- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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By now, it's smart simply to enter every weekend thinking Carl Edwards is the driver to beat in the Busch Series race. With four wins to his credit, and a number of dominant performances that ended up somewhere short of Victory Lane, the series' runaway points leader is certainly the safe choice.
This weekend, though, Clint Bowyer might beg to differ when asked who should be the favorite. Bowyer dominated this event, the Camping World 200, a year ago but the race didn't play out in his favor. But based on his track record in 200, he might just close the deal this time out.
Bowyer's two Busch wins this year have been at Phoenix and Richmond and he'll be in that same Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet for Saturday's race at New Hampshire International Speedway.
It was one of those deals you just had to laugh off because, clearly, it was our race to lose and we lost. We led something stupid like 127 laps and didn't win. It was a fun day with a bad ending.
"I'm looking forward to going back to New Hampshire and, hopefully, getting the trophy we left behind last year," Bowyer said. "We literally had a dominant race car and pitted under green and, sure enough, the caution came out and we ended up a lap down. We didn't have enough time to get back to the front. It was one of those deals you just had to laugh off because, clearly, it was our race to lose and we lost. We led something stupid like 127 laps and didn't win. It was a fun day with a bad ending."
Bowyer just hopes to be laughing all the way to the checkered flag this time around. If so, the rest of the field won't have all that much to smile about. And a track banked just 12 degrees in the turns and 2 degrees on the straightaways often leaves drivers shaking their head.
Finding the right setup is often an exercise in futility for most drivers, so when you find the setup as Bowyer did a year ago, it's easy to run away with the event -- at least for a stretch at a time.
Bowyer says there's a secret to being fast there, though it's easier said than done.
"New Hampshire has long straightaways, so the car has to roll freely off the gas into the turns so it doesn't get tight in the center of the corner," he said. "That's the main thing at these flat tracks. You have to be able to roll through the center of the corner and get right back in the throttle on exit."
And a car that rolls through the center of the corner is a car that can pass with relative ease.
"You have to be able to get the car to cut in the center of the corner to get underneath another car coming off the corner," Bowyer said. "You have to have a car that is capable of turning in the center of the corner so you can have a little more pull on the wheel to get underneath a guy who is tight up off."
Tony Stewart, who will be in a Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet, says NHIS is a track on which a faster car can take 20 laps to get past a competitor simply because it's so hard to pass there. And although Bowyer's handling pointer is a key, Stewart knows there's another side of the equation as well.
The track may be just a bit more than a mile, but it's still about the horsepower as far as Stewart's concerned.
"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner," Stewart said in explaining a lap around the Magic Mile. "Forward bite is always an issue there too -- trying to get the car to go forward.
"So, it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."
Busch Series rookie Marcos Ambrose figured the shorter, flat tracks would be the venues on which he'd shine this season as he made the adjustment from the Craftsman Truck Series. A road racer by trade, it was easy to assume tracks such as this would provide an edge.
He has quickly realized that isn't the case, but he hopes to begin turning that trend around on Saturday.
"I have a lot of trouble running on these flat, big tracks like Milwaukee and Loudon," Ambrose said. "And even the short flat tracks that are flat, I'm having a bit of trouble on. So, I'm really looking forward to trying to get the monkey off my back and get a good run. Having a good run at Milwaukee was important to us and Loudon is going to be important for us, too, to really try and have a strong run there.
"We're doing great in points but Loudon is fast and flat. As a driver it's one of the most difficult tracks because you're on the edge the whole time around the corners because the car isn't really underneath you because you don't have the banking to help you."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.