The battle for who will make this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has been heating up the past couple of weeks, much like the sweltering heat wave throughout most of the country.
With eight races remaining in the regular season, just 14 points separate fifth-place Tony Stewart from 10th-place Clint Bowyer. The two wild card spots are very much up for grabs right now as well.
The top-10 drivers in points after the September 8 race at Richmond will qualify for the Chase, and the wild cards will go to the non-top-10-ranked competitors with the most wins, as long as they're ranked in the top 20 in points.
Two weeks ago, Bowyer was coming off of his first road course win at Sonoma, CA and held the seventh spot in the point standings, but after finishing 16th at Kentucky and then 29th at Daytona, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is on the bubble.
Fortunately, Bowyer is heading to one of his best racetracks in Sprint Cup this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Bowyer, in his first season with MWR, is the only repeat winner at this 1.058-mile track in the past nine races. His first of six career wins so far came at New Hampshire in September 2007.
"The last couple of weekends have not been very good," Bowyer said. "Daytona was kind of a disaster for us, but I'm looking forward to getting into New Hampshire where I usually have a pretty good run."
New Hampshire is one of two tracks where he has won multiple times. Talladega is the other.
"(New Hampshire) is just one of those tracks where I feel like we can win again, but more importantly, we can get things steered back in the right direction, like we had through the month of June," Bowyer said. "We had a lot of solid runs right there, and that's what it takes, especially at this point in the year. We had the win. If we can get ourselves another win, it would be huge. But the biggest thing is don't do something stupid and knock ourselves out of this Chase."
Stewart and ninth-place Brad Keselowski are in great shape to qualify for the Chase, with each driver scoring three wins already for the season. Keselowski won at Kentucky, and then Stewart claimed the victory at Daytona.
However, Stewart received a loss of six points as part of his team's penalty for an illegal open vent hose discovered in his car during post-qualifying inspection at Daytona.
Last year, Stewart was almost flawless at New Hampshire. He finished second to teammate Ryan Newman in the July race and then won the fall event. Stewart's win there last September was his second of five victories in last season's Chase.
Kevin Harvick is tied with Stewart in points (586), while Denny Hamlin and Bowyer's teammate, Martin Truex Jr., are just two markers behind them. Keselowski is only one point ahead of Bowyer.
Kyle Busch presently holds the first wild card spot. Busch is 12th in the standings (-56 points behind Bowyer) and has one win (Richmond spring race). Joey Logano occupies the final wild card position, based on his victory at Pocono and 14th in points (-69 from 10th place).
Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne sit third and fourth, respectively, in the wild card standings. Newman, currently 15th in the rankings, won at Martinsville, and Kahne, 16th, took the checkered flag at Charlotte.
Eleventh-place Carl Edwards and 13th-place Paul Menard have yet to win a race this season. Edwards trails Bowyer by 31 points heading into New Hampshire.
Like Bowyer, Newman is glad New Hampshire is the next race on the schedule. He has three wins there, including his first career Cup victory in the fall of 2002.
"I used to say New Hampshire was my least favorite racetrack, but it's far from that now," Newman said. "It's still not my favorite racetrack, but I really look forward to coming back there each year. New Hampshire has always been a good place for me. I'm not 100 percent sure why. It's the place of my first win, and when I hadn't won in a long while, 70-some races, I won again there. Last July, we were able to qualify and finish 1-2 at Stewart-Haas. So, I really look forward to it."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, July 15. Race: Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Site: New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Track: 1.058-mile oval. Start time: 1:00 p.m.(ET). Laps: 301. Miles: 318.46. 2011 Winner: Ryan Newman. Television: TNT. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.