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5 things to watch as NASCAR returns to New Hampshire

July 13, 2017 GMT

It’s time to get back to racing in New England with the arrival of NASCAR in New Hampshire this week.

The Overton’s 301 comes to New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday in what will be the last year the track hosts two NASCAR races. The Monster Energy Cup Series has produced 11 different winners so far this season, including three first timers — Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. top the standings with three wins while up-and-coming star Kyle Larson leads in driver points with 710.

Here are five things to look for as NASCAR returns to the Magic Mile:

1. SET IN STAGES

In January, NASCAR introduced its new “stage racing” scoring format, which implements three stages and two pre-determined breaks in each race. It applied the change to the Cup series as well as the secondary Xfinity series. The system awards drivers running in the top 10 during each stage with additional championship and playoffs points. The format was introduced in the Daytona 500 with the intention of creating more green flag racing. So far, that’s worked. Stage racing has brought 40 percent more green flag action in the 18 points races this season.

2. THE LONG GOODBYE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 times in a career that began in 1999. But Earnhardt announced in April that he would retire after the season for health reasons, and that will leave a huge void in the sport’s fan base. Earnhardt, a mainstay on the Hendricks Motorsports team, last year suffered a concussion during a July race at Kentucky. It kept him out of the season’s final 18 races. Earnhardt has 26 wins in 600 starts, including victories at Daytona in 2004 and 2014, but he isn’t departing the scene in a blaze of glory. Earnhardt is 21st in the standings with 332 points in 18 races with one pole. He has just one top-5 finish and four in the top 10.

3. THE YEAR OF KYLE LARSON

He’s only 24, but Larson has become one of the elite drivers in the Cup series in just his fourth season. Larson will begin Sunday’s race inside the No. 42 Chevrolet and atop the driver points standings. In 18 starts, Larson has wins at California and Michigan, in addition to six second-place finishes, eight in the top 5, and 11 in the top 10. Larson and teammate Jamie McMurray have elevated Chip Ganassi Racing into the rarified air that’s typically been reserved for super teams like Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendricks Motorsports and Penske Racing.

4. BUSCH THE ELDER

Kurt Busch is in the twilight of what could end up as a Hall of Fame career and has enjoyed phenomenal success with 29 career wins over 18 seasons on the Cup circuit. Busch, 38, began this season with a major hole in his resume — one that he rectified on the first race of the campaign when he roared by Larson on the final lap to take the checkered flag in the crash-filled Daytona 500. The victory was extra sweet because Busch had finished runner-up at Daytona three times. Busch hasn’t visited Victory Lane since Daytona, but has bounced back from a slump with four top-10 finishes in the last eight races. And his win at Daytona also secured a spot for him in the NASCAR playoffs.

5. A PHOENIX RISING

Last year, Ryan Newman was a casualty of the playoff format that places an emphasis on winning races over merely collecting points. Newman, a mainstay among points leaders, hadn’t won a race since the Brickyard 400 in July 2013 on his hometown track at Indianapolis. Newman’s winless skid might have contributed to his messy divorce from Stewart-Hass Racing. Competing now under the banner of Richard Childress Racing, Newman ended his 127-race drought with an improbable, come-from-behind victory at Phoenix in March. The victory puts Newman back in the NASCAR playoff picture, currently ranked ninth.