LOUDON, NH - SEPTEMBER 25: A general view of race action during the Sylvania 300 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 25, 2011 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Eight races remain before the cutoff point for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason. While all are crucial for championship contenders in their audition for playoff spots, the timing and location of this week's race make it a virtual dress rehearsal.
The Sprint Cup series makes its first stop of the season at New Hamphire Motor Speedway for Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 (1 p.m. ET, TNT). The slightly banked Loudon track holds extra importance as the only venue this late in the season that also has a race date in the Chase.
While teams will be gathering notes for New Hampshire's 300-lapper on Sept. 23, that doesn't mean Sunday's race will be a glorified test session, considering the pressure on drivers vying to lock into the top 10 in points and two wild-card berths for title eligibility.
Carl Edwards, last season's runner-up to Tony Stewart in a spirited run to the championship, is one of those drivers in the direst need. Edwards ranks 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, 31 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer, but the Roush Fenway Racing star -- winless since March 2011 -- sits fifth behind Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in positioning for wild-card slots because of his goose egg in the win column.
Edwards was one of five drivers who participated in a Goodyear tire test at New Hampshire on May 8-9, experience that he hopes will pay dividends come Sunday.
"The New Hampshire race is a hugely important race for everyone in NASCAR because it's in the Chase," said Edwards, who last won 51 races ago. "For us, for my Fastenal team and for me, it's been a really tough race track. So this test is one that I was really excited to come be a part of because it gives me as a driver an opportunity to try to figure this place out a little better and for our whole team to get better."
Gaining ground on Bowyer will require Edwards to reverse recent history at Loudon. Edwards has just three top-10 finishes in 15 tries at the 1.058-mile oval. Conversely, New Hampshire has been one of Bowyer's better tracks, the site of two of his six career Sprint Cup wins.
Bowyer is seeking his fourth Chase berth in his first season for Michael Waltrip Racing, which has failed to qualify a car for NASCAR's postseason since its first full-fledged multicar Sprint Cup effort in 2007. To help make that dream a reality for the resurgent MWR team, Bowyer suggests he won't alter course in the regular season's home stretch.
"I think the key is to maintain the level of confidence, the level of comfort that we've had with one another," Bowyer said. "To keep it fun is a big thing. It gets stressful. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on a team that's on a bubble and making that Chase. It's so important to everything we do -- sponsors, owners, everybody. Everybody gives it their all, but you've got to keep them calm so they can they can make the right decisions they have to make and do the same thing yourself. That's all you can do."
Ryan Newman, the defending 301 champ, and teammate Stewart, the New Hampshire winner last September, combined to score a Loudon season sweep for Stewart-Haas Racing. Sam Hornish Jr., driving in place of the suspended AJ Allmendinger, posted his most recent top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup series at New Hampshire -- a 10th in September 2010.