LOUDON — New Hampshire Motor Speedway celebrates its silver anniversary of hosting NASCAR races this weekend with the big event being Sunday's Sprint Cup Race, the 5-hour ENERGY 301 which will be start at 1:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live by the NBC Sports Network.
The track 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 doubled the capacity to over 90,000.
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, Sr., 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 calendar 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, North Carolina Speedway and moved one of its Winston Cup races to NHIS, a September event, with the other race going to one of Smith's other tracks.
NHIS has hosted two top-tier 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.
In 2000 the track was the site of a pair of fatal collisions, one in May which took the life of Adam Petty when his throttle stuck during a practice and he hit the wall in the middle of the third and fourth turns, and another in July in which Rookie of the Year Kenny Irwin died. For safety reasons ,when the cars returned for the September race, so-called restrictor plates were used to control speed and produced an uneventful race in which Jeff Burton led for all 300 laps of the Dura Lube 300.
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 this year include reduction of horsepower from 850 to 725 and reduction of the rear spoiler from eight inches to six inches.
In-season race car set-up 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 weekend 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 from last season, from 1,147 to 2,665. France praised the NASCAR Research and Development Center for taking risks by running a new package in a race as the series reached the halfway point of its season.
"Our group at the R&D Center did a really good job, and they're taking some risks that are a little bit outside the box of NASCAR," France said. "We typically wouldn't be changing packages in mid-stream like this in the middle of our season. But we want to make sure that we're delivering the absolute best racing that we can. They felt — and I agree with them — the only way to sort that out is not to test it in sort of isolated tests but to do it in real racing time."
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 over 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 Keselowski 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.
Keselowski won last year's July race at the speedway while Joey Logano won the September race.
Currently six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who won both of the 2003 races at NHMS, is leading the Race for the Chase with four wins. Kevin Harvick, last year's Sprint Cup series winner, is second with two wins and leads in point standings. Joey Logano, also with two wins, is third followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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