Harvick, NASCAR win in New Hampshire

LOUDON, N.H. – NASCAR’s popularity might be on the wane (or so we’re told) but you’d be hard-pressed to find much better action on the track these days.

Consider Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It featured nothing but an edge-of-your-seat finish between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. A bit of beating and banging and a drag race out of the final turn to the finish line.

If you missed it, well you’ll likely have the opportunity to see numerous replays. It was highlight worthy.

As far as the particulars? Harvick, winless since last November, ended a stretch of 21 winless starts. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver knows the way to victory lane at NHMS – he’d won there three times before Sunday.

But it took a gutsy call by crew chief Rodney Childers to put Harvick out front – opting for track position rather than fresh tires under caution with little more than 25 laps remaining. That put his No. 4 Ford first on the ensuing restart and it proved to be the winning call.

“I didn’t think we had the best chance to win staying out,” Harvick said, “but Rodney and those guys made a great call.

“We had a good car all day, we just never could get track position and stayed out there, ran a lot of good laps.”

As for holding off Hamlin?

“He tried to move me out of the way down there (in Turn 1) and I knew that was coming as close as he was,” Harvick said.

“So, I just stood on the brakes and I’m … half-throttle down the back straightaway. I’m like ‘you’re not getting under me again’ and he drove to the outside of me …. I waited until he got near me and I just put a wheel on him.”

Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota) had been among those taking two tires and the former race leader restarted fourth. It took him nearly the entire run to catch Harvick, but you know what they say – catching someone and passing them, well, it’s not the same thing.

Hamlin did but he couldn’t.

The finish certainly spiced things up, but the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, No. 20 of 36, was far from a snoozer. Maybe you have to be there, I don’t know.

Kyle Busch won the opening stage and led 118 laps, Aric Almirola took the second and there were enough lead changes and cautions too keep things interesting.

The rest of the rundown had Erik Jones (JGR) in third and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske Ford) in fourth and Matt DiBenedetto (Leavine Family Racing Toyota) finishing fifth. Those folks didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to finish that high – other than run extremely well for the better part of the day.

The three had varied pit strategies as well – and were in the top 10 before and after the final pit cycle. So nobody snookered anyone to gain spots they hadn’t pretty much already earned. Jones had stayed out while Blaney and DiBenedetto took right-side tires only.

It was an impressive showing for Hamlin, whose team rolled out a backup after he spun and damaged the primary on Friday.

“This is nowhere near the car that I wrecked on Friday,” Hamlin said.

Speaking of backups – Alex Bowman finished 14th in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48/88 Chevrolet. On-track incidents damaged the No. 88 team’s primary (Friday) and backup (Saturday). Crew chief Greg Ives “borrowed” the No. 48 team’s backup for race day.

The No. 48 primary didn’t fare as well – seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson lost laps when he lost power steering and finished 30th.

Points leader and defending series champion Joey Logano (Team Penske Ford) finished ninth.

• Harvick became the season’s 10th winner – his playoff chances were already solid with his third-place points position. Sunday’s win erased any doubt.

Halfway next time by with return to DIS

Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway marks the halfway point in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Race No. 18 takes teams back to where the season began in February. Only nine races remain in the regular season.

It’s a good time to stop and take stock of what’s transpired thus far.

Talk of the 2019 aero/rules package has often overshadowed the competition on the race track. That’s not unusual. It’s simply more noticeable in today’s social-media driven world.

While the aero changes haven’t been to everyone’s liking, that’s hardly any different from seasons past.

Because there are different packages for different tracks, it’s natural that it would be a topic of discussion as the season progressed.

Overall, it seems to have improved the product on the track. But it’s clear that the platform works better at some tracks, under some conditions (night vs. day races for example), than others.

The number of teams winning races hasn’t changed all that much, only the teams themselves. Three organizations (Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports) have produced this year’s race winners – all seven of them.

A year ago? Five organizations, four if you aligned the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing with JGR, which most did, and six different winners.

Who wins first in ‘19, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson or a team from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable?

The odds would seem to favor SHR, which fields four Cup teams. Drivers Kevin Harvick (8), Clint Bowyer (2) and Aric Almirola (1) combined for 11 victories last season; the organization is 0-for-68 so far in ’19.

 Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) heads to Daytona trailed by a 76-race winless streak. He did win the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at DIS, a non-points event.

NASCAR’s tougher post-race penalty move hasn’t cost any Cup drivers a win, although two drivers in other series have been disqualified when their entries failed post-race inspection.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ross Chastain was stripped of the victory at Iowa while Christopher Bell lost his third-place finish in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Single-car qualifying returned in early May after months of issues with the multi-car process. At Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) in March, none of the 12 final-round participants completed an official qualifying lap before time expired. In April, officials reduced the time of each qualifying round to five minutes.

Sweeps: Denny Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota sweep in the season-opening Daytona 500 as Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third respectively;

Team Penske finished 1-2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with defending series champion Joey Logano winning over teammate Brad Keselowski in a battle of Fords;

Busch and Martin Truex went 1-2 at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., then reversed their order at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway when Truex scored the victory;

Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman finished 1-2 in the Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

First-time winners: Bowman became the 192nd driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race with his first career victory June 30 at Chicagoland. It’s the fourth consecutive season the series has seen at least one new Cup winner. Austin Hill (NGOTS) and Michael Annett (Xfinity) earned their first NASCAR series wins as well, both at Daytona in February.

Equally notable: Christopher Bell gave Toyota its first win with the Supra in the Xfinity Series at Atlanta; Keselowski’s victory the same weekend was No. 1 for the Ford Mustang in Cup competition.

Kyle Busch hit a couple of milestones during the first half of the ’19 season – his became the winningest driver in the Truck series when he scored win No. 52 at Atlanta; his Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) gave him 200 wins across NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Truck).

Texas Postscript

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said Monday morning that the sanctioning body may revert back to single-car qualifying for some events after problems cropped up at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday.  

“If we have to go back to single-car (qualifying) … we’ll do that,” O’Donnell said during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “It won’t be popular, probably, with some of the owners but unfortunately we’re getting put in this position.”

Group qualifying had not been an issue until the 2019 rules package debuted with its less horsepower and more downforce on larger tracks (1.5-miles and above). The package allows teams to draft on the bigger tracks, which in turn makes being the first car out a disadvantage.

As a result, drivers have sat in their cars on pit road, waiting until the last possible moment before attempting a qualifying lap. At Auto Club Speedway, none of the 12 drivers in the final round posted an official lap. At Texas, there were other issues as well although each of the 12 in the final round were able to post at least one lap before time expired.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” O’Donnell said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying (format) that we were going to do before the season so part of you says, ‘Are we (teams) doing this on purpose … to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done.”

O Donnell went on to say that NASCAR will “react to it.”

“We’ll make the right call and we’ll get it right,” he said. “We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for eight minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing and we’ll make the fix there.”

NASCAR already uses a single-car qualifying format at Daytona and Talladega, the series two largest venues.

O’Donnell is executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR.

NASCAR officials took six cars from teams, two from each manufacturer, to take to the wind tunnel for aerodynamic evaluation following Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That’s not surprising. It’s a normal part of the process as officials with the sanctioning body seek a better understanding of how the aero numbers between the three groups match up.

What was something of a surprise was the cars that were selected. Or those that weren’t.

NASCAR selected the No. 1 of Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing) and the No. 24 of William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports) from the Chevrolet camp and that’s about as good of a representation as you’ll get from those folks these days.

Toyota entries taken, however were the No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr., and the No. 20 of Erik Jones. Neither the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, which has two wins this season and could have won a third time Sunday, nor the No. 11 of Hamlin, which did win Sunday and now also has two victories this year, was chosen.

All four cars race out of the Joe Gibbs Racing shop but clearly the 18 and the 11 have been a cut above the others.

Ford entries chose were the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) and the No. 21 of Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing).

That neither the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski nor 22 of Team Penske teammate Joey Logano was chosen for Ford representation was also puzzling. Even the 12 of teammate Ryan Blaney.

Keselowski and Logano account for the three victories not claimed by Busch or Hamlin this season.

Hamlin’s 33rd career victory tied him with two individuals – Fireball Roberts at No. 23 on the all-time NASCAR win list and Tony Stewart at No. 2 on the JGR win list. Stewart won a pair of Cup titles as well before departing; Hamlin is still seeking his first.

That Hamlin already has two victories says as much about crew chief Chris Gabehart, who replaced Mike Wheeler on top of the pit box for the No. 11 team this season, as it does Hamlin. Gabehart won nine times in the Xfinity Series with drivers Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

The fifth-place finish for Jimmie Johnson Sunday was his first top-five since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. The seven-time series champion started on the pole and led 60 laps.

Kyle Busch didn’t complete the weekend sweep but the JGR racer did win two of three, capturing Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race and Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. It was his 95th Xfinity Series win and 55th in the Truck series.

NASCAR teams head to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for Saturday’s Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Food City 500. The rules package will be the same as that used at Martinsville two weeks ago – 750 horsepower and no aero ducts on the front of the cars.

Only seven active drivers – Kyle and Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Johnson, Logano, Harvick and Hamlin – have won one or more Cup races at BMS. That’s from a list of 22 current competitors with one or more wins in the series.

Kyle Busch has won two of the last three at BMS while Kyle Larson finished second in both Cup races last season. Larson also led 200 laps in the spring race.

Crash sidelines Hamlin four races

Sun., March 24, 2013 – Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower spine after contact with Joey Logano on the final lap of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. He was airlifted to a local hospital where he was kept overnight. The incident took place in Turn 4, following a side-by-side battle for the lead. When the two cars hit, Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota slid down the track and struck the retaining wall front-end first. Logano’s No. 22 Ford slipped up the track, made contact with the outside barrier but was able to continue on.

There were not SAFER barriers in the area where Hamlin’s car hit the wall at that time. The injury would force the JGR driver to miss the next four NASCAR Cup races; in his absence Mark Martin and Brian Vickers handled the driving duties for the team.

Logano managed to finish third but was accosted on pit road after the race by an upset Tony Stewart. Logano had blocked Stewart on the final restart.