The Playoff picture is in full focus heading into New Hampshire

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 17: A general view of racing from the grandstands during the NASCAR Cup Series Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2023 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

With under ten races to go, the battle to make the Playoffs is on. Counting the USA Today 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, airing at 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Sunday, there are nine races to make the postseason.

NASCAR’s champion is determined in an elimination format, with multiple rounds leading up to the finale at Phoenix. Every driver therefore has a chance. A win makes that much more likely, although is no guarantee as there are currently only six spots available for drivers without a win.

Odds via BetMGM
+450 – Christopher Bell
+500 – Martin Truex
+600 – Denny Hamlin
+600 – Kyle Larson
+700 – Ryan Blaney
+800 – Joey Logano
+1200 – William Byron
+1400 – Chase Elliott
+1600 – Brad Keselowski
+1800 – Tyler Reddick

One of those is currently occupied by Ross Chastain. While he’s struggled to reach victory lane this season, Chastain has been consistently up front, leading 118 laps and earning six top tens. That gives him a buffer of about 70 points to the cutline, but that is far from secure, especially if new winners from below the cutline take up spots. And there are plenty of strong contenders below the cutline.

“I’m fighting for a playoff spot with my heroes,” Chastain said. “It’s pretty wild to look at the list. I try to keep a broad view of what’s on the horizon so in those high risk moments on track that I’m a little better equipped. The names I’m up against are past champions and heroes.

“I’m focused on each race and so is my team. We’ve had some fast cars this year its just that we’ve had things happen out of our control.”

However, Chastain admits that New Hampshire is a challenging place to build up positive momentum. He’s never finished better than eighth at the 1.05-mile short track.

New Hampshire is one of the more challenging tracks for me. We only go there once a year and its also my crew chief’s (Phil Surgen) home track. Qualifying is important every week but it’s really important at New Hampshire because of the quick pace and its so easy to go down a lap quickly,” he explained.

With all that in mind, a look down the points standings might not be comforting. Two defending champions, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, are both currently below the cutline. Both certainly can win at New Hampshire – Logano has twice and Busch has thrice in the past – and if they do, they would push Chastain closer to the cutline himself.

Logano’s Team Penske organization is on a hot streak at the moment too. He won at the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro, although that was not an official win locking him into the Playoffs. His teammates Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney both secured wins themselves, too, at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and at Iowa respectively. All those wins have come on short tracks, which New Hampshire is.

Logano’s crew chief Paul Wolfe highlighted the team’s recent success at the short tracks.

“I think in general our short track setups, I guess, or maybe philosophy, has just always worked well back to the days that I worked with Brad [Keselowski]. I think that was always a strength and then we were able to adapt that to Joey and find some things, and I think he’s studied a lot over the years as well, having Brad as a teammate and understanding some of his techniques and what-not,” Wolfe explained.

“Even as you look at the past couple years with the Next Gen car, at times when we struggle for speed on mile-and-a-halves or road course, we always kind of have our short track program to fall back on and we’ve been able to find some success there, at least have good, solid runs. I think that’s obviously continued for us this year as well,” he added. “Obviously, our teammates have been able to find victory lane on the short tracks, so we’re hoping it’s our turn this weekend.”

As the season continues on, Logano increasingly needs to find that speed and secure either a win or at least a streak of strong runs. For the two-time champion, failing to make the Playoffs at all looks like a real possibility coming into New Hampshire. But Logano has proven in the past that he should never be counted out.

Practice will air on USA and will be streamed on the NBC Sports App at 12:35 p.m. ET on Saturday followed by qualifying at 1:20 p.m. ET.

LOUDON, NH – JULY 17: cars enter turn three during the Crayon 301 on July 17, 2023, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Some Xfinity teams must embrace New Hampshire’s ‘challenge’ to get a must-needed win

Saturday’s SciApps 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, airing at 3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, is the only time the Xfinity Series will visit the New Hampshire Motor Speedway this season. That presents a unique challenge for every driver in the field.

It also means opportunity. Saturday marks eleven races to go in the Xfinity Series schedule and just four Playoff spots remain – any driver who wants a position in the postseason and the chance to fight for a championship can master New Hampshire and get it.

Justin Allgaier, who’s already won this season, is the only Xfinity Series driver to have won at the track before. That leaves plenty of room for someone new.

Two drivers competing for that position are Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer and Riley Herbst. The team announced Thursday that SHR’s Xfinity Series team will continue next season as part of the new Haas Factory Team, with one Cup Series charter, making every race a job interview for each of the team’s drivers.

For Custer, whose father will lead the Haas Factory Team next year, success at New Hampshire requires embracing the challenge.

“Honestly, I love going to New Hampshire,” Custer said. “This track is a very technical and difficult racetrack for a driver, though. It can be very awkward and challenging to drive because of the flatter turns. Overall, that’s what makes it fun for us, but it throws an extra curveball in there if your car isn’t handling just right. We’ve been searching for a win all season and while we’ve been close, I think we just need that little bit more to find it.”

Herbst agrees that New Hampshire is a challenge, but it’s one he’s prepared to conquer. The driver of the No. 98 broke through for his first Xfinity Series win last season and will be hoping to do so again.

“The plan is very simple this weekend– survive and run up front. We’ve struggled at New Hampshire the past few years, so I really hope that we can get back on track, earn another career-best finish, and go for the win,” Herbst said.

“It’s one of those tracks that I’ve struggled to wrap my head around in the past. New Hampshire has always been a fun track for me, but we got involved in a wreck two years ago that wasn’t of our own doing and then had issues last year, as well. We have the speed to run well, so hopefully you’ll see that this weekend and we can find our way to victory lane.”

In addition to the standard roster of series regulars, however, Custer, Herbst, and others will have to face some extra challenges. Cup Series drivers Alex Bowman and Christopher Bell will be competing at New Hampshire, getting some extra seat time for their race on Sunday, in the Nos. 17 and 20 respectively.

Additionally, short track aces Carson Kvapil and Justin Bonsignore will drive the No. 88 and No. 19 respectively. Kvapil impressed in his debut at Martinsville, following that up by leading laps at Dover. Bonsignore is a three-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, who’s won many times in the Tour at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Practice will air on USA and will be streamed on the NBC Sports App at 4:05 p.m. ET on Friday followed by qualifying at 4:45 p.m. ET.

Owen Johnson