Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race (Aug. 2) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway won by Brad Keselowski was surprisingly… badass. Let’s not forget, NHMS gets a lot of flack for how difficult it can be to pass there. Jimmie Johnson found out the hard way (more on that later).
New Hampshire’s rough history, though, was thrown out the window in round 20 of the 2020 Cup season as NASCAR went back to the 750-horsepower, less-downforce package (two thumbs up!). Keselowski stood out in an exciting NHMS event, winning his third race of the season over Denny Hamlin in a race that featured 22 lead changes. That’s the most at this flat, 1.058-mile oval since 2002 and many of those passes occurred under normal green-flag conditions.
But not everyone was happy with the outcome at NHMS. In particular, Kyle Busch‘s struggle continues, as the reigning champ still has not visited victory lane this year. What a shocker!
All in all, the playoff picture is shaping up with only six regular-season races remaining. Let’s take a closer look at the stats to track after the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301.
Quietly, Keselowski is putting together one heck of a season in his contract year at Team Penske. Aside from wrecking out in the Daytona 500 and a 19th-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway, the No. 2 team has a worst finish of 13th this season. Pretty damn impressive, if I say so myself.
On paper, Keselowski has an average finish of 8.6 through 20 races, second in the series to Kevin Harvick (6.4). Prior to this year, the Michigan native’s best season based on average finish was 2012 (10.1). Remember what happened that year? Keselowski straight up beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship in just his third full-time season in Cup.
So expect more of what we saw on Sunday in the playoffs, as the Nos. 2 and 11 cars swept the lead back and forth 12 times between the two drivers. It was an entertaining, clean rivalry to watch. In the end, it was Keselowski who took control, as the veteran admitted he’s been waiting for a race like New Hampshire.
Why? Keselowski needed a day where he dominated up front. Mission accomplished at NHMS, where he led a race-high 184 laps — the most since routing the field at Martinsville Speedway last spring, tallying 446 laps led. It’s a statement race that shows he’s being overlooked as a title favorite.
Jeremy said it best…we made a statement today. Feels good to get #3! pic.twitter.com/x9fEDBT6eF
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) August 2, 2020
Right now, if you asked me whether Keselowski will be part of the Championship 4 this season, I’d have to say yes. They’re good enough to make it, and I don’t expect fluke things to interrupt the team this season in the opening three rounds of the playoffs.
Y’all, Johnson is in some real danger of missing the postseason for the second consecutive year and ending his full-time tenure in the Cup Series on a real sour note.
At times, it’s been tough to watch this season. Case in point? Sunday at NHMS, though his problems were not all self-inflicted. With just over 10 laps remaining in the opening stage, Johnson was attempting to pass Clint Bowyer for fifth. The No. 14 chopped the No. 48 Chevrolet, and around went Johnson, losing out on valuable stage points.
That isn’t abnormal for Johnson this season. Think back to NASCAR’s return on May 17 at Darlington Raceway: Johnson was on pace to win the opening stage, only to get into the rear of Chris Buescher on the final lap. That sent the No. 48 team around and led to an early trip inside the garage.
Not only did Johnson fail to win the stage, losing out on 10 points, but he scored one point that race. Talk about a momentum killer.
What about the Coca-Cola 600? The No. 48 took the checkered flag in second, only to fail post-race inspection, finishing 40th; another one-point race ensued. At Talladega Superspeedway, while battling inside the top five, Johnson came down on Harvick, spinning his Chevrolet to the inside (he still finished 13th).
Meanwhile, Johnson’s iron man-like status came to a screeching halt at the Brickyard, as he, unfortunately, tested positive for COVID-19 some 48 hours before the green flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then, at Texas Motor Speedway, he wrecked while running inside the top 10, pancaking one of the quicker cars on the track. He was also involved in an incident on a restart at Kansas Speedway July 23. In fact, Johnson hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since Martinsville Speedway (June 10), some nine races ago.
A day full of challenges but we salvaged a decent finish. My team is hungry and ready for the double header @MISpeedway.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) August 2, 2020
Johnson has left soooo many points on the table this season, and there’s a very real possibility it costs him a shot at an eighth title. I think Blake Shelton said it best on Sunday: “make next year his retirement year.” Unfortunately, as Johnson’s said time and again, that’s not going to be the case.
Speaking of points, William Byron is holding on to the final playoff position for dear life, stretching his margin to 15 points following an 11th-place effort at New Hampshire. Don’t consider Clint Bowyer or Matt DiBenedetto safe; they’re only 43 and 40 points above the cutline, respectively. But Byron is clearly the most vulnerable driver at this point.
The No. 24 team scored six stage points in the second stage, which ultimately lifted its margin. Right behind Byron is Tyler Reddick, finishing one spot ahead of the No. 24 car, earning his seventh top-10 finish of the season.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Johnson moved up a spot on the playoff grid; he’s now 25 markers behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Erik Jones, who had a disaster of a day, finished one lap down in 24th. He fell to 19th on the playoff grid, 31 points out, which is not a good spot for this Joe Gibbs Racing driver to be in.
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) August 3, 2020
With two races at Daytona coming up — one on the road course, one on the superspeedway — there’s a real possibility there are two surprise winners in the next month, meaning two drivers would be bounced from the grid. Let’s be honest; anyone can win a superspeedway race, a Cinderella story crashing the playoffs. Drivers like Johnson and Michael McDowell come to mind as potential road course winners.
Holding the final six races at just three tracks and four different track layouts should be a doozy to settle this year’s playoff field.