Loudon, NH (SportsNetwork.com) - After winning last Sunday's rain-shortened race at Daytona, Aric Almirola became the 11th different driver to virtually guarantee himself a position in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Eight races remain before the Chase begins, and five spots are up for grabs.
This year, NASCAR has expanded the Chase field to 16. The top-15 drivers with the most wins during the 26-race regular season will become eligible for the playoffs, provided they have finished in the top-30 in points. The 16th and final position will go to the driver who is the highest in points without a victory.
Jimmie Johnson is currently atop NASCAR's Chase grid by virtue of his three wins. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick are ranked 2-6, respectively, on the grid with two victories each. Jeff Gordon (7th), Kyle Busch (8th), Denny Hamlin (9th), Almirola (10th) and Kurt Busch (11th) have one win apiece.
Sitting fifth in the point standings, Matt Kenseth is the highest-ranked driver who has yet to win this season. Kenseth is 12th on the Chase grid, followed by Ryan Newman (eighth in points), Paul Menard (10th), Clint Bowyer (12th) and rookie Austin Dillon (13th).
Those who are presently outside of the 16-member Chase grid include: Greg Biffle (15th in the point standings), Brian Vickers (16th), rookie Kyle Larson (17th), Kasey Kahne (18th), Marcos Ambrose (19th) and Tony Stewart (20th).
The Sprint Cup Series is racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. This 1.058-mile flat track has featured 12 different winners in the past 12 races.
Vickers won here one year ago. Several weeks after his victory, he was named the full-time driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2014 Sprint Cup season. He ran a partial schedule for MWR in the series during the 2012-13 seasons. His team tested at this track on July 1-2.
"We had a great test up there [at New Hampshire] last week," Vickers said. "I know a lot of other teams tested there as well. It's not going to be easy, but I think we're definitely capable of winning again. It would be a great place to have a repeat win and lock ourselves into the Chase."
Vickers is coming off a second-place finish at Daytona. With wet weather curtailing the race there by 48 laps (120 miles), many drivers, including Vickers, were disappointed that NASCAR called the event early (mid-afternoon) and did not attempt to resume it later at nighttime.
"It was pretty disappointing," Vickers said. "I think that we've had a string of some tough races after a really good start to the season. So just having the solid finish probably has a lot of value. We were more happy about that. We were pleased, but we were not satisfied. We wanted to win. When you're that close and you can taste it, you want to fight for it."
Kenseth had the most victories in the series last year with seven. His most recent win came in September at New Hampshire (the second race in the Chase). He finished ninth in the July race here.
Before joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, Kenseth struggled somewhat at New Hampshire.
"New Hampshire has probably been one of my worst tracks statistically over the last eight or nine years, up until last year," Kenseth said. "Last year, I thought we ran pretty well in both of our races there and of course we were able to win the fall race where I thought our car handled pretty good overall.
"It's just one of those tracks where you have to turn good in the corner and still be able to get off the corner. It's about keeping up your middle of the corner momentum the best you can, which is typical of any flat or short track."
Jeff Burton holds the record for most Sprint Cup wins at New Hampshire with four. Burton is scheduled to make his second start of the season this weekend, driving the No. 66 Toyota for MWR and Jay Robinson Racing.
Kurt Busch, Gordon, Johnson, Newman and Stewart have the second most wins at this track with three each.
Newman's most recent victory in the series came in the 2013 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (34 races ago). He is in his first season with Richard Childress Racing after driving for Stewart-Haas Racing from 2009-13.
"If you look at my resume, you can't argue about my chances at Loudon [New Hampshire]," Newman said. "My first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win came there [2002 rookie season]. It's a place where I have the most wins in my career. Loudon is the place where I believe I can score my first victory with RCR and the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet team."
In 2011, SHR scored a season-sweep at New Hampshire, with Newman winning the July race and Stewart taking the checkered flag in the September event.
"Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race," Stewart said. "I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Camping World RV Sales 301.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, July 13. Race: Camping World RV Sales 301. Site: New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Track: 1.058-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 301. Miles: 318.46. 2013 Winner: Brian Vickers. Television: TNT. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.