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May 10. 2014 10:09PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Sprint Cup changes sit well with NHMS GM Gappens

Jerry Gappens likes the new-look NASCAR.

The auto racing series instituted changes to its qualifying system as well as the way it selects teams for the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship shortly before the 2014 campaign began with the Daytona 500 in late February.

The early returns are promising.

"Everything I've seen so far about 2014 has been very successful," said Gappens, the general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. "The changes NASCAR and (president) Brian France made, I think, have done all the things they hoped they'd do."

The field for the Chase has expanded to 16 drivers and the focus has squarely shifted from points to wins. The 16 spots in the Chase go to racers who have won at least one of the 26 races in the regular season, as long as they are in the top 30 in points.

The Washington Capitals, the NHL team that drafted him last year, and Boston College, the team for whom he'll begin playing later this year, wrapped up their seasons about a month ago.

Going into Saturday night's race at Kansas, eight different drivers had won a race through the first 10 races of the season. Jeff Gordon made it nine with Saturday's win.

Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have for all intents locked up Chase spots with two wins apiece and Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch are in good shape with a win each.

The Chase has changed, too. Four drivers will be eliminated from the competition after the first three Chase races, four more after the next three races and four more after the next three. That will leave four racers to compete for the title in the season-ending race at Homestead on Nov. 16.

Qualifying is now done in an elimination-style, group format, as opposed to cars going out for a solo run around the track.

At one-mile tracks such as NHMS, the drivers go out for two qualifying sessions. After the first, 30-minute go-round, the top 12 come back for 10 more minutes.

"The Friday qualifying has been a huge success," Gappens said. "The television ratings are way up and ticket sales are up. Our advance sales for Friday are triple where they were last year."

The first of two Sprint Cup weekends at the track this season is two months from this weekend: the Camping World RV Sales 301 is July 13.

Friday's packed schedule at NHMS includes a NASCAR Modified Shootout, Sprint Cup qualifying and the Granite State 100 K&N Pro Series East 100 race.

The New Hampshire 100 Whelen Modified Tour race and the New England 200 Nationwide race are on Saturday.

The Osram Sylvania 300, the highlight of the speedway's second Sprint Cup weekend, is Sept. 21 and is once again the second race in the 10-event Chase to the Sprint Cup.

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A couple of other major, high-profile and contrasting events return to opposite ends of the state over the last two weekends in June. The National Hot Rod Association Mello Yello New England Nationals, featuring John Force and his family of dragsters, are back at New England Dragway in Epping from June 19-22.

Last year, in the inaugural NHRA event at the dragstrip, Courtney Force held off her father in the finals to win the Funny Car championship.

The Subaru Mount Washington Hill Climb will be contested up the MountWashington Auto Road. The Sports Car Club of New Hampshire is helping put on the event and it's part of the 2014 Rally America national championship.David Higgins of the Isle of Man plans to return and take a shot at the record he set of six minutes and just under 12 seconds - 6:11.54 to be precise - on the 7.6-mile course in 2011, the last time the Hillclimb was held.

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Granite State drivers hold down two of the top three spots in the American Canadian Tour standings through the first two races in the series.

Two-time defending champion Wayne Helliwell of Dover is first and Joey Polewarczyk of Hudson is third. Jimmy Hebert of Vermont is sandwiched between them.

Helliwell and Polewarczyk are the only two drivers who have finished in the top five in both races. Helliwell was third in the season opening Governor's Cup event at Lee on April 13 and won the Merchants Bank 150 at Thunder Road in Vermont on April 27.

Polewarczyk was third and fourth in the two events.

The next race in the series is at Airborne Speedway in Plattsburgh, N.Y., next Saturday, May 17.

The only New Hampshire race that counts in the points standings is at White Mountain Motorsports Park in No. Woodstock on June 21. The series will be at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Bond Auto ACT Invitational on Sept. 20.

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Hampstead's Andy Seuss leads the Whelen Southern Modified Tour standings through the first four races of the season. Seuss has two wins and owns a five-point lead over George Brunnhoelzl III.

The two wins give Seuss a Southern Modified career total of 17, which is second-best in the series.

The Southern Modifieds are on their spring break now and get back to racing on July 4. The series will be at NHMS for that Modified Shootout on July 11.

alessels@unionleader.com


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