- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The July race at New Hampshire International Speedway, once just another midsummer stop on the Nextel Cup Series circuit, is no longer simply another race since the advent of the 10-race Chase to decide the sport's champion.
After all, the Chase starts at New Hampshire in September, so a strong run here may not just help a driver reach the Chase in the first place, but may set him up to start it on a high note.
Jeff Burton is looking like a safe bet to make the Chase with eight races to go, but don't try telling him that. The one thing he will agree with is that this weekend is quite important.
"I think all of the next eight races are exceptionally important. If you look at the points from third to 12th, they are really tight," said Burton, a four-time winner at the track. "I think certainly the first two guys, Jimmie [Johnson] and Matt [Kenseth], their teams, they are looking at this as the first of two races, and obviously the first one of the last 10, and they can learn a lot in this first race to apply to the second race.
"The rest of us are looking at this as this race and this race only and then when the race is over, we'll look at it and say what can we learn for next one. If you're the 17 or 48, you want to experiment just a little better, and they're in a position to do that. The rest of us are fighting real hard to make sure we get into the Chase."
Even if Burton were sitting atop the points standings, you get the idea he wouldn't be thinking ahead to the Chase all that much. Winless since 2001, Burton is enjoying a resurgence with Richard Childress Racing.
And the way he's gotten there is by taking things a week at a time. Sure, the crew may be looking ahead while preparing cars for upcoming races, but the driver's focus never wavers.
"That's one of the reasons we're better," Burton said. "Our company is stronger. Our support systems back at the shop from an aerodynamic standpoint, from an engine standpoint, from an engineering standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, we've stepped it up in every category. We have reorganized, rebuilt, restructured everything. And most of those things are working better than they were."
Burton credits crew chief Scott Miller with making a big difference on the team, but said that as good as things are going, there's still room for improvement.
Once the wins start coming, Burton will be satisfied. Well, actually he said he'll be more satisfied once the team is winning and leading the points.
"There's people that are doing better than us. We've got to step it up," he said. "We're having a good year, but we're not where we want to be. If we want to be good, that's where we are, but we're striving for excellence. We're striving for greatness. I think we have the people. I think we have the drive and the commitment to get it done. But we're not getting it done. We're not competing at the highest level. We are competing at a high level, but we are not competing at the highest level.
"And in this sport, if you're going to have continued success, you've got to compete at the highest level because the bad days drag you down in the points and they drag you down in a lot of ways, and you've got to be strong, to be bigger than that. That's what we're striving for."
Following complaints the New Hampshire track was too flat for drivers to pass, owner Bob Bahre made modifications that have improved the racing. That means Burton has had to alter an approach that led to success there in the past.
"You used to be able to turn the car pretty decent around the corner and get good rear grip off the corner, and you could have a lot of success," Burton said. "Today, you've got to fly through the middle of the corner and you've got to fly on exit. It's just unbelievable how different it is. It's so much faster than it used to be as far as the corner speed.
"So the way you win there is quite a bit different, and the way you've got to have your car handle is quite a bit different. And the sport has changed, [and the] track has changed a lot, certainly. I actually like the old racetrack better. But it's changed so much, that without a doubt, there's not a whole lot that you can take from the races before."
Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne also feel the need for strong races at New Hampshire, and it has everything to do with simply making sure in the first place that they make the Chase. They'll worry about what happens in the Chase itself once they're locked into the top 10.
Both Martin and Kahne have been dissatisfied with their finishes the last three weeks, so each is gearing up for the Magic Mile.
And hoping a win here can make a big difference. Kurt Busch won New Hampshire to open the Chase in 2004 and won the title. Tony Stewart didn't win at New Hampshire last September, but did so in July while winning five times in seven races -- building the momentum that carried him to the title.
"We were in championship form the first 10 races of the year. It is important for us to get back on that or else," Martin said. "I mean, it's real important. We expect to run well. It's not my strongest racetrack, but we think it will be one of our strongest racetracks. We really feel good about our car, what we're going to do up there."
Kahne is searching for some consistency.
"We've had three disappointing weekends," Kahne said. "We finished the races, but nowhere in the top 20. We need to get a good top-10, top-five. I guess if everybody is winning the championship after they win that race, it would be a good one to win."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
10dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz