USA Today 301 Preview: Short Track Change Up

USA Today 301 Preview: Short Track Change Up

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We stay on the short track circuit this week, but we travel from the corn fields of Iowa to New England. NASCAR's top division heads to the one-mile, flat oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the USA Today 301 this Sunday afternoon. The bull ring at Loudon, New Hampshire is a true oval with variable banking of 2-to-7 degrees in all turns, and 1-degree on both straight aways. It is a flat track in the purest sense. The handling of the race car is very important at this oval. How the car turns, how it exits the corners and how it holds the turns will dictate the driver's ability to pass or be passed at NHMS. A driver and crew chief's patience is tested to the max at this challenging short track. If adjustments can be made and an ill-handling car can be corrected over the course of a run, that driver and crew chief will reap the rewards of their persistence and patience. A lack of patience will usually end up in a wreck at this short track, as this typically leads to over-driving the car and pushing the speed/handling envelope a bit too far. Considering that last weekend we saw a lot of three-wide and wild racing at Iowa, we could see a lack of patience manifest itself this weekend at Loudon. This oval is where the NASCAR adage "race the track, not the competition" was born. New Hampshire Motor Speedway embodies that statement to the highest degree.

This event is the only time we race at the Magic Mile this season after NASCAR scheduling took away one of the track's two annual dates in 2018. For tips on what we might expect this weekend, look no further than the earlier races at Martinsville and Phoenix. All are flat tracks, and while Martinsville is smaller, the handling, setup and racing are quite similar to Loudon. Phoenix has more speed than NHMS, but the flat track in Arizona boasts some similar characteristics to the oval in New England. While keeping these races in mind, it will still be helpful to take a look back at the recent historical statistics at the Loudon oval. The loop stats shown below cover the last 19 years or 32 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin9.41,0055747556,970103.6
Brad Keselowski9.87694795985,388101.3
Martin Truex Jr.11.37635191,1706,22298.0
Christopher Bell15.0204105431,00697.4
Kyle Busch14.97866011,1346,33995.2
Chase Elliott14.437693992,34092.8
Kyle Larson11.8389152222,64490.4
Ryan Blaney13.634579692,22689.0
Joey Logano14.15321291324,34985.3
Tyler Reddick12.515121074880.4
William Byron15.52462091,24579.3
Erik Jones17.113449482370.2
Daniel Suarez15.814717075269.0
Austin Dillon16.6226311590466.9
Bubba Wallace 17.712415057266.1
Ty Gibbs27.0484016766.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.920220141,12965.3
AJ Allmendinger22.224029131,16463.8
Ross Chastain17.81014356963.1
Chase Briscoe17.3517627263.1

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been a track of streaks for several seasons. Once a manufacturer gets this place figured out, the teams tend to pile up the wins until the competition catches up and unseats them. From 2012 to 2013 Toyota reeled off three-straight victories at the Magic Mile. Brad Keselowski's victory in the summer of 2014 broke the Toyota string and set Ford up to win the next two events at the one-mile oval. More recently, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch swept the Magic Mile in the 2017 season and returned Toyota to dominance at the historic short track. That would last until 2018 when Kevin Harvick won back-to-back Loudon victories for Ford in 2018-19. Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola would then build on that Ford streak by winning the next two New Hampshire races in 2020 and 2021. However, Christopher Bell's win in this event years ago, followed by Martin Truex Jr.'s victory here in 2023 handed control of Loudon back to Toyota and brought Ford's streak to an end. Will Toyota drivers and teams continue the streak this weekend? There's good reason to believe they will.

In this event one year ago we witnessed Truex absolutely dominate and lead 254 of the 301 laps while a late caution would add some spice, he would hold off Joey Logano to capture the win. It was a surprising performance for the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran to claim his first-ever win at the New England short track. There were several suitors for the win that afternoon in Loudon. Aside from Logano, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick were also major forces on the track that day. With the way short track racing has gone this season, we should see some similar parity among drivers and manufacturers again this weekend. We'll take a look at the loop stats, the past history of New Hampshire Motor Speedway and current trends to determine who will dominate this Sunday afternoon at the one-mile oval in Loudon.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star recently announced his pending retirement so he'll have extra incentive in this final start of his career at the Magic Mile. Truex is having a strong season and he's having a very good campaign on the short tracks in 2024. With a third-place at Dover and Top 5's at Bristol and Richmond, Truex is positioned well coming to New England this weekend with an 8.2 average finish on the small ovals. Although the driver of the No. 19 Toyota had never won at Loudon until last season, he's led a staggering 1,170 laps here for his career. Truex has also cracked the Top 5 in six of his last eight starts at the Magic Mile. In this event one year ago, Truex led a race-high 254 laps from the outside pole before eventually grabbing his first Loudon win.

Kyle Larson –  Larson has been pretty sharp on the short tracks this season. The Hendrick Motorsports star has three pole positions and 368 laps led. He is also a two-time runner-up finisher and has four Top-5 finishes (67-percent) on ovals one-mile in size and less this season. Larson cracks the Top 5 at Loudon at a respectable 39-percent rate and despite never having won here, the veteran driver is almost always challenging the Top 5 late in the race. He led 6 laps and finished an impressive third one year ago in the Crayon 301. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has never won at the Magic Mile, but considering how well Larson has performed on the small ovals in 2024, we wouldn't be surprised to see him pull into victory lane this Sunday afternoon.  

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a three-time New Hampshire winner, and he's finished runner-up at this small oval on multiple occasions over the years. Loudon really is one of his favorite short tracks on the circuit. It's been a challenging season for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota, but Hamlin does have three victories this season on the short tracks. With a 63-percent Top-10 rate at the Magic Mile, Hamlin is one of the more consistent performers at this facility in NASCAR's top division. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has tons of upside at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and that easily makes him among one of the top contenders this week.

Brad Keselowski – The owner/driver of the No. 6 Ford has been really impressive over his career at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Keselowski owns two-career victories and close to 600 laps led. The veteran driver boasts 16 Top-10 finishes which checks in at a strong 70-percent Top-10 rate.  Keselowski rides a five-race Loudon Top-10 streak that includes a win in the 2020 season into this weekend's USA Today 301. The veteran driver boasts pretty good stats on the short tracks this season with two Top 5's and four Top 10's in six starts on ovals one-mile in size or less. The New Hampshire oval is a great track for this driver and team, and Keselowski has been trending in the right direction in recent weeks.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Ryan Blaney – This past weekend's Iowa victor has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his six short track starts this season. He finished Top 5 at Phoenix, fifth-place at Martinsville and won at Iowa. Blaney has not been stellar at the Magic Mile in his Cup Series career, but he does have four Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at New Hampshire. Those performances and 69 laps led have lowered Blaney's average finish at Loudon to a respectable 13.6. Coming off the big, dominant and surprising win this past week, he has to be encouraged coming to New England this weekend. The driver of the No. 22 Ford will be a force in Sunday's USA Today 301.

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports star has better short tracks in his resume, but he's still good enough at New Hampshire to warrant solid play consideration. His Loudon stats aren't very impressive (30-percent Top-10 rate and no wins) but Elliott has been on point with his racing of late and short tracks have been kind to the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott has four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in six starts on the small ovals in 2024 for a robust 7.2 average finish. He's led a combined 75 laps in his last four New Hampshire starts and is looking to build on his growing and improving Loudon resume. Elliott's not in race-winning form right now, but he's good enough to fetch a Top 10 at the Magic Mile.

Joey Logano – The driver of the No. 22 Ford is a two-time New Hampshire winner and Logano has six Top 10's in his last seven Loudon starts going into Sunday's short track battle. Logano's 14 Top-10 finishes at the Magic Mile check in at a respectable 56-percent rate, which has only been bolstered in recent seasons. The Penske Racing star grabbed second- and sixth-place finishes at the Richmond and Martinsville short tracks this season and that bodes well for his start at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Logano started fourth on the grid and raced to an impressive runner-up finish in this event one year ago at NHMS.

William Byron – Byron was a winner earlier this season at the similar flat short track in Martinsville, Virginia and he was a runner-up finisher this past weekend at Iowa Speedway. With over 100 laps led on short tracks this season, these ovals have really been his best tracks in what has been a strong season. Byron has just six-career Cup Series starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and a pedestrian 15.5 average finish over that span. He's yet to really make a mark on this particular short track yet. However, we believe that will change this Sunday afternoon as Byron should post a career-best finish at the New England oval. We wouldn't rule out a possible challenge for the win in Sunday's 301-lap short track battle.   

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at New Hampshire & solid upside

Christopher Bell – Bell has always liked this flat, one-mile oval. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota won this event two years ago with a strong performance down the stretch run. Bell also finished runner-up at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2021. In Xfinity Series competition, Bell has won all three starts he's made at Loudon in that division of NASCAR. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment and it speaks to his excellence in racing at this track. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has been strong on the Cup Series short track circuit in 2024. Bell has nabbed one win and four Top 10's in the six events on ovals one-mile or less in size. We expect this driver and team to be a factor in the outcome of Sunday's USA Today 301.

Tyler Reddick – The 23XI Racing star finished sixth-place in this event last season at the New Hampshire short track. That was one of two Top-10 finishes for Reddick in four Cup Series starts at the oval for a good 50-percent Top-10 rate. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota has been a reasonably good performer on the short tracks this season with a 50-percent Top-10 rate and 10th- and seventh-place finishes at Richmond and Martinsville. Reddick qualified well at Iowa Speedway this past weekend, but ran into some trouble and faded to 22nd-place by the finish. He should rebound very nicely at this flatter short track than Iowa. The Magic Mile should hold a Top-10 finish for Reddick and this race team.  

Ross Chastain – Chastain has been coming on in recent short track races. He has finishes of 14th-, 12th- and 11th-place recently at Martinsville, Dover and Iowa. His average finish for the season on these one-mile and less ovals stands at a respectable 12.2. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has earned Top 10's in two of his last three starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That has made up for some struggles he had on the one-mile oval earlier in his Cup Series career. Chastain is coming off a steady 11th-place finish at Iowa Speedway this past Sunday and he should ride that momentum into Sunday's USA Today 301.   

Bubba Wallace – Wallace has earned stellar third- and eighth-place finishes in his last two Loudon starts. That's a dramatic turnaround from earlier in his Cup Series career at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. We have to give a fantasy racing nod to this driver and team for what they've accomplished at this track in the new generation stock car. The notes they've collected in those outings should be very valuable. Wallace has also been good on comparable short tracks this season. With 13th- and fourth-place finishes at Richmond and Martinsville, the No. 23 Toyota team seems to stand poised for a great outing in New Hampshire this weekend.   

Alex Bowman – If you're examining purely historical stats at NHMS, you're likely to discount Bowman all together. A deeper dive into the numbers shows that he's not been all that bad here with one Top 10 and six Top 15's in his last seven starts. The average finish across that span is a reasonably good 16.0. As to short tracks this season, the No. 48 Chevrolet team has been impressively consistent. Bowman has earned four Top 10's in the six events for a strong 10.8 average finish. He's coming off a strong eighth-place finish this past Sunday at Iowa Speedway. We expect this driver and team to be sharp in this 301-lap battle at Loudon.  

Chris Buescher – The biggest risk/reward driver this weekend is perhaps Buescher and his No. 17 Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team. He's had a couple disappointments with good cars in recent races, but in all he's been on point with his short track performance. Buescher's three Top 10's work out to a sound 50-percent rate and good 11.3 average finish. The veteran driver led 16 laps this past Sunday at Iowa Speedway and had the speed to challenge the Top 5, but ran into some trouble and finished 18th-place. We believe he'll rebound this week at the flat Loudon oval. Buescher finished a New Hampshire career-best 15th-place in this event one year ago and we believe that's the floor for him this Sunday afternoon.  

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Busch – The Richard Childress Racing star is a three-time New Hampshire winner, including as recently as 2017. Busch's 1,100+ laps led at Loudon and 34-percent career Top-5 rate at this one-mile oval can't be overlooked. However, Busch's last four starts at the Magic Mile are quite concerning. Three finishes outside the Top 30 due to crashes and a subpar 12th-place finish two seasons ago are his body of work at this one-mile oval the last four years. In addition, Busch has struggled on short tracks this season. With just one Top 10 in six starts on ovals one-mile in size and less (17-percent) and lowly 20.3 average finish. We believe he's a driver to put on the fantasy bench for the USA Today 301.  

Michael McDowell – Short tracks rewarded McDowell early this season with eighth- and 11th-place efforts at Phoenix and Bristol. However, since then things have turned brutal for the No. 34 Ford team. McDowell hasn't cracked the Top 20 in his last four short tracks starts, including a 23rd-place finish this past week at Iowa Speedway. The Front Row Motorsports veteran has 21 starts of Cup Series experience at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but he doesn't have much to show for it. McDowell has just one Top-15 finish in those efforts and an inflated 31.5 average finish. He has been better at Loudon later in his career, but this is still one of the tracks that gives him problems.  

Austin Cindric – In the wake of Cindric's surprising win at Gateway a few weeks ago, he's come crashing back to Earth the last two events. Finishes of 22nd- and 30th-place have been his work at Sonoma and Iowa. The Penske Racing driver is likely poised for more struggles this week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Cindric has made just two Cup Series starts here with a subpar average finish of 19.0 between the two. Short tracks in general have haunted the No. 2 Ford team this season. Cindric has just one Top-15 finish vs. three finishes outside the Top 30 for a poor 26.3 average finish. None of the numbers, both historical and recent point to a good finish for this driver and team this Sunday. Cindric is a bench driver for this visit to New Hampshire.   

Austin Dillon – Dillon's career stats might convince you to deploy him in your fantasy lineups for the USA Today 301. His 14-career starts at Loudon have nabbed this driver and team two Top-10 and seven Top-15 finishes, and his last start at the track was a strong ninth-place finish last season. However, Dillon and his No. 3 Chevrolet team have been among the worst performing on short tracks this season among the full-time driver pool. With just one Top-20 finish and three finishes outside the Top 25, his average finish on the small ovals registers a disappointing 26.7. Something has been wrong with team all season and even though a crew chief change has happened, it hasn't spurred results yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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