Kevin Harvick breaks drought with successful New Hampshire defense

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LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 21: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer/National Forest Foundation Ford, celebrates winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 21, 2019 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

LOUDON, N.H. – The drought is over.

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE – JULY 21: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer/National Forest Foundation Ford, celebrates with his son Keelan in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 21, 2019 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Blanked for 21 straight races, Kevin Harvick was winless in 2019 until he held off Denny Hamlin on older tires to win Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The victory was Harvick’s fourth at the Magic Mile, most among active drivers and tied with Jeff Burton for most all-time. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang won his second-straight race at the one-mile flat track and his third in the last five events.

Crew chief Rodney Childers made the winning call to keep Harvick on track on older tires, when Hamlin pitted for right-side rubber on Lap 266, under caution for Kyle Larson’s spin in Turn 2. Hamlin restarted fourth, quickly moved to second and chased Harvick for the final 29 laps.

On the final circuit, Hamlin got to Harvick’s bumper in Turn 1 and gave the No. 4 Ford Mustang a tap, but Hamlin’s Toyota Camry couldn’t clear Harvick, who pulled ahead on the backstretch. Harvick hugged the bottom through Turns 3 and 4 as Hamlin moved to the outside, trying to take advantage of the traction compound in the higher lane.

But when Hamlin pulled alongside, Harvick drove to the right, hitting Hamlin and slowing his momentum. Harvick crossed the finish line .210 seconds ahead of Hamlin, who had led 113 laps before making his final pit stop.

Even as he lined up for the final restart on Lap 273, Harvick wasn’t sure Childers had made the right call, but the uncertainty disappeared when Harvick was first to the stripe.

“I didn’t think we had the best chance to win today but Rodney made a great call,” said Harvick, who led the last 41 laps. “We had a good car today. We just never could get track position. We stayed out there and ran a lot of good laps.

Lapped traffic on the final two circuits enabled Hamlin to make up ground and made Harvick’s victory more difficult.

“I really didn’t want to see that traffic there at the end,” Harvick said. “It made my car tight when (Hamlin) got to me. He tried to move me out of the way down there and I knew that was coming, as close as he was. So I just stood on the brakes—half-throttle down the back straightaway.

“I was like, ‘You’re not getting under me again,’ and he drove to the outside of me and I waited until he got to the outside of me and put a wheel on him.”

As he watched a replay of the final lap, Hamlin was already second-guessing himself.

“Well, I kind of shoved him up a little higher and tried to get him out of the groove,” said Hamlin, who was in a backup No. 11 Toyota Camry after crashing his primary car in practice. “I’m kind of watching it back right now. I mean, yeah, I wanted to just tap him there, but I didn’t want to completely screw him. I at least wanted to give him a fair shot there. Down the backstretch, I kind of let off, and I’m like, ‘All right, well, I’ll just pass him on the outside and kind of do this thing the right way,’ and once I had that big run, he just turned right. But I would do the same thing. It was a fun race, and congratulations to him and his team. They made a great call there at the end.”

Erik Jones finished third, overcoming contact with Alex Bowman’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on pit road and a subsequent speeding penalty. Ryan Blaney ran fourth, followed by Matt DiBenedetto, who posted his second top-five result of the season.

Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and polesitter Brad Keselowski completed the top 10. Busch led a race-high 118 of 301 laps but lost track position when he had to return to pit road under caution on Lap 153 to fix a tire rub. He later hit the wall on lap 214 to cause the seventh of nine cautions but rallied to score a top 10.

Busch won the first stage of the event, and eventual 11th-place finisher Aric Almirola took the second stage.

Erik Jones ends up-and-down New Hampshire race 

on an upswing

LOUDON, N.H. – The most critical aspect of Erik Jones’ third-place run in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire motor Speedway was the mistake he thought he had made—but didn’t.

Under the ninth and final caution for Kyle Larson’s spin in Turn 2 on Lap 265, Jones made a feint toward pit road but opted to stay on the track. But his right tires crossed the orange commitment box separating pit road from the racing surface.

At first, Jones thought he had drawn a penalty, but since only his left-side tires crossed the box, and he stayed on the track, he was OK under NASCAR rules. Jones lined up second next to race winner Kevin Harvick for the final restart on Lap 273, quickly fell to third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (who had fresh right-side tires) but held third the rest of the way.

The third-place run came at the end of a roller-coaster day. Jones collided with Alex Bowman on pit road during an early stop and later drew a pit road speeding penalty that sent him to the rear of the field for a Lap 144 restart. But astute pit calls by crew chief Chris Gayle helped him recover the lost track position.

“It was kind of a sloppy day in my opinion, but it was a good day,” Jones said in analyzing his race. “Got good stage points in the first stage (running second) and finished well at the end. But the Stanley Camry was good. All day I felt like we were close. We just needed to get up front and never quite did it and never quite got the lead, but we were there.

“Again, up in the top five, you can’t complain, and especially with the points we gained today, it’s good. We can definitely get more aggressive with that gap. We’re getting close there to having almost a race on them (those chasing Jones for a Playoff spot).

“If we can have a couple more good weeks, we’ll be there. We’ll keep doing it, but today was definitely a testament, I think, to our speed and this team. We keep fighting through it. We never gave up. We did what we needed to do, fixed the damage when we needed to and got a good finish out of it.”

Jones ended the day 14th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, 28 points above 17th place.

 

Loss of power-steering ruins Jimmie Johnson’s race day

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has never missed any form of a series Playoff, but mechanical issues in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 dropped him farther into the danger zone.

Halfway through the race, Johnson was sixth for a restart on Lap 149, but the end of Stage 2 two laps later spelled the end of Johnson’s hopes for a strong finish.

“Well, it was certainly a letdown, to say the least,” said Johnson, who fell back precipitously after that Lap 149 restart. “We had some issues with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some contact on (the) restart. I got in the back of the car in front of me. They told me that wasn’t the case.

“So I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. So it’s just unlucky on that front. Certainly, the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”

Nevertheless, Johnson leaves Loudon 17th in the standings, 17 points out of 16th, the last Playoff-eligible position.

 

Matt DiBenedetto scores second top-five result of 2019

An astute pit call by crew chief Mike Wheeler halfway through Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 got track position for Matt DiBenedetto.

To his credit, DiBenedetto drove like a man possessed to maintain his position in the running order.

DiBenedetto’s No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota didn’t show up in the top 10 in either the first or second stage of the 20th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season. But after Wheeler kept him on the track for a Lap 158 restart after the second stage break, DiBenedetto stayed in the top 10 the rest of the way, ultimately passing fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. for the fifth spot.

The top five was DiBenedetto’s second of the season, adding to the fourth-place result he achieved at Sonoma Raceway in June.

“Yeah, that was awesome,” DiBenedetto said. “You always want more. It’s a great run for the team. You always want to get more, but we’re growing as a team. This just shows our strength.

“These types of tracks are kind of in our wheelhouse, and this just shows how good of people we have. It’s not just me driving the car. It’s all these guys. I’m nothing without them. Younger team that’s showing our strength, and what we’re here to do.”

Christopher Bell thumps the field in NASCAR Xfinity win at Magic Mile

LOUDON, N.H. – Christopher Bell got just what he needed on an uncharacteristically hot day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway—a breeze.

That’s an apt description of Bell’s victory in the ROXOR 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday. In winning for the fifth time this season and the second time in as many starts at the Magic Mile, Bell led 186 of 200 laps and crossed the finish line 4.068 seconds ahead of runner-up Cole Custer.

The race followed a familiar pattern. After each restart, Bell would pull away steadily as the drivers behind him contested second, third and fourth place. The only time the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota fell out of the lead was a pit stop on Lap 33, when seven other cars stayed on the track.

Bell restarted eighth on Lap 38 and drove up to second place before the first stage ended on Lap 45. Aside from that, the 24-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma, was in full control. When Stage 2 ended, Bell had an advantage of more than six seconds over eventual third-place finisher Justin Allgaier.

“I just had a really good race car,” said Bell, who has a propensity for understatement. “I’m very thankful to be driving these Supras for Joe Gibbs Racing. All of our partners, man, they just provide really fast race cars, and I’m the lucky guy who gets to drive them.”

Custer’s recent victories on the 1.5-mile speedways at Chicagoland and Kentucky had engendered talk that Custer might be the favorite for the series championship this year. But Bell was reluctant to call his win at New Hampshire a statement victory, no matter how decisive.

“We knew we’d be good here,” said Bell, who earned his 13th win in 59 Xfinity starts. “Whoever the (championship) favorite is will be decided at Homestead.”

Custer’s car was fast enough to win the pole in qualifying but not strong enough to keep up with Bell on restarts.

“I wasn’t driving the car right at the start of the race, so I kind of got behind on adjustments,” said Custer, who lost the lead to Bell on a hotly contested first lap. “I wish we’d had another caution so we could catch up to him.”

Series leader Tyler Reddick ran fourth, followed by Paul Menard and Chase Briscoe. Ryan Truex, Ryan Sieg, Brandon Jones and Noah Gragson completed the top 10.

If Bell’s drive to the checkered flag was a breeze, that was hardly the case for his JGR teammate, Harrison Burton, who got the short end of an on-track spat with Menard, the only full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver in the field.

On Lap 153, Menard hit Burton’s Toyota in Turn 1 and sent it spinning. With his car damaged, Burton finished 29th. After the race, Burton approached Menard to get an explanation.

“He hit me twice, and I hit him once,” Menard said. “He was mad at me for hitting him that one time.”

Burton, however, didn’t think Menard’s retaliation was justified.

“We had a restart there (on Lap 148), the first thing he said he was mad about was I hit him on the restart,” said the 18-year-old Burton. “But I was on the apron, and he turned down across my nose. He got mad about that, and then I barely touched his door, and I got out of the gas because I didn’t want to hit him any harder than I did.

“Then I passed him clean, and he wrecked me… He didn’t really seem to care, and that’s fine for him. I’m just going to go out and beat him on the race track. That’s all I can do to show these guys that I’m here to play. I’m not going to get pushed around anymore.”

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