Ryan Preece looks to finish the job with a win as the Cup Series heads to New Hampshire

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 17: A general view of racing during the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2022 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The only drivers looking forward to New Hampshire quite as much as Ryan Preece might be his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates.

The race in the small town of Loudon plays host to the Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and it’s the closest racetrack town to Preece’s hometown of Berlin, Connecticut. It’s a place the New England short-track modified star is very familiar with.

His team has struggled mightily so far this season, with only one driver currently sitting above 25th in the points standings.

But short-track Martinsville was their best performance of the season. The team has performed better at short tracks, and Martinsville saw all four cars running up front.

“Our short track program is really good at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Aric Almirola said. “No doubt, we have to continue to work on our mile-and-a-half program and our downforce type racetracks, but our short track package is really good.”

“I look at the schedule going forward, and I feel like, here is a great place for us. I look at Loudon as a great place for us,” Almirola added.

Almirola’s win at the track in 2021 was critical to his making the Playoffs that year. With his points position of 27th, another win would be equally as important.

The track does have extra-special meaning for Preece, though.

“I always say it’s my favorite race weekend of the year,” he said. “I grew up going to the track with my father and grandfather. I had a lot of success here in the modifieds and it’s just a place I’m comfortable at.”

“Driving in and out of the track each day still brings back a lot of memories. It’s a racers track, there’s really no place like it. Someone like me, I’ve had to fight to get where I am, and I don’t take any of it for granted and this is a place that helped me achieve my goals.”

As for his chances of getting a win, Preece said he’s “optimistic.”

He came close in Martinsville, leading laps early in dominating fashion, before pit road trouble put him back in the field for an eventual fifteenth-place finish.

Not all the Stewart-Haas drivers are fans of the track, though. Chase Briscoe still doesn’t feel like he has the place figured out.

“Personally, I feel like that’s by far my worst racetrack,” he said. “For us, the short tracks have definitely been really, really good, but I would say statistically and just even as a driver, Loudon is the one track that just really confuses me.”

“For whatever reason I cannot figure out what I need there, but I did feel like last year we were able to lead laps,” he explained. “We ran top-15, but I still have a lot to learn when I go to Loudon, so I’m really gonna rely on my teammates there next weekend.”

“These are the races that if we’re gonna win before the Playoffs, these are ones that we can go and compete at, so hopefully we can have a good weekend this weekend but also next week.”

Briscoe pointed to studying Christopher Bell as a driver who understands the track. Bell is the defending winner, though he’s yet to score a top five finish since winning the Bristol dirt race earlier this year.

Alex Bowman, a Hendrick driver, feels even more strongly about the track than Briscoe.

“It’s a parking lot and they should bulldoze it, but we go there anyway,” he said with a laugh.

“No, I love all the people at New Hampshire, they’re awesome, the fans are awesome. But it does not agree with me, just trying to get better there. I think it is difficult to pass, for sure, but I think just making speed there is difficult for me.”

Hendrick Motorsports, still, has had its own share of short-track success this season, with Kyle Larson winning at Richmond and Martinsville.

Bowman needs a win of his own this year. After an injury sustained dirt racing forced him out of the car for three races, he currently sits 22nd in points, well below the Playoff cutline.

And with just seven races to go, the importance of that Playoff cutline is growing.

After Atlanta, Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell move above the cutline by the slimmest of margins: both are just three points to the good. Bubba Wallace, on the other hand, is just three points out.

Heading into Atlanta, those drivers, and others on the cutline, said they weren’t thinking just about points and were simply trying to get a good finish as always. But as the regular season draws to a close and Playoff talk comes in full force, that attitude will surely change.

Notably, three-time New Hampshire winner Ryan Newman, who holds the pole position record at New Hampshire, will be racing the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing car in his second start of the season alongside Xfinity Series regular and former Stewart-Haas driver Cole Custer.

On the technical side, Goodyear will bring softer tires to the track as NASCAR tries to improve the raceability of the Next Gen car on short tracks. Drivers have so far this season complained about a lack of tire wear making it difficult to pass drivers through the run.

Another technical development will take place at New Hampshire after the race, when several drivers, including Bell, will test a new design of splitter designed to slow the cars in front and speed up the cars behind.

Practice for the Crayon 301 is Saturday at 12:05 p.m. followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 12:50 p.m. on USA Network.

Xfinity Series returns to short track racing at the Magic Mile

The 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway is called the ‘Magic Mile’ for a reason: it puts on a great show, especially for the Xfinity Series. Saturday’s Ambetter Health 200 (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) brings the same expectations.

In 35 Xfinity Series races at the track, there have been 27 different winners, for instance.

Only defending winner Justin Allgaier has won at the track of all this year’s entrants. He also has eight top tens in eleven starts, and should come in with confidence to this year’s race.

But Cole Custer can give him a run for his money. He’s finished in the top ten every time in his three starts at the track in the series.

“I love going to New Hampshire,” Custer said. “I love seeing the fans up there because of how hardcore they are. It’s a very technical and difficult racetrack for a driver, though. It can be very awkward, and it can be a challenge. But overall, that’s what makes it fun for us.”

It’s definitely not an easy track to do well at, he added.

“The plan is always to compete for the win, but this track isn’t always the kindest to us drivers,” he added. “New Hampshire’s just so hard because you have to roll the corners so long and modulate the brake pedal in order to do well at this track. It’s a very tricky race.”

“You have to be patient so you don’t overdrive the cars and get yourself into trouble. It can honestly be a challenge for a driver, but I’m ready for it. Hopefully, I can keep calm and bring home a strong finish this weekend.”

While Custer has locked himself into a Playoff berth with two wins, both at road courses, his teammate Riley Herbst sits in the twelfth point position with nine races to go before the Playoffs actually begin. He’s had a spate of bad luck in recent weeks, and says his goal is just to complete the race and be in position for points at the end.

“The plan is simple – survive and get back on track,” Herbst said. “We had some bad luck in both Chicago and Atlanta, so we want to get back to where we were at the beginning of the season. There have been a lot of ups and downs, so I really want to end these final races of the regular season strong.”

Just behind Herbst in the thirteenth position is hard-charging Connecticut native Parker Kligerman, who will be looking for success at his home track. He’s just six points below the cutline heading into New Hampshire.

Notably, Truck Series regular Rajah Caruth will be behind the wheel of the No. 44 Alpha Prime Racing car, making his fifth Xfinity Series start.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series gets underway with practice at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday followed by qualifying at 5:35 p.m. ET – both sessions air live on USA Network and will be streamed on the NBC Sports App.

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE – JULY 17: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 DeWalt Toyota, spins after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2022 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Crayon 301
The Place: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, July 16
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,520,319
TV: USA Network, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 318.46 miles (301 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 301)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Ambetter Health 200
The Place: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, July 15
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,226,689
TV: USA Network, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 211.6 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Owen Johnson