Eight races remain before the cutoff point for the Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason. While all are crucial for championship contenders in their audition for playoff spots, the timing and location of this week's race make it a virtual dress rehearsal.
The Cup series makes its first stop of the season at New Hamphire Motor Speedway for Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 ( at 1 p.m. ET on TNT). The slightly banked Loudon track holds extra importance as the only venue this late in the season that also has a race date in the Chase.
While teams will be gathering notes for New Hampshire's 300-lapper on Sept. 23, that doesn't mean Sunday's race will be a glorified test session, considering the pressure on drivers vying to lock into the top 10 in points and two wild-card berths for title eligibility.
Carl Edwards, last season's runner-up to Tony Stewart in a spirited run to the championship, is one of those drivers in dire need. Edwards ranks 11th in the Cup standings, 31 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer, but the Roush Fenway Racing star -- winless since March 2011 -- sits fifth behind Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in positioning for wild-card slots because of his goose egg in the win column.
Edwards was one of five drivers who participated in a Goodyear tire test at New Hampshire on May 8-9, an experience that he hopes will pay dividends come Sunday.
"The New Hampshire race is a hugely important race for everyone in NASCAR because it's in the Chase," said Edwards, who last won 51 races ago. "For us, for my Fastenal team and for me, it's been a really tough race track. So this test is one that I was really excited to come be a part of because it gives me as a driver an opportunity to try to figure this place out a little better and for our whole team to get better."
Gaining ground on Bowyer will require Edwards to reverse recent history at Loudon. Edwards has just three top-10 finishes in 15 tries at the 1.058-mile oval. Conversely, New Hampshire has been one of Bowyer's better tracks, the site of two of his six career Cup wins.
Bowyer is seeking his fourth Chase berth in his first season for Michael Waltrip Racing, which has failed to qualify a car for NASCAR's postseason since its first full-fledged multicar Cup effort in 2007. To help make that dream a reality for the resurgent MWR team, Bowyer suggests he won't alter course in the regular season's home stretch.
"I think the key is to maintain the level of confidence, the level of comfort that we've had with one another," Bowyer said. "To keep it fun is a big thing. It gets stressful. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on a team that's on a bubble and making that Chase. It's so important to everything we do -- sponsors, owners, everybody. Everybody gives it their all, but you've got to keep them calm so they can they can make the right decisions they have to make and do the same thing yourself. That's all you can do."
Ryan Newman, the defending 301 champ, and teammate Stewart, the New Hampshire winner last September, combined to score a Loudon season sweep for Stewart-Haas Racing. Sam Hornish Jr., driving in place of the suspended AJ Allmendinger, posted his most recent top-10 finish in the Cup series at New Hampshire -- a 10th in September 2010.
Annett making Nationwide strides
It's early to call it a hot streak, but Michael Annett is enjoying a modest upswing heading to New England this weekend. In doing so, Annett is making one of NASCAR's most iconic numbers glisten anew.
Annett had made 119 career starts in the Nationwide Series without a top-five finish. Entering Saturday's F.W. Webb 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Annett suddenly has two top-fives in a row -- fourth at Kentucky and third at Daytona.
"We have a ton of momentum going into Saturday's race after coming off my best career finish last weekend in Daytona," Annett said. "My team improves each and every week. I can't wait to get to the track this weekend and see what kind of a Pilot Flying J Ford they have prepared. We have increased our finishing position by one spot the past two weeks, so, if we continue that this week we should come home with a second-place run."
Annett is currently in his first year driving Richard Petty Motorsports' famed No. 43 and working with veteran crew chief Philippe Lopez. The recent spike in performance couldn't be more well-timed -- his effort at Daytona qualified him for a shot at a six-figure payday.
Annett, series points leader Elliott Sadler, defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and top rookie Austin Dillon are eligible for a $100,000 bonus from Nationwide Insurance at New Hampshire through the four-race Dash 4 Cash incentive program. The highest-finishing driver among those four will cash in Saturday.
Sadler, Dillon and Stenhouse continue to control the top three spots in Nationwide standings, with Sadler eight points up on Dillon and 18 ahead of Stenhouse. Dillon will compete this weekend without crew chief Danny Stockman Jr., who drew a two-race suspension Tuesday for technical violations at Daytona. The same penalty also cost Dillon six points in the season-long standings.
Peters poised for Trucks' visit to Iowa
Timothy Peters finds himself in a coveted position heading to Iowa Speedway this weekend -- atop the Camping World Truck Series standings. However, the one place he hasn't found himself so far this season is Victory Lane.
Peters hopes to change that in Saturday's American Ethanol 200 (8:30 p.m. ET on SPEED) at the popular .875-mile track. He's come close this year with runner-up finishes at Daytona and Kansas, and the Trucks tour has had a penchant for parity this season; James Buescher's win at Kentucky last month made him the series' first repeat winner in 2012.
The story of Peters' season to date has been hallmark consistency. He leads the truck series with an average finish of 6.0 and is one of only four drivers to complete all 1,324 laps.
"All the guys work hard and I try to not mess up where they are making gains," Peters said of his Red Horse Racing team. "Our pit crew has also done a great job on pit road. I've always been the type of racer not to jeopardize the equipment. We really want to get those wins and I think we will start soon."
Not surprisingly, the other three drivers with perfect records in laps completed this season occupy the next three spots in the Camping World Truck Series points. Justin Lofton and rookie Ty Dillon are tied for second, just four points behind Peters. Buescher, who outran Peters for the win in Kansas in April, is just nine points back in a four-way logjam atop the standings.