NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire

What happened?

Brad Keselowski won the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday (Aug. 2) after pulling away from Denny Hamlin on a long, final green-flag run. Keselowski led a race-high 184 laps en route to his third NASCAR Cup Series victory of 2020. Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

In a reversal of some recent races, the early portions of the event at NHMS were the most exciting. Keselowski quickly took the lead from pole sitter Aric Almirola, but there was great action throughout the field.

The PJ1 applied on the track added some grip in certain lanes, but drivers were apprehensive without any practice time. Multiple drivers – Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch among them – got out of the groove and dropped back. Kyle Busch got the worst of it though, as he cut a tire and slammed hard into the outside wall in turn 2. His day was over at lap 15 and he finished last.

Keselowski didn’t pit during that caution, or on the ensuing competition caution at lap 30, while every other car got tires and fuel. After the restart, Keselowski, Hamlin and Blaney had an epic three-way battle for the lead that lasted a number of laps. All three drivers kept it (relatively) clean, which was especially impressive for Keselowski on old tires.

Late in the first stage, Jimmie Johnson tried to get by Clint Bowyer and was pinched exiting turn 2, spinning him out. It was a battle for position inside the top 10 between two bubble drivers, but luckily for Johnson, he came away mostly unscathed. The limited damage didn’t calm his frustrations, though.

While Blaney and a few others stayed out, Hamlin (on fresh tires) blew by for the stage win, his fourth of the season. JGR teammate Truex ran second.

The Toyota duo battled for the lead after the second stage began, but a caution for light rain paused the action at lap 94. Truex had an uncontrolled tire penalty on his pit stop under that caution, which really set him back for the day. Harvick and Blaney were the only contenders to stay out, a decision which proved to be costly. Old tires allowed Hamlin to retake the lead, then they both had to pit under green and fell a lap down when Christopher Bell blew a tire and caused a caution late in the second stage.

The final run of stage two was only two laps, but they were two excellent ones as Hamlin and Keselowski duked it out for the playoff point. Keselowski ultimately won it for his series-leading sixth stage win of the year.

The final stage was more of the same with Keselowski and Hamlin dominating the field. Matt Kenseth blew a tire and hit the wall twice within 10 laps, causing two cautions. On the second one, the leaders pitted and Chase Elliott, Harvick and Blaney took over out front. Elliott and Blaney maintained the top two spots before John Hunter Nemechek cut a tire and hit the wall similarly to Kenseth and Kyle Busch. The drivers who stayed out pitted, putting Hamlin and Keselowski back in front.

There was drama over the final 83-lap green-flag run over whether the leaders would make it on fuel, but no one ran out. Keselowski pulled away on the long run and capped off the day with his third victory of the season.

Who stood out?

Keselowski was dominant from start to finish. He took the lead on lap 3, won a stage and led the most laps.

In his previous two wins (Coca-Cola 600, Bristol Motor Speedway), Keselowski didn’t have the best car. He won at Charlotte Motor Speedway because of a late yellow and Elliott choosing to pit. He won at Bristol because Elliott and Logano got tangled up racing for the win with two to go. This race was huge for that team.

To top it all off, he’s going to be eating well tonight.

As strong as Keselowski was all day, Hamlin was nearly just as good. He led 92 laps, but in the end, it was clear the No. 11 didn’t have the same long-run speed as Keselowski. When mired back in traffic, he appeared to be quicker getting to the front, but the cards simply didn’t play out that way down the stretch.

It wasn’t a win, but Hamlin picked up another playoff point and earned a race-high 19 stage points. He very easily could’ve had back-to-back wins if there was a late caution.

That’s important, because inconsistency for Hamlin has derailed an otherwise dominant season. He has five wins, but also five finishes of 20th or worse. We’ll see if he can grab a third straight top-two finish next week at Michigan.

Hamlin has the most wins of any driver this season, but Ford has far-and-away been the best manufacturer to this point. Harvick leads the overall standings, and Ford drivers follow him in second, fourth, sixth and eighth. Ford also has a series-best eight cars currently in playoff position.

Harvick has been the most consistent car all year, but Keselowski, Blaney and Logano are all running well. Almirola, with the help of the qualifying gods, has also quietly risen up the standings and into contention.

At first, it seemed like the Chevys were back on top. Then, Hamlin and the Toyotas had their moments. But overall, neither of the other two have come close to Ford’s power. Hamlin might still go and beat all of them for the championship, but the number of threats in the Blue Oval camp is greater than any other.

Who fell flat?

Kyle Busch’s title defense continued to go wayward at NHMS. Last week at Kansas, Busch led 52 laps and picked up his first playoff point of the year. It seemed like the No. 18 team was on to something. Maybe they were, but they didn’t get a chance to show it Sunday.

Before the day even started, Busch was in the wall and in the garage. As he said, “it’s still 2020.”

Busch still has a 94-point cushion on the playoff bubble, likely ensuring a postseason bid. But 13th in points isn’t where the reigning champ wants – or expects – to be. He remains winless and a 15.1 average finish is his worst since 2014.

Every year, it seems like Erik Jones finds himself around the playoff bubble. This time, the magic might not be there to get him over the hump. At one of his better tracks, Jones was playing from behind all day at NHMS. He was held a lap for pitting outside the box on the first pit stop and never really recovered.

Jones finished 24th and is now way outside the playoffs (-31 points). The bubble can flip in an instant; problem is, has the No. 20 inspired confidence in anyone that will happen soon? He finished fifth at Kansas and sixth at Texas, but at this point, it might take a win to get in. The team is simply too inconsistent to make it on points.

This performance is coming at the worst time for Jones, as he’s essentially battling for his job at JGR. Missing the playoffs could make the decision to switch to Bell an easy one for Gibbs.

Kenseth’s NASCAR return continues to disappoint, as he couldn’t stay out of his own way at what used to be one of his better tracks. Kenseth blew multiple tires before finally parking it on lap 203.

In 16 races this season, Kenseth has two top 10s and an average finish of 20.6. He’s finished 25th or worse in six of those events with a playoff-caliber team in Chip Ganassi Racing. Not the ideal farewell tour for the 2003 champion, if 2020 is indeed it for him.

Here’s the easiest way to sum up Kenseth’s day.

What did this race prove?

In this exact spot last week, I basically told you that Harvick and Hamlin were the only true contenders. Well… about that. Harvick and Hamlin are still the top dogs, but Keselowski is being overlooked in the championship race.

As I mentioned earlier, Keselowski’s first two wins weren’t typical wins. It was fair to question that. Regardless, the No. 2 driver has been the second most consistent team all year behind Harvick. Keselowski’s 8.6 average finish is second in the series, and he now has 21 playoff points – just one less than Harvick (before adding the regular season standings playoff bonus).

Keselowski hasn’t shown true dominance like Harvick and Hamlin. But another performance or two like Sunday and he’ll have to be considered a favorite.

After the new package killed racing at short tracks last season, the 750-horsepower package with the small spoiler has been a godsend. In four races so far, the package has produced some of the best races of the season. And the drivers agree.

NASCAR refuses to go back to this package for intermediate tracks because it spreads the cars out more, but its ceiling appears much higher than the normal one… or the 2019 version they left behind.

Luckily for fans, the championship race at Phoenix will have this short track package. Two upcoming races at Dover will use it, too. And all three cutoff races in the playoffs (Bristol, Charlotte ROVAL, Martinsville) will use it, totaling seven of the final 16 races. All signs are pointing up.

I meant to write about this point three or four weeks ago, but Almirola’s latest qualifying draw finally set me off. NASCAR needs to change the random draw system being used to determine the starting order.

Almirola has been in the top 12 in points for 10 random draws this season. In those 10 races, he has an average starting spot of 2.6, three poles and 10 top-five starts. I guess it’s better to be lucky than good, but these results are directly benefiting that team while others (like the No. 95) are suffering.

There’s no right answer here, but I’d like to see NASCAR go back to the top 20 inverts. That will be used next Sunday at Michigan International Speedway for the doubleheader, but why not use it every week? It shuffles up the field and puts better cars in worse situations. Let’s at least start trying new methods before nailing one down before the playoffs start.

Paint scheme of the race

The Haas Automation cars that Stewart-Haas Racing has produced over the years are constantly changing. It seems like from year to year, we never see the same scheme. At New Hampshire, though, I think they found one that should stick around.

I’m a huge fan of the black Haas Automation schemes. The gradient from black on the hood to gray on the trunk is smooth… and the red mixed in the middle is perfect. If Bowyer has to run any more Haas cars this season, that should be the scheme.

Better than last year?

New Hampshire is often ridiculed as a “boring” track, but the product has certainly improved in recent years. It’s a classic example of “less is more,” as the three races since NHMS lost its fall event have been really solid. Last year, three drivers led over 40 laps and there were seven non-stage break cautions. In the end, there was the thrilling last-lap battle between Harvick and Hamlin, with Harvick fending off Hamlin’s turn 1 bump-and-run to win his second straight at NHMS.

This year’s race was just as action-packed early, although a tame final few runs hurt the overall product. There was good racing throughout the field and it was certainly a good New Hampshire race; it’s just the finish in 2019 was hard to top.

Overall, NHMS has benefited from losing a race. Quality over quantity is becoming a trend, as most tracks just don’t need two dates. Look at New Hampshire and Auto Club Speedway. Both have gotten so much better with just one date. I get the feeling we’ll be saying the same thing about Dover next year when we only visit Delaware once.

Playoff picture

After a few wild weeks of playoff chaos, it was a mostly calm day on the bubble. No one major suffered any sort of problems. Jones was the lowest bubble guy in 24th, but Matt DiBenedetto (sixth), Tyler Reddick (10th), William Byron (11th) and Johnson (12th) all had solid finishes.

Next weekend at Michigan is a unique chance to pick up a lot of points if you hit the setup both days. The real test comes the following weekend at the Daytona road course, where nobody knows what to expect.

What’s next?

The Cup Series will hold its second doubleheader of the season next weekend at Michigan’s two-mile oval. The FireKeepers Casino 400 will be on Saturday (Aug. 8) and the Consumers Energy 400 will be on Sunday (Aug. 9). Both races will only be 312 miles (156 laps) despite the “400” in the race title, so strategy will be interesting for the two shortest scheduled races in Michigan history.

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About Logan Reardon

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Keselowski’s team has found what the other Penske drivers have had all season… speed. He showed it last week and then really showed it yesterday. If the team can keep it up and build momentum going into the playoffs we’ll have our “Big Three” for the 2020 Cup season.

    There was some wishful thinking by the announcers that Johnson might return next year since 2020 has been a bust so far for the #48. I doubt it. In fact, I think plans for the #48 team are simply waiting on a prospective driver to accept an offer.

    What’s left to say about Kyle Busch? I won’t kick the guy when he’s down, but I hope he stays down. On the other hand, he’s gonna make the playoffs, and then points get reset and it’s basically a fresh start for Rowdy. He may be down, but he ain’t out.

  2. Avatar

    i watch first few laps of race, then flipped back over with 7 to go. same people were at front of the field.

    i said a few weeks ago just having draw with top 12 in points was wrong. we all know that sometimes a blind squirrel finds the nuts when i came to qualifying. what about the shootout next february?

    i knew kenseth would struggle. he had been out the car too long, and this is not the same car that he drove when he was an active full-time driver. johnson can’t drive this car either.

    did new hampshire not limit the number of fans in the stands? i noticed during driver intos and the pre-race ceremonies, there were lots of fans standing side by side along the rail in front of the front stretch fence.

  3. Avatar

    My brother went to the race and told me ” it was a turd”, which is NH lingo for a bad race. One groove racing, with drivers scared to use the PJ-1 and having to rely on caution strategy to advance. I watched the highlights and I think he was right on. Same format, same 12 at the front, same people at the back, save Kyle Busch. Get rid of the PJ-1 and work in a second groove!

  4. Avatar

    I recorded the race but not the pre-race, and my recording did not show the National Anthem or the invocation. Did anyone one else take note of that? Has this happened in the past?

    • Avatar

      I did not see the anthem either but assumed they did it during the prerace (which I also did not watch) due to rain in the area. They sure started the race quickly compared to most weeks.

  5. Avatar

    I thought the race wasn’t great but was better than the average New Hampshire race. At least no one car could stretch out a lead.

    While everyone already knows I am not a Kyle fan, I love seeing that winless streak grow if for no other reason to give him a does of humility.

    Anyone who thought Kenseth would come in a pick up where he left off is either a (blind) die-hard Kenseth fan or just doesn’t understand how much things can change in a couple of years. I predicted that he’d have about the same amount of success that Jeff Gordon had when he came back to run Jr’s car after retiring. I’d have to say he is doing somewhat worse.

  6. Avatar

    Been to Loudon many times. One groove….nothing new. However why we go knowing the BS and who will win because of the “groove” because at least in my experience I hope that “race” would be different. Yawn for Brad winning, Big yawn.