By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
LOUDON, N.H. -- New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a New England gem and a NASCAR original.
The flat 1.058-mile track, which is nestled in the bucolic countryside just south of popular vacation spot Lake Winnipesaukee, has been playing host to Sprint Cup races since 1993 (twice annually since 1996).
Beyond the rustic setting, the unusual accents and the preponderance of Dunkin' Donuts stores per capita, there's another reason the oval is distinctive in NASCAR's premier series.
During the eight seasons of the Chase for the Sprint Cup era, the eventual Sprint Cup champion has won at New Hampshire four times. It's happened the past two years with Jimmie Johnson (in July 2010) and Tony Stewart (last September).
Perhaps the only other track that has offered such a barometer for championship contenders is Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Brickyard 400 winner also has won the championship that season in eight of 18 runnings.
Though the track built by Bob Bahre lacks Indianapolis' storied reverence and tapestry, New Hampshire has become beloved among many Cup drivers because of its quirky characteristics and tricky nature.
"It is a tough track; there's no doubt," Johnson said. "What we do here and the type of race setup doesn't really apply to anywhere else, though. So, maybe it falls into that Indy category."
Also unique about New Hampshire: No Earnhardt ever has won here in Sprint Cup.
That doesn't dampen Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s enthusiasm for the oval, which he says is among his favorites because it's "in my wheelhouse" because of its short-track traits. Earnhardt uses the apron to help turn his No. 88 Chevrolet through the corners because drifting above the groove hits a seam that can cause a skid into the wall.
"It's not really a short track, and it's not your typical mile and a half," Earnhardt said. "It's different and it's fun. The race is the perfect length and just everything about it is enjoyable. There is urgency all the time, which is fun. There is excitement all the time inside the cockpit, which is fun. Every lap and every car you are around is important because the race is so short."
Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 is 301 laps for a distance of 318.46 miles. Only a handful of races (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix) are shorter in distance.
"You have to race really hard because every position -- even in the first 100 laps -- is the one you might not get back in the next two 200," Earnhardt said. "It just goes by so quick, you can't really be too patient. You have to work every lap. It's a driver's race track, and I just really enjoy running here. Always have."
While Earnhardt is seeking his first win at Loudon, a victory would mean even more to many drivers in the hunt for a Chase for the Sprint Cup wild card.
With eight races left in the "regular season" before the field is reset for a 10-race title fight among 12 drivers, the race is tight for the final two slots. Kyle Busch, ranked 12th, holds the top wild-card spot, followed by Joey Logano (14th), who is one point ahead of Ryan Newman.
But Carl Edwards (11th) or Paul Menard (13th) could jump into a wild-card slot if either earns his first win of the season Sunday. Busch, Logano, Newman and Kasey Kahne also could change the dynamic by winning their second race.
The wide-open field and its fluid dynamics have left it nearly impossible to handicap. Busch gained an edge by capturing his first pole position of the season Friday, but he still has his eye on Newman (a three-time winner at New Hampshire, including 2011).
"The guy ran really well here last year, he's got a win, and
if he wins then he locks himself into the first wild card spot," said Busch, whose No. 18 Toyota has been plagued by mechanical failures this year. "We need to get a win for sure. We also just need our finishing position to match how we're running."
Kahne, who qualified second, said he wouldn't count out anyone in the top 20. Past New Hampshire winners Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are among those who also could move into the wild-card discussion with a victory.
"If you're able to knock off two wins, you'd be the guy," Kahne said.
Denny Hamlin, working with interim crew chief Mike Wheeler while awaiting the Sunday arrival of Darian Grubb (whose wife delivered their second child Monday), has set the pace for most of the weekend. He qualified third and was fastest in both practices Saturday.
This circuit's two winningest drivers also are on Sunday's list of favorites. Stewart, who won last week at Daytona International Speedway, scored his third victory at New Hampshire last September.
Brad Keselowski, who is tied with Stewart for the series lead with three wins, won his first career Cup pole position here in September 2010 and captured a Nationwide pole for the third straight year Saturday.
He finished second to Stewart at Loudon last September. Taking that next step with his first victory here would stamp his No. 2 Dodge as a serious title threat for the second straight season.
New Hampshire is the second stop in the Chase -- and the first of eight tracks that are appearing for the second time this season.
Keselowski said that might be why New Hampshire is such a strong indicator for title contenders.
"It speaks to the strengths of a team that's able to get better at those tracks that you're coming to for the second time, and that's really important in the Chase," the Penske Racing driver said. "That's probably more the rationale than anything specifically about Loudon. I don't think there is any other track that's like it in the Chase or really throughout the season. There's nothing like it. That's not a bad thing."