Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Kevin Harvick won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a year ago, making it his sixth victory of 2018. He’d go on to win twice more, at Michigan and Texas. But he hadn’t seen the winner’s circle since.
That changed on Sunday, when he repeated last year’s feat, outdueling Denny Hamlin in a two-lap shootout to take the checkers. For the second week in a row, fans were treated to a close finish, and a winner who hasn’t visited victory lane this year.
Harvick had a fast car, be he didn’t have the best car all day. Instead, it took good strategy and a great drive at the end for Harvick to seal the deal over a charging Hamlin. It also makes Harvick one to watch going into the playoffs. He tends to be a streaky driver, so it’s possible he could put together a few more wins in short order.
Matt DiBenedetto is quietly putting together a strong summer for Leavine Family Racing. DiBenedetto finished fourth at Sonoma and after a tough weekend in Chicago, he’s finished eighth, 16th and now fifth. The No. 95 team is showing promise half a season into a new technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. The alliance isn’t at the same level as Furniture Row Racing had as it was beyond the team’s means, but they’re beginning to make the most of it as the summer wears on. This is the model for how a team entering the sport should be able to progress, though, we often see a good deal never materialize for a team that could take it to the next level, or the money is there (at first anyway) but the people aren’t. But sometimes, it works.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
The race ended with a great battle for the win. It had passing, it had a mix of horsepower and strategy. Drivers could use the throttle to make better corners and better laps, putting it in their hands. In short, it was everything fans should want to see in a race.
Narrow, flat Loudon isn’t unlike Martinsville Speedway in that it’s very much a driver’s track. Because it’s nearly twice as long as Martinsville, cars can get strung out more. It’s hard to pass…but in the way it’s supposedto be hard to pass. It’s hard because of the narrow groove and worn tires and lack of grip, not because all the cars are going the same speed and nobody has to get out of the throttle.
The 2019 package worked at this track, but the cars had more horsepower than at the intermediates. That’s what NASCAR needs to work toward—it’s the closest to racing in the early 2000s that we typically see now.
And it worked. Sunday’s race was everything a good NASCAR race is supposed to be. But because every single moment wasn’t a nail-biter, will it be received as it should?
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Brad Keselowski slipped just three positions at the end, but it was three spots too many. Keslelowski put in a strong bid late, but wasn’t able to make a run on the leaders.
Hamlin led all active drivers in average finish at Loudon entering the weekend with a 10.2 in 25 starts. His three wins also led active drivers (tied with Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Harvick) when the day began. With his runner-up finish, Hamlin actually improves on that average, but allows Harvick to take over sole possession of the track win count at four. Hamlin led 113 laps (second most on the day) to Harvick’s 41, and their battle will make the highlight reels for some time, but it’s still a bitter pill for Hamlin.
Last week’s winner Kurt Busch had another great outing at Loudon, but had little to show for it after a late-race shuffle relegated him to an 18th-place finish. That belies how well Busch ran, inside the top 10 for much of the day and often in position to contend for more. Busch is driving as well as he ever has this year, and while his Chip Ganassi Racing team has at times lacked consistency, that’s been an organization-wide issue, not anything to pin on Busch. If the team can find just a little bit more, Busch could very well go deep into the playoffs even as his future with the team is uncertain.
Alex Bowman wasn’t even driving his own car this week. His primary car suffered damage when his drive train detonated in practice Friday. Then, Bowman spun his backup car in practice Saturday and that left him out of cars for the weekend. Bowman started at the back of the field Sunday in teammate Johnson’s backup car, newly wrapped in Axalta colors (with a black instead of a blue background), and drove it all the way into the top 10 in time to score a ninth-place finish in stage two. Late strategy didn’t play right for Bowman’s comeback story and he finished 14th, but the last couple of months should have his confidence soaring at just the right time. His season is looking a lot like his teammate Chase Elliott’s did a year ago, which ended with three wins and a playoff run that took him to a sixth-place points finish.
When…was the moment of truth?
Loudon has always been better than it gets credit for. A drivers’ track, it’s not glamourous, but gritty. Dale Earnhardt once put on what might have been one of his most impressive performances at New Hampshire. He finished second, but put on a clinic, picking off one car at a time like a predator as he came through the field late in the race, simply running out of laps to challenge Jeff Burton for the win.
Loudon rewards aggressive drivers, if the aggression is controlled.
At the end, it was, and that’s why the finish was so good. Harvick and Hamlin are both very aggressive. Either could have turned the other, and it would have been a memorable finish—those kinds always are. But instead they put on a clinic on how to race cleanly for the win. There was a time when it almost certainly would have ended differently. This was a better show by the two veterans.
Why…should you be paying attention this week?
The next four weeks are a mixed bag of racing. Up next is Pocono Raceway, which put on a better-than-average-show last time around, but isn’t likely to produce an instant classic. The last two races have been in that realm, among the best we’ve seen this year. Hopefully, the race will be enough to at least not kill the momentum the sport is building.
From there, it’s Watkins Glen, which has produced some outstanding finishes and often has playoff implications. Last year, Elliott took his first career win and locked down a playoff spot. It’s entirely possible that we could see another driver in need of a playoff boost tackle the Glen this year, though there are some 2019 winners who run strong there as well.
Then it’s Michigan, another track that could slow any forward momentum, and then the night race at Bristol which is often unpredictable and sometimes wild. And after that? There’s just one more race before the playoffs. NASCAR’s hottest summer in recent memory might still have some surprises left.
How…much trouble are the drivers outside the playoff bubble in right now?
There was a shakeup at the bubble this week, and it ended with the biggest gap from 16th to 17th all summer, 17 points from 16th-place Clint Bowyer.
Seventeen points is a lot to make up, and Johnson has struggled for a year and a half though he had found consistency at Chicago and Daytona. It shakes down to three to four positions per race for the next five weeks, though, so it’s not a lost cause, though one more bad finish for Johnson and it will be—for the first time since the playoffs began.
Daniel Suarez has the same deficit to make up as Johnson, but the problem for both is that while one might do it, the odds of two are increasingly poor. Without winning, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone else can make a points bid. Paul Menard is 18th, 43 points behind Johnson and 60 behind Bowyer.
Even if Bowyer has a couple of really bad days in the next month, Menard would also have to count on both Johnson and Suarez having them. For Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 17 markers behind Menard, all four would have to suffer two or three terrible runs. The hurdle grows with every position, so while you may see Johnson and/or Suarez make a run, any big shuffle is unlikely, at best.