I think this weekend has “Kyle Busch makes a statement” written all over it and he’s going to visit Victory Lane. He won the pole, he’s been fast in the practice sessions and he’s a man on a mission. Watch and learn, folks.

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