As mentioned earlier this week, if Joe Gibbs Racing is going to break through and get their first win of the season, it’s probably going to be here at Loudon this weekend. Gibbs cars have won three of the last four races here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and it’s more likely than not we’re going to see a Toyota in victory lane this weekend as well (although it may be a quasi-Gibbs teammate). Toyotas took 5 of the top 8 qualifying spots for Sunday’s Overton’s 301 and were the three fastest cars during Happy Hour on Saturday as well. Winning at Loudon takes a mistake-free race and a car that rolls well through the center, and although starting position should mean a lot at a short track like this, it’s worth noting that eight of the last nine races here have been won by someone who started outside of the top 5.
My team points last week (Kentucky): 299
Overall team percentile: 91st
Total team points for the season: 5,053
Yahoo! A Group Pick and Final Rankings for Loudon
The Toyotas looked to be the class of the field during the practice sessions on Saturday, and that should be the case during the actual race on Sunday as well. They will be led by pole sitter Martin Truex, Jr., who has a car that could flat out dominate the race this weekend. He’s already won enough Stage points to basically skate his way to Homestead, and Truex should only add to that on Sunday. If you have him on your roster this weekend, you have to start him. The #78 Toyota ranked 1st- and 2nd-fastest in the two practice sessions on Saturday and had top 5 ten-lap average speed as well.
“The Best of the Rest” is led by Kyle Busch, who had a rare qualifying effort outside of the top 5 this weekend. Still, Rowdy has a car that should be able to challenge for 2nd-place (yes, Truex is that good), and was the fastest in Happy Hour on Saturday afternoon. Rowdy has finished 8th or better in seven of his last eight Loudon starts.
As far as the other two Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas go, both Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are solid options this weekend. Momentum-wise, Hamlin is better off this weekend, with finishes of 4th in three of the last four races (the only exception being Daytona). The #11 Toyota was also 3rd-fastest in Happy Hour this weekend with the 5th-best ten-lap average, and will roll off the grid from 3rd. As far as Kenseth goes, he doesn’t quite have the speed that Busch and Hamlin do, but it’s close. Matt also qualified 3rd for Sunday’s race and has won two of the last three races at this track. If you want to be contrarian, he’s a great option to start this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson posted his best qualifying effort of the season this weekend but didn’t seem to have blazing fast speed in race trim. Still, the #48 Chevrolet should be a legitimate threat for a top 5 finish on Sunday. Johnson is a three-time winner at this race track. Finally, to round out the top 5 threats in the A Group, Brad Keselowski will start from 10th on Sunday but should race better than that. He has a series-best average finish of 10.3 at this race track and has performed exceptionally well at similar venues this season.
My Starter: Kyle Busch over Matt Kenseth
Final A Group Rankings: (1) Martin Truex, Jr., (2) Kyle Busch, (3) Denny Hamlin, (4) Matt Kenseth, (5) Jimmie Johnson, (6) Brad Keselowski, (7) Kevin Harvick, (8) Joey Logano, (9) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Yahoo! B Group Picks and Final Rankings for Loudon
Speed-wise, Kyle Larson has one of the top 3 cars in the field this weekend, but there are a few concerning issues with him. First is the comments he made during Happy Hour. Larson ended up 4th-fastest in that session, but he flat-out said that the car sucks on the long runs. Historically, I’ve found Kyle to be one of the most honest drivers in the garage, so that’s not great. It’s also not ideal that he doesn’t have his normal crew chief this weekend, as Chad Johnston is suspended for the next three races. Finally, it’s worth noting that Larson’s worst non-wreck performances this season have came at the shorter tracks. He’ll start from the back on Sunday and should be a top 5 threat, but there’s a lot of risk there. If you have other options, you might want to consider saving that Larson start.
And honestly, the highest-scoring driver in the B Group might end up being Chase Elliott on Sunday. Chase had great cars in both races here last season but never got the finishes he deserved, and in Happy Hour this weekend, he 5th-fastest on the overall speed chart and ranked 3rd-best in ten-lap average. Chase has also finished 8th or better in five of the last six Cup races overall, with the only exception being Daytona 2. Jamie McMurray is poised for another solid top 10 finish this weekend, and he even got Yahoo! owners an extra bonus point by qualifying 4th on Friday. Jamie finished 6th in this race one year ago.
Ryan Blaney had a rare mid-pack qualifying effort on Friday but should be good to go on Sunday. The #21 Ford was 8th-fastest in Happy Hour and Blaney wound up finishing 11th and 12th in the two races here at Loudon this weekend. Kurt Busch is another Ford that is poised for a strong showing this weekend, assuming he doesn’t run into any trouble. Lately, that’s all that has seemed to happen to him at this track, as Kurt has an average running position of 8th over the last four Loudon events but an average finish of 14th. The #41 Ford looked to be a top 10 car during the practice sessions on Saturday.
Many–myself included–expected the Richard Childress Racing cars to be competitive this weekend after being incredibly slow at Kentucky last week, but that simply isn’t the case. Both Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon looked like top 20 cars at best during the practice sessions on Saturday, and qualifying 24th and 26th (respectively) doesn’t help at all. Both drivers have won this season by using strategy calls, but that’s not very ideal to be hoping for that while starting them in Yahoo!.
If you’re looking for a start save option on Sunday, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is your guy once again. The #17 team posted yet another top 15 finish at Kentucky last weekend and seemed to make improvements to their car here at Loudon from Friday on. Additionally, Stenhouse excels on flat tracks, and don’t forget he posted a 10th-place finish in this race one year ago. His teammate, Trevor Bayne, continues to trend downward and has just one finish better than 23rd in four career starts here. He’s not even worth taking a chance on.
My Starters: Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray over Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon
Final B Group Rankings: (1) Kyle Larson, (2) Chase Elliott, (3) Jamie McMurray, (4) Kurt Busch, (5) Ryan Blaney, (6) Kasey Kahne, (7) Clint Bowyer, (8) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., (9) Austin Dillon, (10) Ryan Newman, (11) Trevor Bayne, (12) Aric Almirola, (13) Paul Menard, (14) A.J. Allmendinger, (15) Chris Buescher, (16) Danica Patrick
Yahoo! C Group Pick and Final Rankings for Loudon
With each passing week, the C Group studs of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez improve more and more. Typically the short tracks are pretty hard for rookies to get a hold of, but Loudon is a different story, as we’ve seen first-timers have success here in the past. As far as who to roll with, though, Jones is the best option in the C Group this weekend. He qualified 6th for Sunday’s Overton’s 301 and was one of the best cars in Practice #2 on Saturday. He then wound up 10th-fastest in Happy Hour after serving a 30-minute penalty. Speaking of Happy Hour, though, Daniel Suarez looked stout in that session, posting the 7th-best lap and the 6th-best ten-lap average. A finish right outside of the top 10 wouldn’t be very surprising out of the #19 team on Sunday. As far as the rest of the C Group goes, there’s really no reason to look any further down unless you’re in a start saving position. It’d be surprising if any of the other drivers in this group finished inside the top 20, although Ty Dillon has the best chance at accomplishing that. If you really feel like rolling the dice, Matt DiBenedetto qualified 16th this weekend, but it’s hard to imagine him finishing better than 25th. He did come home 19th at Bristol earlier this season, though.
My Starter: Erik Jones over Daniel Suarez
Final C Group Rankings: (1) Erik Jones, (2) Daniel Suarez, (3) Ty Dillon, (4) Michael McDowell, (5) Matt DiBenedetto, (6) David Ragan, (7) Landon Cassill, (8) Cole Whitt, the rest