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Raceday: Your guide to Sunday’s Sylvania 300

Dale Earnhardt Jr. fastest in Saturday practice

NASCAR New Hampshire Auto Racing
Jim Cole - AP
Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., watches as his car is worked on during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Biffle’s title chances might be fueled by figuring out Loudon

Greg Biffle is floating along at the fringes of the Chase standings (11thplace, 31 points out of first) so he seemingly needs a strong finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The trouble is his Ford Fusion race team is not particularly strong at flat-track layouts like New Hampshire.

“We know it’s one of our weaknesses and have been putting a lot of energy into it, trying to get that program better,” said crew chief Matt Puccia.

The team tested in Loudon, in Richmond, Va., and will again in Martinsville, Va. What’s distinctive about this track?

“Fuel mileage is a huge deal here,” Puccia said. “That’s always been a big thing for us as long as I’ve been coming here, so that’s always on our mind. But tire strategy and tire management is big. You’ll see a lot of two-tire (pit stops) and your car has got to be able to go on two tires.”

Of Biffle’s 16th-place Chicagoland result, Puccia added, “When we have a fifth-place car, we have to be able to finish fifth. We can’t finish 16th.”

Notebook

Junior finds some speed: Dale Earnhardt Jr., was fastest Saturday during the final practice for Sunday’s race, turning a lap of 133.059mph. Chase leader Matt Kenseth had the second-fastest lap at 132.938mph, and Kasey Kahne – fast all weekend – turned in a lap of 132.868.

Red Sox carryover effect? The biggest sports story in New England this weekend was the Boston Red Sox clinching the AL East title Friday night with a home victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

Carl Edwards, fifth in the Chase standings, works for the same sports group that owns the Red Sox, so he’d love for some carryover good fortune so close to Fenway Park.

“We’ve got (Red Sox owner) John Henry and all the folks at Fenway Sports Group that back us up – Red Sox Nation,” Edwards said. “Everybody is so great to us up her that we’d love to get a win for them.”

Edwards qualified 26th-fastest for today’s race, so he’ll be challenged to work his way though a crowd of competitors on a track where it’s tough to pass.

Montoya’s future: It’s fairly common for drivers to move from IndyCar to NASCAR. Next year Juan Pablo Montoya is headed back to Indy cars. Jeff Gordon is curious how Sprint Cup experience for Montoya will or won’t help him back in open-wheel competition.

“One thing that always has been true and still is: Juan is a fantastic race-car driver. He is very aggressive and he pulls off great moves,” Gordon said. “Is it Juan’s inexperience on ovals that has kept him from winning races on these ovals? He has done really well at times, but then it seems like it doesn’t always come together for that win.”

Just one race: Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are proud of their first- and second-place results at Chicagoland, but they sure didn’t see it as some power shift from Hendrick Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Everybody wants to be in front and try to expand on your lead, but nine (remaining Chase events) is a lot of races,” Kenseth cautioned.


3 THINGS TO WATCH

1. Ryan Newman seemed extra excited about earning the pole for Sunday’s race because of track conditions at New Hampshire. This is a tough place to pass (minimal banking on a relatively short track), so getting out front, with the side advantages that go with it – clean air for the car, optimum pit stall – feel important in the second Chase race.

2. How does Dale Earnhardt Jr. react to that blown engine ruining his day at Chicagoland? He is far enough back in the Chase standings that there’s little downside to taking some chances in set-up and driving style.

3. Brian Vickers spent the weekend commuting between Kentucky (Nationwide race) and New Hampshire. How does that affect his race day Sunday?


OBSERVATIONS

• By-and-large Michael Waltrip was contrite and patient during a 20-minute interview session early Friday outside the No.56 hauler. Waltrip is a charming guy who tends to disarm tense situations with self-deprecating humor. For instance, when someone asked if he was angry with NASCAR’s rulings, he said he was more confused, joking that’s what fans would expect of him. But Waltrip lost his cool once, ever so briefly, when asked in so many words why he wasn’t more forthcoming about exactly what his operation had done wrong at the race in Richmond, Va. “Do they want an arm? What are they looking for?” Waltrip replied.

This won’t be the last time Waltrip’s patience is tested over this episode. It could take months, maybe years, for him to earn back his operation’s reputation and the fans’ trust. And the financial viability of MWR is at stake.

• Jimmie Johnson had an interesting answer Friday when asked for the umpteenth time why a driver so dominant early in the Sprint Cup season could look so ordinary in the races leading to the Chase. Johnson said the point of the Chase – effectively an in-season playoff – was that only those 10 races matter. So the only stat he valued was not winning last week’s race at Chicagoland.

Johnson’s reply was reminiscent of that line about NFL cornerbacks: The best ones all have short memories.

• If you believe the weather reports in New England, it might pour all morning Sunday, but the storm system is supposed to pass by early afternoon. After the delays last week in Illinois, NASCAR could use a break in New Hampshire.


BEST BETS

Three picks for your fantasy team:

Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin


Race facts

Where: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon, N.H.

Track: 1.058-mile oval with minimal banking.

Race distance: 300 laps or 317.4 miles.

Weather: Steady rain is forecast (80percent chance) early, tapering off in afternoon. Cloudy with a high of 65 degrees.

TV: ESPN at 1 p.m., green flag at 2.

Radio: Performance Racing Network

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