Author’s Note: In remembrance of Nick Harrison, the Kaulig Racing crew chief who tragically passed away prior to Sunday’s Cup race at Loudon, “let’s go hauling balls.”
The Headline(s): Though a crippled Austin Dillon did everything he could to obstruct Kevin Harvick (more on that later), Harvick was able to withstand two bump-and-run attempts from Denny Hamlin on the final lap to score his first win of 2019. Harvick won staying out on old tires Sunday (July 21) when Hamlin and the majority of the leaders pitted after a lap 264 yellow.
This is what @NASCAR's all about!
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) July 21, 2019
How It Happened: Kyle Busch immediately took the lead from pole sitter Brad Keselowski on the start, holding the point for the first 36 laps until Keselowski’s car came in on the long run. Keselowski held the lead until the caution flew on lap 46, when Dillon cut a tire and hit the turn 4 wall. Under the ensuing pit stops, Jones assumed the lead after taking two tires. His time up front would be short-lived, though as Busch blew by both Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who also took two tires) to reassume the lead on the lap 51 restart. Busch never looked back, cruising to his seventh stage win of 2019.
Busch again bested Keselowski on the lap 83 restart and stayed out front through a lap 109 caution that saw Daniel Suarez spin in turn 1 after driving through fluid dropped by Chase Elliott’s machine, collecting Daniel Hemric in the process. When the yellow flew again on lap 136 after Stenhouse cut a tire and pounded the turn 2 wall, Busch handed the lead to Aric Almirola, who was the first of nine cars to stay out on old tires while the leaders pitted. Almirola led the field to green on lap 144, but the yellow would fly again the next lap when Clint Bowyer cut across Martin Truex Jr.’s nose and put both of them into the frontstretch wall. Controversy struck on what would be the final restart of stage two, when Almirola apparently brake-checked the field, allowing him to drive away to the stage two victory (more on that later, too).
Hamlin began the final stage out front on lap 158 and proceeded to build a lead over Harvick. The race went into a long green-flag run that wasn’t interrupted until lap 213, when a questionable yellow flag flew after Busch made “contact” with the turn 2 wall.
📺: NBCSN pic.twitter.com/LymN5NO3pF
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 21, 2019
Hamlin held serve off pit road, holding that lead through a lap 218 caution that saw Kyle Larson back into the turn 1 wall after getting pinched underneath Alex Bowman. From the restart on lap 224, Hamlin cruised out front for the next 40 laps until the final yellow on lap 264 for Larson’s spin. While Hamlin pitted for two tires, Harvick, Truex and Jones all stayed out on old tires for the lap 272 restart. Hamlin made quick work of Truex and Jones to get up to second, but was unable to get by Harvick in the closing stages despite one Herculean effort on the final lap.
Why Should You Care? For as maligned a track as New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been in recent years, Sunday’s race was just what the doctor ordered. This 301-miler was worth watching, and worth watching well before the thrilling conclusion. I don’t want to rain on the show too much, because the final duel between Harvick and Hamlin was damn good stuff. What’s more, the much-maligned playoff structure definitely added some tension to Sunday’s race. Bubble drivers were heavily involved in many of the incidents that played out on track, as well as the strategy which ultimately decided the event.
What did come out of Sunday, though that has to give fans and the sport some pause is that so much of the action, incidents, etc. that came out of this race weekend didn’t involve the superstars of the sport. Instead, they affected rookies and backmarkers who are extremely unlikely to play a role in the championship fight.
It all started in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday. For one, Austin Cindric was heard over the radio on multiple occasions telling his team to make his car better or he would have to run over people to make passes. More of the same was heard on Sunday. For example, Chad Knaus essentially had to tell William Byron to play rough as necessary to score stage points for his No. 24 team.
Chad Knaus says if Byron “gets stuck” behind other cars on this restart, pass them anyway. Need the stage points.
Knaus: “If we’ve got to rough them up to do it, we’ve got to get by somebody. I know it’s not fun, but we’ve got to do it.”
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) July 21, 2019
Using the bumper at Loudon is a borderline necessity, so there’s nothing wrong with any of these radio transmissions in a literal sense. What’s concerning (and NBC’s Steve Letarte picked up on this) is that it’s kind of laughable that younger drivers are essentially leaning on their crew chiefs to tell them when to use the bumper. That such transmissions came from two drivers that have no issues using one (Cindric bulldozed Kaz Grala to win a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2017), or at least talking a big game about it (Byron’s snarky response to six-time superspeedway winner Keselowski’s troubles at Daytona two weeks ago come to mind) make it hard to take them seriously as competitors.
While I have no issues whatsoever with veterans putting rookies in their place if they step out of line, it was hard to tell from the replays what, if anything, Burton did to deserve getting punted. And it’s also worth noting the discussion the two had post-race was about as blasé as watching a city council reading of the minutes on C-SPAN the Ocho. Here, we had a one-off Cup interloper tangling with a Truck Series rookie. Inconsequential is perhaps the best word for it.
Now, onto Sunday. Following his wreck on lap 136, Stenhouse issued a less than veiled threat at Jones for what he sees as a continual record of transgressions on the track.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) July 21, 2019
That a driver who’s real danger of missing the playoffs is essentially threatening to screw with the chances of a playoff driver is a real concern that NASCAR will likely have to deal with in 2019. But on a more notable level, one can’t help but question Stenhouse’s intelligence in making such a remark.
For one, picking a fight with a Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who boasts Kyle Busch and Hamlin as teammates, is like punching a center and not expecting the guards to join in the ruckus. It should be of grave concern to NASCAR that competitors such as him are threatening to leave a stamp on a title chase they’ve got no business participating in (so far).
I will say Stenhouse seems to have a real lack of big-picture understanding even after more than a decade of major stock car racing. After all, his decision to get into a tit-for-tat Days of Thunder style melee with Scott Speed at Toledo in 2008 cost both of them an ARCA Racing Series championship.
But if Stenhouse’s words aren’t concern enough, Dillon’s actions certainly are. It was blatantly obvious the No. 3 car took the preferred line away from Harvick as he was coming to the white flag battling Hamlin for the race win.
Austin Dillon was more than 30 laps down. THIRTY. And he tried to take the leader's line away from him as he's battling for the win with a lap and a half to go. That's absolutely pathetic gamesmanship. #NASCAR
— Tyson Lautenschlager (@TysonLaut23) July 21, 2019
Dillon’s move while in a damaged car 30 laps down was as petulant as Natalie Decker’s hat toss that this column highlighted last week. For crying out loud, Dillon, you got Granddaddy’s No. 3 and Harvick isn’t racing with Richard Childress anymore. If there’s any example of just how hollow NASCAR “rivalries” are ringing these days, there it is: Dillon using the No. 3 car as a pick in a (failed) attempt to hold up a former teammate.
On a day where the racing was damn good, and NASCAR’s ever-hearty fans earned their stripes for braving stifling heat, New Hampshire posed a stark challenge to all the die-hards. For as much as they criticize (and often rightly so) the issues that NASCAR’s “package” and playoff system have brought to big league stock car racing, there comes a time when they’ll have to look behind the wheel as well to place the blame.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Harvick scoring his first win of 2019 despite having another issue on pit road (one of the No. 4 team’s tire carriers fell during their final start under the lap 213 yellow) is an accomplishment in itself. That Harvick was able to fend off two bump-and-run challenges from Hamlin, while on 85-lap-old tires, and despite a skew towards long-run speed that seemed to impact every Ford in the field, from Keselowski’s Penske car to Michael McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports entry, elevated the No. 4 team from playoff participant to player over the course of three hours.
They narrowly missed the trophy, but Joe Gibbs Racing was the class of the field Sunday. Busch was virtually impassible up front, Hamlin was a heavier bumper away from sure victory, Jones was a top-five finisher despite a pit road speeding penalty plus contact on pit road with Bowman, and Truex still finished sixth at his home track despite Bowyer pinching him into the frontstretch wall on lap 145. If Phoenix is the closest track to Loudon, any playoff contenders not driving for JGR better win Martinsville or Texas.
Blaney finished top five in a black and yellow Menards No. 12 Mustang and did it without spastically spinning anyone.
DiBenedetto scoring a top five for Leavine Family Racing was impressive on its own merits, but running in and around the top 10 literally all day as the No. 95 team did was pretty convincing. Sunday was easily the best performance of DiBenedetto’s Cup career.
Ryan Newman was arguably the driver of the race. He willed his No. 6 Ford to a top-10 finish on a day that his team absolutely had to capitalize after bubble rival Johnson’s No. 48 was clipped with a broken water pump and power steering failure. Despite starting the race in a backup car after a Friday practice crash, Newman recovered from an engine issue that saw the Roush Fenway Racing team fade in the middle third of the race to finish seventh. In doing so, he moved from the bubble to 15th in Cup Series points.
Though he faded to 15th by race’s end, Chris Buescher spent significant time in the top 10 during Sunday’s race. He ran far stronger than JTG Daugherty Racing teammate Ryan Preece despite his extensive modified experience on the Magic Mile. The way Buescher is driving, a future promotion really isn’t the most far-fetched scenario….
— Darian Gilliam (@BlackFlagMatter) July 21, 2019
Lastly, a shoutout to former Southern Modified Tour champion Andy Seuss. A 28th-place finish in his Cup Series debut was the best result Rick Ware Racing has posted in Cup competition at New Hampshire.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Bowyer’s troubles on lap 145 that derailed any chance he had at a good finish Sunday were entirely of his own making. Despite comments made on the team radio about Kurt Busch’s driving, Bowyer clearly cut across Truex’s nose. It’s as simple as that. Bowyer left New Hampshire on the playoff bubble, a backmarker on a day that saw his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates score six of the seven playoff points up for grabs.
Where to start with Chevrolet? Richard Childress Racing is probably happier than any other organization to be leaving Loudon after a disastrous Sunday. By lap 109, there had been two on-track incidents, and their cars were in both of them. Austin Dillon hit the wall on lap 46 with a cut tire, then Hemric wrecked out after Suarez’s spin on lap 109. Dillon’s playoff chances are all but extinguished while Hemric’s 37th-place finish was his worst of 2019.
The momentum Chip Ganassi Racing had leaving Kentucky is at least muted after this Sunday’s event. Larson was involved in two wrecks in the final 100 laps after having to start at the rear in a backup car. He finished 33rd. Kurt Busch ended the race in 18th, never a factor in the final moments after poor adjustments down the stretch.
It’s hard to remember a weekend where Hendrick Motorsports was as snakebit as this one. Bowman wrecked two race cars in practice (only one was driver error), incurred a pit road speeding penalty and made contact with Jones on pit road, as uncomposed a performance as the No. 88 has had in 2019. Both Johnson and Chase Elliott spent extended time on pit road with water pump issues, relegating them to backmarker finishes. Byron carried the flag for HMS with a 12th-place finish, but that came in a backup car as well.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
There were plenty of tweets noting the swaths of empty grandstands in Loudon, and they were accurate. Despite a strong race on Sunday, New Hampshire has been continually in the rumor mill as a track that could lose its only race date in the impending schedule reshuffle of 2021. The question to be asked, though is how much attendance is being impacted by the ridiculous 3 p.m. start time this race had. First, a 3 p.m. start means a 6 p.m. finish at best, which on a Sunday evening strongly restricts how far race fans can realistically travel if they have to work Monday. Second, on an extremely hot summer day, a 3 p.m. start means fans are going to end up spending likely at least six hours in blistering heat before the race actually starts. Running at noon on Sunday means less time in the heat before the race starts and a reasonable finish time for traveling fans.
Credit where it’s due… there were two shining positives to take away from NBC’s telecast this weekend. First, giving Seuss a shout-out during his Cup debut was completely appropriate for a telecast at Loudon. Second, doing a Through the Field around lap 185 that covered the top 16 cars was a very welcome surprise. Sunday was probably NBC’s strongest effort in 2019, even with Rutledge Wood back in the raceday telecast.
That said, the lap 105 spotlight of Quin Houff and the No. 77 Spire Motorsports car, which was carrying graphics of NBC’s “Grassroots” short track campaign, was a big no-no. It’s good to see Spire getting airtime, but that NBC spent over a lap discussing their graphics, without touching how the No. 77 car was doing on-track (Houff finished 13 laps down in 31st) or even who was driving it was a glaring shortcoming.
Per the NBC telecast after the controversial restart that saw Almirola gap the field to win stage two, it was intimated that NASCAR warned Almirola not to repeat his actions on future restarts. (Almirola clearly brake-checked before restarting the event, leaving Joey Logano in the dust on the inside line). It’s rather inconsistent that NASCAR made such a public spectacle of disqualifying race winners whose cars fail post-race inspection this season, but are content with wrist-slapping competitors that blatantly violate restart procedures. In this case, the perpetrator secured playoff points for doing it.
Speaking of inconsistent, this week’s episode of questionable yellow flags starred Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch. Near the end of the first stage, Austin Dillon cut down a second tire and was seen limping down the frontstretch with a visibly damaged race car, but the stage was allowed to conclude. Fast forward to lap 213, where Kyle Busch simply got out of the racing groove while running inside the top 10. NASCAR immediately threw the yellow, terminating a 55-lap green-flag run for no good reason. After last week featured multiple questionable calls that benefitted Most Popular Driver Elliott, throwing an immediate lifeline to a formidable Kyle Busch isn’t exactly a great image for NASCAR’s deservedly-maligned officials.
Let’s go to pit road. Deference to the race leader went the wrong way when Bubba Wallace hesitated on entering his pit stall to allow leader Kyle Busch a clear exit (Busch’s team reportedly thanked Wallace’s squad per Twitter). The problem? Wallace’s stutter and resulting shallow entrance into his pit pinned Suarez, dropping him to 24th on the ensuing lap 158 restart. Sometimes competitors just need to run their own races.
While the rulebook citations provided by Dustin Long and Bob Pockrass did confirm that Jones did not commit a commitment line violation when he veered right late to stay out during the final caution on lap 264, the fact that the driver was beating himself up in the cockpit thinking he committed a penalty speaks volumes as to how clear the rules are (having read Pockrass’ citations below, it’s about as poorly written as it can be).
Looks like Jones should be good since he had at least one tire on the orange box. pic.twitter.com/tSCzEtKfQT
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 21, 2019
More importantly though, this incident demonstrated just why there needs to be an actual cone on pit road. That Jones was able to do what he did (pulling almost entirely down pit road before juking out) completely defeats the purpose of having a commitment line, not to mention raising safety concerns about gamesmanship on pit road exit. Had a cone been there, it would have been the clear rules violation that 90% of the fans watching (and the driver himself) thought it was.
Best Paint Scheme: Bowman. The car ended up using black for a base because both No. 88 cars were destroyed in practice incidents. But the final end product actually looks better than the standard Axalta scheme.
— Bryan Nolen (@TheBryanNolen) July 21, 2019
South Park Special Guest: Hamlin. For dropping a curse word in his post-race interview that made the airwaves.
The “Settle for McLobster” Fact of the Week: Larson’s debacle on Sunday continued a decades-long string of futility for the Golden Arches in NASCAR. Credit goes to the company for sticking it out in motorsports.
It has officially been 25 years since a car sponsored by McDonald's has won a points-paying Cup race. There have been 409 McDonald's sponsored cars since Jimmy Spencer's win at Talladega in 1994; they are 0 for 409, with 6 2nd place finishes. pic.twitter.com/OYISAkNJOz
— nascarman (@nascarman_rr) July 20, 2019
Where it Rated: Despite some petulant behavior and questionable officiating, Sunday’s trip to Loudon lived up to the “Magic Mile” moniker. This race was a lobster roll dipped in butter and well worth eating.
What’s the Points? Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Almirola, Blaney, Byron, Larson, Jones, Newman and Bowyer would point their way in. Bowyer currently holds a 17-point lead over Johnson for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stays up north and will tackle Pocono Raceway for the second time in 2019 this coming Sunday. Coverage from the “Tricky Triangle” begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.