LOUDON -- THE GREATEST Show on Wheels, featuring a couple of new opening acts, puts the spotlight back on New Hampshire this weekend.
NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series rolls into town, led by five-time champion and points-leader Jimmie Johnson and a full cast of supporters for its first of two visits to the state over the next 11 weeks.
Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of NASCAR's best duke it out at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — the one-mile oval that statistics show has been the most competitive in the series in recent years — on Sunday starting at 1 p.m.
"We forget about it sometimes, but it's kind of like having the circus come into town," said NHMS general manager Jerry Gappens in the track's infield restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. "It's not like we have a game every Sunday afternoon or a four-game home-stand every other week. These guys only come in two times a year. They haven't been here since last September and there's an excitement about a new event and a new year. It's fun to watch it all come together."
The behind-the-scenes hustle to prepare for the show continued on Wednesday.
Workers set up their cables and got ready to put in place the giant video boards that tower above the infield. Others spiffed up the Toyota and Camping World signs in Turn 4 before moving on to others.
A full crew used a bulldozer and roller and assorted other heavy equipment to construct a course within a course.
The course, part dirt and part pavement with jumps and hairpin turns mixed in, is for Travis Pastrana and the racing-on-the-edge drivers of the Global RallyCross series.
Pastrana, who is also racing here in Saturday's CNBC's Prime "The Profit" 200 Nationwide race, won the inaugural GRC race at the track last year.
The GRC race is at 5:30 this afternoon, rain or shine, and will be televised on ESPN on Saturday night at 7:30.
Last year's race was held on Saturday and created logistical problems because the course had to be set up and taken down in Turns 1 and 2 in a tight timeframe. More dirt is being used on part of the GRC course this year and it would not have been practical to do a changeover on Saturday night so the event was moved to Thursday.
Gappens likes the change.
"I think it gives us a great lead-in to the weekend," he said.
Gates open for spectators at 1 p.m. and there are heat races through the day. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for ages 12-16 and admission is free for those under 12.
Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup race also gets a new warmup act.
Gone, at least for now, are bands such as Three Dog Night and The Marshall Tucker Band, who traditionally have performed on Sunday morning at the track's start/finish line.
This year, the speedway is giving away new Toyota Camrys to 10 of 43 finalists and $250,000 worth of prizes in a giant game-show format that's designed to be interactive with fans in the stands as well.
Then Johnson and Earnhardt and their rivals will get down to a little racing.
Only eight races remain before the field is set for the Chase to the Sprint Cup after Richmond on Sept. 7.
Johnson leads the points today, and he and Matt Kenseth, sixth in points, are locks to make the Chase with four Cup wins each.Clint Bowyer is second in points. He has no wins, but has already looked good at New Hampshire this year.
He was among a handful of racers at the track earlier in the season for a Goodyear Tire test.
"I didn't feel like we were very good, I felt we were pretty slow," said Joey Logano. "Bowyer was here and he was rocket-ship fast."
Logano was unhappy enough with his Goodyear testing that he came back and used one of his NASCAR-allowed tests here a couple of weeks ago.
Logano (June, 2009) and Bowyer (September, 2007 and September, 2010) are among the Cup drivers who have won at New Hampshire and among the 10 different drivers who have won in the last 10 races at New Hampshire.
That 10-race streak, according to NASCAR, is the longest active mark for any track on the Cup series.Kasey Kahne, 11th in points, triumphed here last July.Denny Hamlin, who missed four races with a back injury and has struggled big-time this year, won the last race here in September. He also won the July race at NHMS in 2007. He is 26th in points.
Alessels@unionleader.com on Twitter: @allenlessels