Reality sets in for NH NASCAR fans with schedule release – Concord Monitor

Perhaps the biggest news from the week leading up to Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 concerns not this season, but the next one.

Racing fans in the Northeast had to face the reality that there will not be a September race in Loudon next year as NASCAR unveiled its schedule for 2018. Instead, the playoffs will open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Loudon will host its final playoff race for the foreseeable future on Sept. 24. From there, NASCAR will visit New Hampshire just once each season. NHMS had previously hosted two races every year since 1997.

The effect of sputtering numbers in the attendance and overall viewership of NASCAR events is not limited to the auto racing body itself. Losing the fall race is unfortunate for fans and the local economy in Loudon and beyond.

NASCAR is trying to tap into the next generation of racing fans, and it hasn’t stood pat in its attempt to do so. The races themselves were changed when stages were introduced this season, and that has bode well so far, making the races more exciting from start to finish.

Altering the schedule is done in the same vein. New Hampshire, like many tracks, is trying to fill seats. A look across the stands during race weekend in September told us that has not been easy. NASCAR looks to Vegas as a new frontier, and it’s not the only sports body doing so. NFL owners saw untapped potential in Sin City and approved the Raiders to uproot from Oakland and head to Nevada. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will see his league welcome the Las Vegas Golden Knights at the start of next season.

“It’s a little unfortunate for the New Hampshire folks because there are tons of race fans up there and a lot of die-hard short track modified racers and families up there that like to come to the Cup race,” Cup series driver and fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. said last week. “But Vegas is certainly a great market for us, and one of the West Coast markets that works really well.”

NASCAR is trying desperately to keep its brand relevant in the modern age of sports entertainment. Loudon losing one of its two races is only part of this pursuit.

Coca-Cola 600

The longest race of the year tends to favor veteran drivers who have experienced the 600-mile haul at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and polesitter Kevin Harvick seems poised to lead a fast pack of Stewart-Haas Racing Fords around the 1.5-mile oval.

Harvick earned his third Cup Series pole of the season, his first ever at Charlotte, with a fast lap of 193.42 mph. He later went on to place second in Saturday’s Hisense 4K TV 300, his third top-five finish in the Xfinity Series this year.

“It was breathtaking because it was so edgy to drive,” Harvick said after qualifying Thursday. “But loose is fast. … It was a hairy lap but the car went well through turns three and four.”

Eight different drivers have won the Coca-Cola 600 in its last 10 runs. Jimmie Johnson has been most dominant at NASCAR’s home track with eight wins there, but just three since 2009.

The pole position favored last year’s Coca-Cola 600 winner, Martin Truex Jr., who led 392 of 400 laps.

At the other end of the grid is points leader Kyle Larson, whose missed chance at a qualifying lap has him starting from the back row. Larson couldn’t get his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet to start after rolling off the platform for pre-qualifying inspection. The car passed inspection, but it was too late to reach the platform after Larson’s crew spent time repairing damage from a crash during practice.

It was a frustrating way to start the weekend for Larson, who has five top-five finishes this year and a win at Fontana in March.

“I’m upset at myself for getting into the wall in practice there because it put us behind on getting to the tech line,” Larson said. “We still failed a couple of times. The machine wouldn’t work there, late, and it cost us a minute or minute and a half, and we actually passed. … I won’t speak too much on it because I don’t know much about how that whole tech process works. I know all the teams hate it. The teams point at NASCAR. NASCAR points at the teams. It’s confusing to me.”

Larson posted the fastest lap in Saturday morning’s practice session, though, with a speed of 186.40 mph. He will have plenty of time to climb the ladder in the 400-lap race, and could still have a shot to claim stage points if he runs well. Rather than the usual three stages, Charlotte will feature four 100-lap stages on Sunday.

“Charlotte is a hard place to pass at, but you’ve got 600 miles to do it,” Larson said. “I typically don’t qualify well here anyway, so I come from the back here a lot. So, I’m not too worried about it. I’ve won races from 24th in a sprint car in 30 laps. 600 miles should be okay.”

Drivers may make more attempts to pass on Sunday since NASCAR added a layer of traction compound to the top groove in each turn corner. The sticky substance has never before been used on an asphalt track like Charlotte.

Harvick believes it will be an improvement from last weekend’s All-Star race at the track.

“The only groove that was there for the All-Star race was the bottom groove,” Harvick said. “I went up there and tried the middle and tried the top, and while you could go through there, you just couldn’t make any speed like you could on the bottom. … It’s definitely going to make a difference and hopefully it widens the racetrack out and we can have grooves all over the track.”

NASCAR in Loudon

Fans will have a chance to see drivers from NASCAR’s top series take laps around the Magic Mile at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this week.

Among the Cup drivers to participate in testing at Loudon are Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Ryan Newman, Trevor Bayne, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney. Busch (’06, ‘15), Newman (’02, ‘05, ‘11), Keselowski (’11), Bowyer (’07, ‘10) and Kahne (’12) have previously won Cup races at NHMS.

Testing will run noon to 7 p.m. on Tuesday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Infield and grandstand access will be open to the public with free admission. More information can be found online at

Busy day

Sunday is packed with three major events that span the racing world.

The Monaco Grand Prix (8 a.m., NBC) fires off in the morning, followed by the Indianapolis 500 (noon, ABC) and the Coca-Cola 600 in the evening at 6 p.m. on Fox.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)