LOUDON, New Hampshire (AP) — At least a handful of the drivers racing in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire will be thinking about another race here in September.

The second race of the season on the 1.058-mile oval will be the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship, contested among the 12 top drivers in the season points.

There are 10 races left in the regular season. But for the drivers and teams expecting to be part of the Chase, the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on Sunday is a key learning experience.

“I think this is a very important race,” said Kurt Busch, whose victory in the fall of 2004 helped propel him to the championship in the first year of the Chase format. “This starts the Chase when we come back here in September. That’s how I looked at it in 2004 and that helped, at the time, give the team a big jump.

“We moved from seventh all the way up to second in points by starting off strong.”

Busch, who has since moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Penske Racing, said it’s always important to learn as much as you can from the first of two races in a season at the same track.

“Even though California is the second race of the year, you know in the back of your mind that it’s a Chase race when you go back there in October,” he said. “So it fits with all the other tracks that we’ve been to thus far that fit into the Chase.”

Qualifying was rained out Friday, setting the race lineup by owner points. But Busch, currently ninth in the points, said the Penske team was thinking ahead to September.

“We knew that it was going to rain … and it might wash out qualifying,” he said. “We stayed in race trim to get (some) things ironed out. But I thought that it was important for us to at least get one qualifying run in. That way, when we come back here in September, we know where that’s going to shake out for us. You always have to plan ahead when it’s a Chase race.”

Jeff Gordon, second in the points and a four-time champion, echoed Busch.

“We feel like this is a very important race, very important track,” Gordon said. “We are in a position in the points to be a little more risky in our setup, in our pit strategy. But the most important thing is getting the car really dialed in this weekend so that when we come back for the Chase, that we start it off right.”

WORKING OUT

Jeff Gordon’s recent back problems have had an unexpected upside.

“The thing with my back is it’s almost a blessing in disguise because I’ve always been fairly fit without having to do much,” the four-time Cup champion said. “And I think that because of that, my core had gotten a little bit weak, and I think over the last few years, especially with some wrecks, it’s contributed to my back problems.

“Now, I’m getting much stronger. So I’m actually in better physical shape than I’ve been in a long time and still have a ways to go. But I think it’s actually going to help me be more prepared for the end of the year and the Chase than anything else.”

Gordon, second in the season points, said the lower back pain did not effect him much last week on the road course at Sonoma. And he doesn’t expect much of a problem Sunday on New Hampshire’s flat oval.

“So far, I think Bristol, maybe Richmond, those tracks have been the toughest on me,” he said. “And they’re not in the Chase. So we’ll be in good shape.”

HEAD MAN

Marcos Ambrose was walking around the garage area Saturday wearing a camouflage Army bucket hat sent to him by members of an Australian army unit serving in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The hat, similar to a brimmed fishing hat, came along with a letter from Task Force 633 International Security Assistance Force expressing support for the Australian Cup driver. The servicemen also thanks the JTG-Daugherty Racing team and Ambrose for reminding them of the “enjoyable things in life” and “making a difference in their lives.”

Ambrose, who has worn the hat almost nonstop since he received it earlier this week, said, “I’m wearing it to support them and they’ve been wearing my Little Debbie (sponsor) hat to support us.”


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