All you need to know for Sunday's NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a look at the drivers and storylines to follow.
Hamlin's last stand
After a four-race absence due to a compression fracture in his back, Denny Hamlin returned at Talladega 71 points out of 20th place and eligible for a Chase wild card. While it would take a high performance level in addition to some luck, qualifying for the playoffs would not be impossible.
This belief was avowed when he finished second at Darlington and fourth at Charlotte in consecutive races. But following Memorial Day weekend it's been a downward spiral for Hamlin, who has repeatedly been involved in crunching accidents at Dover, Kentucky and again last week at Daytona. Consequently, he enters New Hampshire a whopping 122 points behind 20th-place Paul Menard; a nearly insurmountable margin with only eight regular season races remaining.
But if Hamlin is going to make one last push to salvage his Chase hopes there is no better track to do so than New Hampshire. The one-mile oval is one of his best with two victories including last September when he led 193 of 300 laps. And overall, he has finished third or better in five of the previous seven events.
A win and his playoff aspirations will still have life -- though remote. Anything less and it might be time for Hamlin to consider looking ahead to 2014.
The defending champ needs a spark
If the Chase were to begin this weekend, the defending Sprint Cup champion would not qualify, as Brad Keselowski is presently winless and 13th in points.
But a record-breaking run in qualifying gave Keselowski his first pole position in over two years. More importantly on a circuit where track position is vital, this might be the boost he needs to end a slump that has seen him post just a single top 10 in his last 10 starts.
While a win would do wonders for Keselowski Sunday, it isn't essential. More than anything what he needs to do is leave New Hampshire with a top-five result.
Can Johnson come from the back?
In the past six weeks Jimmie Johnson has overpowered the competition with two wins and has remarkably led 43.5 percent of all laps run. And without mistakes in strategy and execution, he could easily have won five of the six races.
By all appearances that dominance looked to continue this weekend when Johnson laid down the second-fastest lap in qualifying. But when NASCAR officials discovered that the 48 car was too low in inspection, the points leader time was disallowed and thusly Johnson will have to start last in the 43-car field.
On a track where passing can be a challenge, this puts Johnson at a significant disadvantage -- though not an insurmountable one. Whether this will be enough to keep him out of Victory Lane for the third time in six weeks remains to be seen. But we do know that in the 36 New Hampshire races, six have been won by a driver starting 30th or worse.
- Repeat winners at New Hampshire are an uncommon sight lately, as the last 10 races have been won by 10 different drivers.
- Jeff Gordon hasn't won on the "Magic Mile" since 2004, but he leads all drivers in top fives (16), top 10s (21) and laps led (1,316) in 36 career starts.
- Starting 41st, 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd will become the oldest driver to take the green flag in a Sprint Cup race.
1) Clint Bowyer
Sitting a quiet second in points, Bowyer is still in search of his first victory of the year. But that win could come here, a track where he's won twice previously and finished third and fourth a year ago. Not to mention the No. 15 car has been among the fastest in every practice and showed speed on the long runs. This is critical as events here tend to see prolonged stretches of green-flag racing.
2) Denny Hamlin
Although he may not be peaking as of late, no driver has a better average finish at New Hampshire than Denny Hamlin (7.9) and that can't be ignored. He should have won both races here a year ago and only miscommunication on his final pit stop kept him from completing the sweep.
3) Jimmie Johnson
If Johnson weren't starting dead last on a track where it's tough to pass, he would unquestionably be ranked higher. Alas, he's not. But as Hamlin proved here in the fall when he qualified 32nd and went on to win, a poor starting position can be overcome with a speedy car and astute pit strategy.
It's been a tumultuous week for Ryan Newman, who found out Wednesday he's losing his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the year. But with three New Hampshire wins along with top 10s in six of the previous seven races here, he's more than a viable dark horse candidate.