Sprint Cut cars roar down the front stretch during a restart at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo/Alan MacRae)
By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LOUDON — A little bit of hockey and a little bit of rock 'n roll. That's how two of the biggest races of this weekend will start at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Boston Bruins forward Tim Schaller and Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard will serve as honorary Toyota Camry pace car drivers for the NASCAR XFINITY Series AutoLotto 200 Saturday and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 Sunday.
"It's been a whirlwind week or so. First signing with the Bruins, which is a dream come true for me, and now I get the chance to drive the pace car before a NASCAR race," said Schaller, who signed with the Bruins on July 1. "I really couldn't be more excited to be a part of this. I'm a huge race fan and have been going to the races in Loudon for the last 10 years. I can't wait to actually get on the track."
"This is such a cool opportunity to be able to lead some of the best race car drivers in the world to the start of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race," said Lessard, who's been with Dave Matthews Band since 1991. "I think the hardest part for me will be pulling off the track and down pit road. I'm going to want to stay out there and race."
Schaller, a 25-year-old native of Merrimack, will lead the XFINITY Series field to green for the AutoLotto 200 at 4 p.m. Saturday. Schaller played his collegiate hockey at Providence College and is entering his fourth season as a professional. He scored his first NHL goal against Bruins All-Star goaltender Tuukka Rask as a member of the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Dec. 21, 2014.
Lessard will make a pit stop from the Dave Matthews Band's summer tour, including two sold out concerts here in New Hampshire, and pace the field for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
Schaller and Lessard join an exclusive list of celebrity pace car drivers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, including New England Patriots Julian Edelman and Rob Ninkovich, Olympic triathlete Sarah True, and Boston Bruins legend Brad Park.
Schaller and Lessard will be required to go through a mandatory pace car orientation class on the morning of their respective races. The AutoLotto 200 and New Hampshire 301 can both be seen live on the NBC Sports Network this weekend.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway opened as New Hampshire International Speedway in June of 1990 after nine months of construction following Bob Bahre's purchase of Bryar Motorsports Park in 1989. The reconstruction of the track into a 52,000-seat complex with a 1.058-mile oval made it the largest speedway in New England and subsequent expansions nearly doubled the capacity to close to 100,000.
NASCAR made its debut at the track on July 15, 1990, with the Busch Series Budweiser 300, which was won by Tommy Ellis and featured many drivers from the then Winston Cup Series, including Dale Earnhardt, who placed seventh.
The Busch Series, which was later renamed the Nationwide Series and is now known as the NASCAR XFINITY series, were successful races, enabling the Speedway to gain a spot on the Winston Cup series in 1993.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at NHIS, the Slick 300, was held on July 11, 1993, and was won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace. It was also the last race ever for Davey Allison, who was fatally injured in a helicopter crash the next day at the Talladega, Alabama, race track.
After the 1996 season, Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith bought the North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina and moved one of the Winston Cup races to NHIS, a September event, with the other race going to one of Smith's tracks.
NHIS has hosted two races a year since that time and has gained a reputation as a tough track for drivers to pass one another, which led to changes in the banking of the track in order to create more side-by-side racing and passing opportunities.
Before the 2008 racing season, Speedway Motorsports, owned by Bruton Smith, purchased the track from the Bahre family for $340 million and changed the name of the track to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It is one of eight tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports.
NASCAR has faced declining popularity nationwide ever since the 2008 recession and has been trying in recent years to woo back fans by making the races more competitive. Changes last year included reduction of horsepower from 850 to 725 and reduction of the rear spoiler from 8 inches to 6 inches.
In-season race package changes are also being made and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said this week that he is very pleased with the package, which was used last year at Kentucky Speedway. A lower downforce package at Kentucky led to a track-best 22 green-flag passes for the lead and more than double the green-flag passes throughout the field. But history didn't repeat itself this year and last Saturday night's race at Kentucky saw little side-by-side racing, which was blamed in large measure on the recently repaved surface's lack of grooves and a harder tire package from Goodyear to prevent tire blistering.
This Sunday's race at the Speedway is a crucial one in the Race for the Chase, which will see 16 drivers qualify from the first 26 races of the season to be eligible for the Sprint Cup championship, which will be determined in the last 10 races of the season.
Winning Sunday can play a big role in building a driver's momentum toward a championship run. From 2010-14, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keslowski used wins in this race to carry themselves into the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, and in 2013, Brian Vickers upset the field for his first win since 2009.
Kyle Busch won last year's race at the Speedway, edging out Brad Keslowski and Kevin Harvick. In September's race, Harvick, who led for 216 of the 300 laps, was leading until the 298th lap when he ran out of fuel and was edged by Matt Kenseth.
Harvick, who races for the Stewart-Haas team, is this year's points leader with 599 is looking for his second win this year. He was the Sprint Cup series winner in 2014. Right on his tail in second place is Keslowski of Team Penske with 595 points and a season high four first-place finishes, including last weekend's Kentucky race when he ran out of gas just after taking the checkered flag and had to have his car pushed into the winner's circle.
Kurt Busch, Harvick's teammate, is in third place with 583 points and one win, followed by Carl Edwards of the Joe Gibbs team with 566 points and two wins.
Joey Logano of Team Penske is fifth with 533 points and one win and Kyle Busch of the Joe Gibbs team is sixth with 521pints and three wins.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who won both of the 2003 races at NHMS, is in 9th place with 484 points and two wins.
Fans pack the stands at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo/Alan MacRae)